I was introduced to open source software long before converting over to a full-time Linux user. As time went on, I came to learn that this topic is shrouded in a slew of myths and saturated in misconceptions. Knowing how to distinguish fact from fiction is critical to your ability to get the absolute most from open source software.
1. Open Source Software Is Free
We start with what is probably the biggest misconception of all. Blame 7-Zip, Joomla, and Virtual Machine Manager because they are a few of several open source apps that can be used without having to dig into your pocket and hand over a single penny. But not all software bearing this label comes with such luxuries.
So what is open source software? Answering this basic question may be the key to understanding associated pricing and distribution models. By definition, the term “open” describes a program that allows its source code to be modified by people other than the original author. This means you can take a program like Drupal and add new features and functionality based on what your business needs.
Open source licenses ultimately determine whether or not you pay to use a given program. For example, the popular Linux distro Ubuntu is attached to the GNU General Public License (GPL), which allows you to freely use, modify, and share the software. Commercial distro Red Hat Enterprise Linux uses the GPL and several freeware licenses, but restricts free usage by exercising some rather strict trademark rights. While Red Hat charges for its closed binary modules and updates, the source code is still freely available for tweaks and rebuilds, which explains how CentOS came to be.
2. Open Source Software Is Lesser Quality
Sophos Security revealed to the Today show audience how hackers are using the lure of apps to compromise Android phones. This led to a discussion I saw on Facebook between people who feared that Android’s apparent vulnerability is all the more reason to go back to Apple and the iPhone.
Believe it or not, the security and overall quality of software is not determined by the flexibility of its license. Just ask Microsoft. Windows and Internet Explorer are closed source applications that have been major targets of hackers for years. Bugs are as common to software as bed bugs to Chicago. The difference is that a proprietary program like SharePoint only has Microsoft’s internal development team to address those bugs. An open source alternative like Alfresco has a global community of developers who can contribute to zapping away bugs and hammering out an even better product.
3. Open Source Software Isn’t Well Supported
Vendors typically roll the cost of customer service and technical support into the price of their products. Whereas commercial programs like PhotoShop offer premium support resources you can turn to when problems arise, open alternatives like GIMP are generally limited to community support in the forums. You also have open source software that is barely maintained at all. Source code hub SourceForge.net is loaded with applications that have been all but abandoned by their creators. Updates haven’t been rolled out in ages and there’s no sign of new releases any time soon.
While open source support often gets a bad rap, lackluster reinforcement isn’t necessarily a given. WordPress and many of its third-party themes and plugins are regularly updated with new features, security patches, and fixes. Additionally, you have applications that are open source at the core, yet distributed with enterprise features. Cloudera’s distribution of big data platform Hadoop is an example of such a solution as it offers the same level of support you’d expect from a commercial solution.
4. Open Source Software is Public Domain Software
Contrary to the belief of some, open source and public domain software are not one and the same. Software in the public domain is free of copyrights and can be used without restrictions under licenses such as UnLicense and Creative Commons (CC0). Blast, I2P, and database engine SQLite are classic examples of public domain software.
The open variety may be used in similar fashion, but is fundamentally much more restricted than its public domain counterpart. Open source licenses like the GPL influence how a given app is to be used, modified, and redistributed due to copyrights and other requirements. Understanding the difference here can help you avoid the potentially costly legal issues that might arise when packaging up a piece of software and redistributing it as your own.
5. Open Source Software is Unreliable
We have reached a point where we naturally associate free products with a lack of quality and reliability. After all, you get what you pay for … or don’t get what you don’t pay for … something like that. Anyway, the goal here is to debunk that theory because open source software is generally designed with reliability in mind. In fact, some of the most widely used web applications proudly sport the open source tag. Common examples include:
Apache Web Server: Open source tech literally serves up the interweb experience on a virtual platter. Apache’s HTTP Server owns more than 50 percent of the web server market, and supports some of the world’s most popular websites, including Apple, PayPal, and Wikipedia.
BIND: BIND is the very backbone of the Internet and easily the most widely used Domain Name System (DNS) software. From viewing web pages to making voice calls with VoIP, this open source technology is vital to many of the tasks we perform on the Internet everyday.
PHP: Every piece of great software and every awesome website begins from a single line of code. PHP brings some of the best of them to life with its powerful server-side scripting capabilities. It is the most popular language of its kind and used in more than 80 percent of all websites.
Demystifying the mysteries around open source is critical for any organization that incorporates software from this category in their app ecosystem. If integrating with your own products, it may be worth it to consult a legal professional who grasps the full scope of licensing terms and the potential disadvantages they pose to your business.
Photo Credit: Paul Heaberlin via Flickr