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Ask The Pro: What is Open Source?

By Keith Klein | Ask the Pro

Nov 01

Andy Libecki, Web Development Specialist at OnYourMark, LLC. Andy explains Open Source, a growing alternative to proprietary programs.

First I’m going to define a few terms for people not familiar with programming.

Software is a computer program that you interact with. Microsoft Word, Internet Explorer and Solitaire are all examples of software. Software is created by writing “code” which is turned into software by a special computer program. “Source Code” is the term for the code before it is turned into a program. Normally source code is “closed” to the person using the software. You may use the software, but cannot see the source code used to create the program. “Open Source” means that the source code is provided along with the software.

What does this mean to the average person? First of all, open source software is typically free. This is usually the most attractive feature of open source software for the average user. Some companies may sell open source software, but you usually have the freedom to redistribute it as you wish.

Companies that give software away for free usually make money by providing service for the software or take donations to continue development.

For programmers, however, open source software has other benefits. If the software does not meet their needs, a programmer may change the software to their liking by changing the source code. Many open source programs are developed by a large group of people all over the world that make changes to the software and submit them to be included with the official version. This also allows one group of people to take an existing program and create their own spin off version with changes that may conflict with the official version.

Another benefit is that when a bug in the software is discovered, many more people are working on resolving the problem because anyone can view the source. This means that bugs in open source programs are usually resolved much more quickly than in commercial products.

Open source software does have its problems. Since open source programmers are not receiving money when people obtain their products, companies usually have little incentive to release a new version. Companies that sell software commercially must frequently release new versions to stay ahead of the competition. Open source software is sometimes only updated when it benefits the developer.

Open source projects also vary wildly in quality. Some open source projects, such as the Apache Web server, are superior to their commercial equivalents. Others are not even worth the time it would take you to download them. A related issue is the number of spin offs of a given product. For example, there are over a dozen variations of the Linux operating system. They each have their own particular quirks and you need a significant degree of expertise on the subject to know what’s best for you. Most people don’t have the knowledge, time, or desire to spend hours upon hours becoming an expert. They just want to get the job done.

In many open source projects, the team working on the product is doing it mostly “for fun.” Most programmers don’t view writing documentation as “fun,” so documentation often suffers. Even worse, smaller open source projects may not even have contact information for support.

Is an open source product right for you? Possibly. As with most software, what you should use depends on your situation. A large company that needs 24/7 software support should probably stick with commercial products. Smaller companies that cannot afford large commercial products usually favor open source solutions. For personal use, you could try the open source product first, then pursue commercial products if open source does not meet your needs. As with any product, you should research software before making a purchase.

Many open source projects can be located at SourceForge.net. You may wish to try some of the open source equivalents to proprietary software listed below.

Proprietary Software
Microsoft Outlook
Microsoft Internet Explorer
Adobe Acrobat
Adobe Photoshop
AOL Instant Messenger
Microsoft Web Server
Microsoft Office Suite
Open Source Option
Mozilla Thunderbird
Mozilla Firefox
PDFCreator
The GIMP
Gaim
Apache
OpenOffice.org

What would you like to ask the pro? Email your questions to askthepro@OnYourMark.com!

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About the Author

Web design, production, programming, hosting and Internet marketing our specialty. Hundreds of websites for manufacturers, healthcare organizations and practitioners, specialty retailers, professional services firms, realtors, builders and others. E-Commerce and Business Process Automation.

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