What does Open Source mean?

Posted By BrokenClaw on November 4, 2007

Open source software is a description of the way that some software is distributed. It refers to the fact that the writers or developers of the software publicly share the source code (see below). This policy is the opposite of most commercial software, where the source code is considered a trade secret and is never disclosed outside the company.

When computer applications are created, the basic process is that the software writer types in the computer commands using a specific computer language and syntax, called code. The code is then run though a computer program, called a compiler, which converts the code into an application that anyone can use. Each command is usually just a short line of text but the number of commands can add up to thousands and even millions of lines, depending on the complexity of the application. The sum total of all the lines of the written code, the source of the application, is called the source code.

Once the source code is compiled, it cannot be un-compiled. It is similar to baking a cake. You put all the ingredients together using a specific recipe, but once it’s baked, you can’t get the ingredients back out, or even know for sure what the ingredients were. So it is with source code. That is how commercial software developers make money, by selling the final product, which cannot be duplicated, as long as the source code remains closed.

Similar examples are Coca-Cola and Kentucky Fried Chicken, whose recipes remain secret. Others can make similar products by using a process known as reverse engineering. They conduct a lot of trial and error to try and duplicate the end result.

Open source software uses a different philosophy. The developers publish the source code and encourage others to use, improve, expand, and recompile it for the common good. There are several models for open source software. Some are completely free to use and change however you want. Others are licensed with certain restrictions. The main advantage to open source software is that many people collaborate on it over a long period of time, so the final product is constantly improved, to add features or to fix errors, called bugs.

Open source software packages are available in virtually every category of applications, and many are as good as, or better than, commercial software at a fraction of the cost, or free. Many of them are written for the scientific and technical fields, where students and researchers have developed the programs for their own use. The same is true of digital media editors. One prominent example of a consumer product is OpenOffice, a free suite of office applications that rivals Microsoft Office. Another example is Mozilla Firefox, an open source browser that makes it possible for many people to write their own additions, called plugins, that expand the functionality and improve the user experience.

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