What is Open-Source Software?

By Eimantas Petraitis

In a world driven by technology, we use computer software every day, but we rarely ask ourselves where all that software comes from…

As many will know, software is developed by programmers and developers. That is the case for operating systems, applications, video games, etc. For every program, someone has spent their time working with the files containing the ‘code’ of the program. These files are known as the source files of a program – they are essentially the ‘source’ from which a program gets created.

Many people know that software is created by companies. And those companies choose if they want to charge the users or not. Therefore, software is either paid or free. However, there exists another type of software which is not written by a company – open-source software.

When companies create their software, they typically keep the source code private. This means that no one outside of the company can see the original lines of code which make up that program. All the typical user ever sees is a file which they can run but which they cannot read.

The idea of open-source software is that the source code is considered ‘open’. First, this means that everyone has access to the source code. Second, it means that the software is developed not by developers within a company but by volunteers from around the world. Anyone can both read and improve the code of open-source software.

The idea that something can be open source is increasingly popular, more and more software is written with this idea in mind. Linux, for example, is an entire family of open-source operating systems which can replace a paid one such as Windows or macOS. The browser “Firefox”, email manager “Thunderbird” and “VLC media player” are other examples of widely used open-source software. For almost every paid or closed-source software, there exists an open-source alternative.

Today the idea of “open source” is no longer restricted to software. Open-source hardware – microcontrollers and electronic devices – also exist. There is also open data – data which anyone can access and to which anyone can contribute. An example of open data is OpenStreetMap – a digital map of the world constructed by volunteers. Wikipedia is also based on the principle of open knowledge.

The rise of open-source can also be seen in open-source-related events, such as FOSDEM. FOSDEM, which stands for the “Free and Open Source Developer’s European Meeting” is an annual event organized by the open-source community. The two-day event usually takes place in Brussels, on the ULB (Université Libre de Bruxelles) campus and is one of the biggest conferences of open-source developers. This year, over the weekend of February 3-4, FOSDEM organized over 800 talks by developers from around the world. The event has been going for nearly 25 years and the number of participants has only been increasing.

There are several reasons why open-source software is so common nowadays. First, it is usually free and easier to trust. If you are working with private data, you can verify what the software is doing with the data. That is not the case with closed-source software. Second, developers and companies can adapt and extend open-source software for their own needs. They can also fix any bugs they find, without having to wait for some other company to do so.

The only downside of open-source software is the hassle which developers might face when writing software based on multiple other open-source projects. Developers might encounter problems if the different parts are not intended to be compatible with each other, or with the different licenses and usage rights of the other software.

Is open source the future? It has been rising for many years and will probably continue to do so. Both because it means developers do not have to write something themselves if it already exists, and because for many users it is a certain guarantee of privacy and security. However, that does not mean that paid and closed-source software will end. After all, software companies still need to make money, and sometimes it might be easier to write a project from scratch than to try make many different pieces work together.

Therefore, in a world of technology, where everyone is concerned with privacy and transparency, there are multiple types of software. Some software is written and kept by companies, and the other – open-source – can be read and written by anyone.

By Eimantas Petraitis

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