Free, open source software, where the human readable definition of the software (aka source code) is made freely available for inspection, modification and redistribution, is as old as software itself. When software was first conceived and developed, it was simply there to make hardware more useful. System developers believed that the money was in the hardware, so software was thrown in for free. The source code behind the software was also liberally shared. As software became more sophisticated and powerful, this perception changed to the point we are rapidly approaching where software is more expensive that the hardware it runs on. During this change, software became so important that the code behind it was no longer shared.

Somewhere during this transition a man named Richard Stallman realised the philosophical problems with keeping the source secret. These mainly centred around reduction of freedom and choice as well as the stifling of innovation. In the mid 1980’s Stallman founded the Free Software Foundation, a non-profit organisation dedicated to supporting and building free software. So whilst the idea of free software was not new, the process of defining and re-introducing it (performed by the FSF’s General Public Licence or GPL), as well as building many great free tools was arduos work. Stallman’s heroic programming efforts eventually crippled his fingers: the result of too many keystrokes in too short a time.

Stallman focused his advocacy work almost exclusively on the moral imperative behind free software. This approach, despite leading to the development of most of the software that runs the Internet, unfortunately met with little general uptake of free software. To address this, at a meeting in 1998, a group of open-source hackers decided to drop the free software tag, and start using Open Source instead. The idea was to push the economic and technical benefits of free software in order to drive wider adoption.

Whilst having the unfortunate side-effect of side-lining the movement’s founder, Stallman, this move proved wildly successfull, and has seen Open Source software start to be adopted by company’s and individuals around the world. Many now use the term Free, Open Source Sofware (FOSS) to reflect both sides of the issue, and give credit where credit is due.

The Practicalities

Development of FOSS is generally coordinated by a non-profit organisation, which coordinates the work of volunteer coders working alone or in teams. Many corporations now make contributions of time, hardware and financial support to FOSS projects.

Anyone is free to take an item of Open Source software and use, distribute or amend it. You can even use parts of it in a completely different piece of software. The only condition is that the modifier/distributor makes it available under the same license as the original contributor. This ensures that the system stays open, for the benefit of all (this is the genius behind Richard Stallman’s General Public Licence (GPL), which is one of the main legal tools protecting free software).

The resulting software is free, and most often beautfully crafted, stable and highly useable.

What better alternative to the expensive, inflexible, and often bug-ridden proprietary software that most people use and complain about today?

Does It Work?

Here at Iota we make extensive use of Open Source software, both at the desktop level, and the server level

At the server level, there is simply no comparing a good Open Source solution, such as the LAMP application stack (Linux/Appache/mySQL/PHP), with proprietary systems. They are free, relaible, secure and developers love to use them.

In terms of desktops, the same holds true as with servers, but the learning curve is still too steep for many users. Linux (the premium Open Source desktop OS) is awesome, but it is still a few years away from being useable for novices. But that day will come!

Ask The French

The French have a great saying regarding Linux, that translates roughly to:

“Linux? You can get a less powerful system, but it will cost you more.”

Want To Try?

The links below point to some of our favorite Open Source solutions.