An Introduction to Open Source Software
Essentially, open source software is free software for your business or personal use. Open source developers freely share their knowledge and make the source code available to the public. The software is distributed with a license which allows other developers can modify it and/or add to it. Some examples of open source software are: WordPress, Ubuntu, and Mozilla, creators of the Firefox browser.
Generally, the major difference between open source software and commercially available programs is you don’t pay for it. That said some developers make free products for all users while other developers create commercially available products. Some developers create a free and paid version of their products. The free program is a stripped down version of the complete version which gives you full functionality.
Many commercial programs offer a 30-day free trial, but that might not enough time to get up to speed, which could force you to make a buying decision before being ready to do so. In contrast, many open source programs are free, so you can take all the time you need to learn how they work.
It’s also important to realize that when you buy commercial software you don’t actually own it but, in fact, are granted a license. If you have any doubts, take a look at the EULA (End User License Agreement which comes with the software).
• Open source software allows you to make choices, rather than being locked into the design and development of a commercial application.
• Open source software is under constant development which addresses vulnerabilities, bug fixes, enhancements, and more.
• You can modify the software as necessary for your own purposes.
• Some open source programs give the user the option of automatic updates, which keep the software current. i.e. WordPress.
• A number of open source programs have a core application which can be enhanced by the use of plug-ins and themes. i.e. WordPress and Joomla.
• Open source software offers a tremendous amount of flexibility.
• Open source software is potentially more secure than commercial programs because the code is constantly being scrutinized by many programmers, not just a select few.
• Many open source programs can be installed on your computer, unlike a proprietary system which you can use, but where you have no control. If the software owner doesn’t like what you are doing they can wipe out your hard work overnight.
• If you don´t know how to write code you´re at the mercy of those who do unless you have the budget to pay for modifications or learn how to code yourself.
• If the author of a product no longer supports the software you might be out of luck unless the development is picked up by other programmers. That said, you’re not at the mercy of a software company which goes out of business (and refuses to allow licensing to a 3rd party). You can take over development yourself if you wish.
• Open source is sometimes referred to as ‘open wallet’ in the sense that it may cost you more to have open source code modified than it would cost you to buy a commercial program.
• Unless there’s a structure in place to ensure the quality of the code it might wind up with many changes, bug fixes, and patches, all of which can make the code more complex and/or degrade the quality, which in turn leads to more maintenance.
• The software might not be well-documented, which could make it difficult to learn.
• Vulnerabilities in the software can be exploited by hackers. i.e. A common way of attacking WordPress installations is through a SQL injection of malicious code into the database. Depending on the severity of the attack it might be possible to repair. If not, you will have to rebuild the site. Another option is to make sure you have backups. This will save you a lot of time if you need to restore the site.
One caveat: If technical support is very important to you, you may need to consider a commercially licensed application. An alternative is to have access to a competent programmer if you decide to use open source software.
Before you rush to download the latest open source software it’s important to find out if this is the right approach. Take some time to read comparative reviews of different programs and, if you have the time, test both open source and commercial programs to see which one gives you the best results.