As a tech nerd, I’ve always been excited about playing with new software and seeing what it can do.
At first, this would include things like installing a newer version of Apple’s iOS, or beta testing a redesign for some social networking app.
As time has gone on, I have had an increasing tendency to prefer open source software – I get excited about things like a new release of my favourite Linux distribution, or the addition of syntax features in an upcoming ECMAScript specification.
Admittedly, these examples have a considerably smaller following, but believe it or not, you’ve probably used both the technologies mentioned above in the last minute – indirectly, at least.
For those not familiar with the term “open source”, it is used to describe software whose source code (the human-readable code used to instruct the program how it should function) is made available to its users. This gives a piece of software a significant practical benefit, as it allows the technically skilled among its user base to modify how it functions on their systems.
When I select a piece of software for personal use, I often favour open source solutions over closed source software for fulfilling my requirements. My preferred operating system, primary web browser and password manager are all open source.
Even if the best open source program in a given category is buggier or less polished than the closed source options available, I may still be inclined to choose it, knowing that I at least have the option of making my own contributions and improvements to the project.
When it comes to open source software, many people don’t get what the big deal is. I didn’t consider it to be an issue of great importance until fairly recently. Below, I’ll go over just a few reasons why I believe open source software deserves your attention.
You own it
These days, when you purchase a piece of software, you don’t necessarily own it.
In many cases, what you’ve purchased is actually a license to use a piece of software, on another company’s often restrictive terms – and these days, there’s a good chance that the program will stop working after a year, meaning you’ll have to purchase another license in order to continue using it.
On the other hand, if you acquire a piece of open source software under a permissive license, that copy is yours to use as you wish.
For example, if you download Gedit, a simple, open source text editor licensed under the GNU General Public License, you’re allowed to distribute your copy of the software to others, modify any aspect of its functionality and even distribute your modifications; just distribute your copy and any modifications under the same license and ensure that the original source code and your modifications are available to anyone who has access to the binaries.
It costs less
A lot of open source software is distributed free of charge. Of course, not all open source software is free – everyone has to pay the rent, after all. However, the existence of some free software is greatly beneficial to many people.
Free software is more accessible to anyone on a tight budget. For example, if a student requires a full office suite for their studies, they may consider using Microsoft Office.
However, this software costs £59.99 a year; for many students, this is simply too much.
Fortunately, LibreOffice has a lot of the same features and can be downloaded for free. Admittedly, it might be a bit buggier and its user interface is a bit dated, but for most people, LibreOffice is good enough.
It’s more secure
When a piece of software is open source, this allows security researchers to inspect the source code for vulnerabilities – ways of gaining unauthorized access to sensitive data. These vulnerabilities can be discovered, reported and fixed much sooner if security researchers worldwide are allowed to review the source code.
Some might argue that if we make these vulnerabilities easier to find, it’ll be easier for malicious hackers to find some of the vulnerabilities and exploit them to steal data.
However, most security professionals agree that as long as an open source project has enough reviewers, making the source code public will be overall beneficial to the project’s security. This is proven by the fact that the vast majority of web servers run open source operating systems.
I would like to see wider use and promotion of open source software, particularly in education. Unlike Richard Stallman, a prominent member of the open source community with some eccentric views on the subject, I wouldn’t go so far as to say that everyone should use open source software exclusively. However, I think a general awareness of open source software and its benefits would be greatly beneficial to society.