Scott McNealy, co-founder of Sun Microsystems, is famous for once having said that “Open source is free like a puppy is free” (Donoghue). He is, of course, talking about the expenses necessary for taking care of the free puppy.
Open source is kind of like that. It is free by definition. Dictionary.com defines open source as “pertaining to, or denoting, software whose source code is available free of charge to the public to use, copy, modify, sublicense, or distribute”. That said, open source is actually much more than just free. Open source is, for the large part, community-supported by people who have technology issues a lot like yours. A person may need an application for something so, in some cases, they create it, maintain it, add functionality, put it out there for you to freely use and answer questions to help you bring the application on line. Using McNealy’s puppy example, it would be like the puppy buying itself, coming home to your house by itself, house breaking itself and learning to fetch your slippers, again… all by itself. It’s really hard for me to see the bad thing in this but, believe it or not, there are some valid concerns.
Open source software development is flourishing and very much in use all over the world. While proprietary software companies complain about open source, Forrester Research reports that 76% of developers have used open source technology at some level (Baldwin). That means even companies that create or purchase ‘off the shelf’ software use free, open source software tools to build with – companies like Apple, the first major computer company to make open source development a key part of its ongoing software strategy, and Microsoft who initially went to war against open source development.
”Open source is an intellectual-property destroyer,” former Windows chief Jim Allchin famously quipped in 2001. “I can’t imagine something that could be worse than this for the software business and the intellectual-property business” (Cooper).
And who can forget that old timeless classic…
“Linux is a cancer that attaches itself in an intellectual property sense to everything it touches,” former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer told the Chicago Sun Times a few months later. “That’s the way that the license works” (Cooper).
Now, however, in May 2014, Microsoft finally made official its unofficial decision to incorporate some open-source code into its developer and programming languages. More recently, Microsoft put 22-year company veteran Mark Hill in charge of a global group to cultivate open-source developers to write applications that work with Azure, the Microsoft cloud service that competes against the likes of Rackspace, Google, and Amazon (Cooper).
As Microsoft eventually came to understand, there are a lot of benefits to using open source. To name just a few:
1. Keeps costs down.
2. Improves quality because code problems are resolved quickly.
3. Delivers agility by speeding up the pace of software development and innovation which allows businesses to react quickly and thereby not be dependent on vendors schedules.
4. Mitigates business risk by reducing dependence on a single or multiple vendors.
We use a mix of proprietary and open source software in Discovery, Technology, and Publishing to administer the library servers and applications such as the library catalog, digital collections and various departmental work flows. There are times when we would like to have functionality that we don’t currently have but that’s been true of the vendor supplied software as well as the open source software. For that reason, I don’t really distinguish between the two types because I just kind of see them as each being a toolbox that I need to use to get the job done. Open source plays a huge role in our success as a department.
But let’s not forget that the ‘free puppy’ criticism does also have some merit. The first thing is training. People are resistant to change and so they are not likely to explore using an open source alternative application instead of Windows or Apple for things like their desktop or MS Office needs. Another issue is support. Proprietary software vendors provide support for their products and, if you use open source, you may have to provide your own developer to get the functionality you desire. Lastly, some great open source software development simply ceases for whatever reason and you may be left with no one to provide patches or software updates, again possibly requiring the hiring of a developer to maintain your software.
While these are valid concerns, open source application usage is growing quickly all over the world, in all industries. Technology costs a lot of money and the financial advantage to using open source software must outweigh the ‘free puppy’ concerns or companies would not be moving in that direction.
On a personal note, I use open source software daily and I will always look for a free open source application before I buy something because I generally just need something for a single use or for a short time. I use applications like Notepad++ which is better than the notepad built into Windows, 7-Zip which allows me to zip and unzip files better than the one in Windows, VLC Media Player which is much better than Windows media player for manipulating various video formats and WinSCP for transferring files. I also use various open source tools like MultiMon Taskbar which allows me to have a task bar on my second monitor.
If you’ve never installed open source software, here’s some sage advice. Make sure you research what you want to install by looking for reviews of the application before you download and install it. Read the installation instructions and make sure you understand what they want you to do. Try to download it from the site that actually produced it and not a third party site. This just makes certain you are getting a ‘clean’ copy and not a possibly modified copy of the application you want. Finally, there are probably a lot of applications just like the one you’re looking for so if you install it and you don’t like it, don’t give up. Just uninstall and go find another one.
So… How ’bout that free puppy now?
Donoghue, Andrew “Open Source ‘is free like a puppy is free’ says Sun boss.” ZDNet. CBS Interactive, June 8, 2005. Web July 22, 2014. http://www.zdnet.com/open-source-is-free-like-a-puppy-is-free-says-sun-boss-3039202713/
Cooper, Charles “Dead and buried: Microsoft’s holy war on open-source software.” C|Net. CBS Interactive, June 1, 2014. Web July 22, 2014. http://www.cnet.com/news/dead-and-buried-microsofts-holy-war-on-open-source-software/
Baldwin, Howard “4 reasons companies say yes to open source.” Computerworld. Computerworld, Inc., January 6, 2014. Web July 22, 2014 http://www.computerworld.com/s/article/9244898/4_reasons_companies_say_yes_to_open_source
Corgi puppy images from: http://www.pinterest.com/lizzygrace96/oh-my-corgis/
Notepad++ : http://notepad-plus-plus.org/download/v6.6.7.html
7-Zip : http://www.7-zip.org/
VLC Media Player – http://www.videolan.org/vlc/index.html
WinSCP – http://winscp.net/eng/docs/introduction
MultiMon – http://www.mediachance.com/free/multimon.htm