Open Your Mind to Open-Source Software

By Mike Miller

Imagine a movement in which people from around the world worked together to create a useful product, and then freely shared the results of their labors! This describes how the open-source software community has produced many excellent software packages, including the web browser Firefox, the office suite OpenOffice and the operating system Linux.

In the corporate model of software development, companies jealously guard their work, selling it for (at times) exorbitant prices and prohibiting anyone outside the company from trying to improve their programs. In contrast, the open-source community works on a grassroots level, publishing the details of its work, giving away its programs for free, and welcoming anyone who wants to help improve them. (The term "open-source" means that a program's source code - which is like a recipe for the program - is freely available to anyone who wants to see it.)

The open-source community is based on a model of mutual cooperation - while its software developers give away their work for free, they also benefit by receiving the work of other developers for free. The users are also an important part of this ecosystem - by letting the developers know what features they need, the users help guide the software development process along the most beneficial path.

One might ask why open-source software is not more common, especially since users could save hundreds of dollars by using it. The most likely reasons for this are advertising, familiarity and support.

Advertising has an impact. To increase their profits, corporate software companies spend substantial amounts of money promoting their software. The open-source community has no desire to increase its profits (it generally has none), and its budget priorities are much more focused on creating good software than on promoting it. As a result, corporate software is more visible.

Familiarity provides comfort. Users contemplating a switch to open-source software may fear that they will encounter differences, making their tasks more difficult. While differences do exist, in typical usage they are slight and often reflect a better way of doing things.

Support is a more substantial issue. When you purchase software, the corporation uses some of your money to pay for "free" telephone support. Since open-source software is generally free, there is no money to pay for telephone support. For this reason, open-source software is typically supported through community-based means, such as web-based forums.

Countering these concerns are the significant benefits of open-source software, notably its cost (free), its quality (excellent), its availability (legally downloadable), and its community (vibrant). If you'd like to try it out, here are two suggestions. Firefox (an alternative to Internet Explorer) is available at US/firefox. OpenOffice (an alternative to Microsoft Office) is available at (this is a very large file, so don't try to download it over a dialup connection).

Mike is a member of SPC's Information Technology team, and has been using open-source software since 1999.