Open Source: A license, a community or more?

Calling something open source doesn't always mean the same thing to everyone. What does it mean to you?

Open source means different things to different people.

To some, it's simply that the software code is out there, available for anyone to download, change and re-release. Maybe it's free; maybe you have to pay for it; maybe the code is free, but support comes with a price.

To some, it's a concept. It's a philosophy. It's a way of developing and sharing materials.

Heck, just google "what is open source?" and you'll get a slew of different answers, from a strict dictionary definition, to wit: "Of, or relating to a product which is licensed to permit modifications and redistribution of its source code"; to a seven-part description from the Open Source Initiative, which focuses primarily on how something is licensed and what those licenses allow.

To some, the dictionary definition is all that's important. Can the source code be modified and redistributed? Yes? OK, good to go. That's open source. And to a degree, that's correct.

But every time I speak with people deeply involved in the open source community, it's apparent that the source code is only the bare minimum. The community is as important in open source as the code.

To Richard Stallman, founder of the Free Software Foundation, a "non-free program" - i.e., proprietary software - represents an attack on your freedom. See this interview he granted Jolie O'Dell:

Stallman believes that even a patent violates this freedom. (He's not the only one in the open source community to feel this way.)

Obviously, Stallman represents one end of the spectrum. But to many, open source is a community, a philosophy and a license. And to ignore any of the three makes something not so open source as something else.

I've been thinking about this a lot lately because of a recent post where I wrote that Android was only 'kindasortamaybe" open source because of the tight control Google has on the development. Of course, I noted, the software itself is open source, as it's built on Linux. So are Palm OS and Maemo, mostly, but Palm's all but gone and Maemo just merged with Moblin to make Meego, which hasn't had its first release yet.

And there's Symbian, too, of course, which also was open-sourced in February. But again, it doesn't seem to have the power to catch Android. Right now, the only smartphone platforms most people are talking about are Android, iPhone and BlackBerry.

When you consider the three, it's a no-brainer that Android is open-source.

But, again, is that enough for the open source community? The argument's been made that Android will encourage more open-source participation in the coming years but Symbian and Meego will, eventually, siphon away much of the "true" open source community from Android.

So what does open source mean to you? Is it a license? Is it a community? Or does it mean something more?

Is it, perhaps, that warm, fuzzy feeling you get when you boot up your Ubuntu-powered laptop?

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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