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What is open source?

Mar 17, 20043 mins
Enterprise ApplicationsMicrosoftOpen Source

* The culture of shareware

Last week I promised to take a closer look at open source software, the open source software movement and how it might be useful to you as part of your Windows network.

Let’s start with a definition: open source software is software for which the source code is available to the licensee. That’s it. It contrasts with so-called “proprietary” software in which the source code can’t be viewed, such as Microsoft Windows (well, except for those parts filched and leaked on the Internet – see link below).

The open source movement grew up around the Unix operating system (see for a fascinating, but ultimately very self-serving, history) but not because of any basic altruism.

During the 1970s and 1980s, colleges and universities were at the forefront of the spread of the various Unix and Unix-like operating systems around the world. Students and academics with specific computing needs but, more importantly, with the time to write code to fulfill those needs, created many utility and service applications. Since students always seem willing to share with others (beer, pizza, class notes, whatever), and since amateur programmers bask in the glory the admiration of their peers, the software was frequently traded around.

Now those of us who were home hobbyists, using non-Unix operating systems (running on Tandy, Commodore, Apple, etc.) did the same thing. But there was a major difference. While every Apple computer could run the same compiled software (i.e., the same machine code), different variants of Unix could not. The code would need to be recompiled for each different Unix platform. Since most programmers only had one or two different platforms available to them, it was easier to distribute the source code, which the recipient would then compile on their own operating system (most Unix systems included a compiler program for this reason).

Early Windows installations made great use of freeware and shareware applications that filled the same need as the source code distributions for Unix. The concept of “shareware,” in fact, goes back to that pre-open source Unix environment where those who could contribute were expected to do so if they found the code to be useful. It has only been in recent years (since the rise of Linux, in fact) that “open source” has come to be synonymous with the anti-Microsoft movement in the minds of some people when, in fact, the sharing of code (either compiled or not) among computer users is part of the legacy of all operating systems.

Far from being the antithesis of Windows software, in fact, open source applications are frequently released in Windows versions – so you can have the benefit of the software without having to add a Unix (or Linux) box to your network. There might be economic reasons to add such a box, but generally speaking, you did need the platform for the most popular open source applications. Next issue, we’ll look at some of them and how they might help your enterprise.