Open Source - An Inroduction from the January 2002 newsletter

by John Anderson

Thanks, John, for your article. John Anderson works on the Actrix help desk, and hopes to contribute articles to the newsletter over the next few months. -Ed.

This article will give a brief overview of what Open Source is, where it comes from, and how the fruits of it, like Linux (www.linux.org) or Apache (www.apache.org) may benefit you. If you're not sure what I'm talking about - read on.

Open Source means that the "source code of a computer program is made available free of charge to the general public" (www.webopedia.com). The source code is essentially the instructions written by programmers who create applications (programs). A full definition of Open Source can be found at the following site, www.osdn.com/osdocs/01/01/15/1818201.shtml. The Open Source Initiative, a non-profit corporation which is responsible for Open Source certification describes the benefits behind this idea as:

When programmers can read, redistribute, and modify the source code for a piece of software, the software evolves. People improve it, people adapt it, people fix bugs. And this can happen at a speed that, if one is used to the slow pace of conventional software development, seems astonishing. (www.opensource.org)

Conventional Software is developed by a company or companies usually in a closed way. The code is their property and they do not allow it to be viewed by others for fear of loss of competitive advantage. This means that they benefit financially, but their customers often do not, as they have purchased a product that has not always been fully tested. Open Source benefits from the cooperation of many people towards software that does not have, for example, the plentiful bugs of several popular operating systems. This does not mean that all Open Source software is bug-free, but it does mean that many security holes, viruses and just plain bugs can be spotted before damage is wreaked worldwide by the likes of the 'Love Bug' worm. For example the Open Source Apache web server is so called because it required so many patches when it was initially created for it to work, it was "a patchy server", however looking at the Netcraft Web Server survey (www.netcraft.com/survey/), the evolutionary method of Open Source has meant that the Apache webserver has come to dominate the market, largely because of its stability. If you've been to the Actrix website then you've been to a site using Apache.

The phrase "open source" was a result of a strategy session held on February 3rd 1998 in Palo Alto, California. Those present gathered to discuss the future of Linux (a popular Open Source operating system) and included Eric Raymond, writer of the influential software development article The Cathedral and the Bazaar (www.tuxedo.org/~esr/writings/cathedral-bazaar/). The stimulus for the meeting was Netscape's announcement that they were going to give away the source code of their browser, apparently inspired by the article written by Raymond. While the phrase is new, the concept of Open Source is not. This concept stretches back to the early days of the Unix Operating System and later the Internet in the 1970s. The spirit of pioneering and cooperation from these times is the basis on which Open Source is built.

So how are these Open Source individuals protected from exploitation by less scrupulous individuals? There are a variety of licences which are used to prevent this from happening. One example of these licenses is the General Public License or GPL, as it is often known, which states in its preamble:

The licenses for most software are designed to take away your freedom to share and change it. By contrast, the GNU General Public License is intended to guarantee your freedom to share and change free software--to make sure the software is free for all its users. This General Public License applies to most of the Free Software Foundation's software and to any other program whose authors commit to using it. (Some other Free Software Foundation software is covered by the GNU Library General Public License instead.) You can apply it to your programs, too. (www.osdn.com/oslicenses/01/07/05/1711204.shtml).

There are number of other licences that are also used for Open Source and similar project which can all be viewed at the Open Source Development Network at www.osdn.com.

So what does this all mean?

Open Source software encourages security and high standards due to the greater degree of scrutiny. Linux, arguably the greatest success story of the Open Source movement, is an operating system that is fast rivalling Windows in the office market and is crossing over into the home market now. The Star Office system produced by Sun which can be used on Linux is compatible with the Microsoft's office suite and is a definite contender. Thanks to Open Source there is a viable alternative developing to counter the monopoly of Microsoft in the area of desktop applications such as Word, Excel and so forth. You know that the software giant is feeling threatened when representatives like Jim Allchin, Microsoft Corporation's Platforms Group Vice President, describe Open Source as threatening the "American Way" meaning it would seem, Microsoft's way.

If you want to try one of the fruits of the Open Source try the dramatically named browser Mozilla, at www.mozilla.org. I've been using it for several weeks and now have it as my browser of choice. A passionate New Zealand perspective on the benefits of Open Source can be found at the following website created by the New Zealand Open Source mailing list (www.openz.org).

Definitions can be tricky, the differences and philosophy behind free software can be found at the GNU website (www.gnu.org/philosophy/words-to-avoid.html), for more information about GNU read next month's installment: Looking at Linux and GNU

If you have any questions about this article, please contact me at janderson@actrix.co.nz.

Definitions

Code - In this case, the human readable instructions which create an application (program) such as a web browser.

Operating System - The most important program that runs on a computer. Every general-purpose computer must have an operating system to run other programs. Examples of operating systems are Windows XP, Mac OSX and Linux.

The Love Bug - A particularly virulent e-mail virus created in 2000 to exploit holes in Microsoft's Outlook Express.

For more excellent IT and Open Source related cartoons go to www.userfriendly.org.