Why open source? It is certainly a pertinent question to ask if you’re considering using an open source system within your organisation.
Whether you are looking at use MediaWiki, the open source wiki software, Inkscape, the open source vector graphics program, Drupal, the popular open source content management framework, or one of the plethora of open source platforms that exists for ecommerce, blogging, content management and even word processors and spreadsheet programs.
Firstly, what is open source?
Open source refers to software that is ‘open sourced’; i.e., you’re able to see the source code behind the program.
More recently, open source has come to mean that the software is open source in the strict meaning of the phrase, and is also free from cost, and ‘free as in freedom‘, allowing those using the software to modify it however they wish to. Technically, this software is more correctly know as FOSS: Free and Open Source Software.
The remainder of this article focuses upon this ‘free and open source’ software.
1. It’s free
Open source software is free of charge. This is the most obvious benefit, especially in the context of selling open source as a solution within an organisation or business. Open source software is free to download, free to use, and free to modify. Some platforms such as Magento (an ecommerce platform) and PyroCMS (a content management system) have ‘enterprise’ versions which have to be paid for to use, and these can provide access to a larger range of features, or greater amount of technical support.
Open source software relies on a community of volunteers to develop and update it, though some open source projects such as Drupal have paid, full-time employees.
2. There’s a community of support
Open source software is built upon a community of contributors, which is useful on two fronts.
Firstly, as a developer in an open source technology, an open source community can provide help to you, for free. This is especially important in increasing the size of an open source community, as if newcomers find the discussion forums or other community areas unhelpful, the community will dwindle, and development may cease on the software, meaning that the software itself dwindles in popularity as bugs go unfixed. Essentially, open source communities need newcomers to inject new ideas and provide new generations of volunteers to replace existing members who inevitably move on to different projects.
As an end user – i.e., someone who is perhaps using a content management system or a suite of office software such as OpenOffice.org – the commununity can also prove invaluable in finding your feet with using the software, and pointing you in the direction of useful resources such as books or video tutorials where you need greater detail or guidance.
3. It’s not just the little people using open source
It’s not just small businesses using open source projects; open source technologies are being used increasingly across government organisations. Drupal, for instance, is used to power the White House’s website, and organisations such as NASA and IBM use MediaWiki to help share their content collaboratively.
So, why open source?
The case, I think, is clear: open source software is not only a cost-effective alternative to proprietary software, but can provide a better long term solution as your suggestions and improvements are implemented in to new versions of the software, often within months, weeks, days, or hours.