A popular quote claims “Freedom is the right of all sentient beings”. Is it then applicable over the domain of software and ICT? The term FOSS (Free and Open Source Software) evolved from the late 90’s to the early 2000’s, presents a bold stance in the field what was once proprietary and licensed. Although the term often appears in its entirety, occasionally they appear disjointed as “Free software” or “Open Source software”, collectively “F/OSS”. Free software movement founder and guru, Richard Stallman identifies the difference it makes when you call a software either “free” or “Open Source”. He insists the term “free” respects the users’ essential freedoms of using it. Be it whether running it, studying and changing it, and redistributing copies with or without changes. He reminds that it’s not a matter of price, but of freedom, with an analogy of “free speech” over “free beer”.
In the “Open Source” philosophy, the intentions are slightly narrower. There, the software source is opened up to the community for better collaboration and improvement. But it does not mean freedoms may come with it. Alteration or redistribution may allowed or prohibited depending on the particular “Open Source license”.
FOSS (Free and Open Source) is however the perfection that adjoins all the qualities that both may lack individually. There, the source code is open for collaboration and comes with unrestricted usage freedoms. Be it “Free” or “Open Source” or “Free and Open Source”, the road to such freedoms are always under the risk of being overshadowed by popular proprietary and licensed software. They both have their pros and cons, and following are some examples that shows why.
Cost: Even “free” software may come at a price. This is the difference between “price” and “freedom” which is ambiguously represented by the word “free”. With F/OSS, often the cost is at a bare minimum when compared with Proprietary software. The suppliers may charge you for the software, but that charge comes with all the freedoms of usability.
Timeliness: F/OSS is ever evolving, and rapidly. A newer version of Ubuntu, a FOSS linux operating system software sees a release every six months. Compared with the proprietary giants in the operating system arena, that’s fast. Newer extensions, fixes and updates are continuously being worked by the larger community. However it comes at a cost. Some extensions may meet dead-ends, some find footing and flourish.
Security: Open Source is under the scrutiny of millions of participants around the world. There is very less risk of being at security risk since all the back doors are known and visible. Conversely, it may also open up the vulnerabilities to be masses to be misused. But a well maintained project has fewer risks due to their strong community and the transparency.
User support: User support depends on the community around a specific F/OSS project. Some are well documented and have strong communities. Some are weaker. Choosing a F/OSS product comes at a research that should concentrate on the support factor. This is a field where proprietary software shines as well as popular and large scale F/OSS products. The documentations are standard, user friendly and extensive.
Compatibility: The IT industry runs on multiple platforms, software and services. It is never uniform and no reason to be. So, finding a F/OSS product that can deal with external formats and services takes research and collaboration. For example currently the OpenOffice suite can read Microsoft Office documents. Even proprietary tools have no way around this.
Computer Literacy: Linux distributions and other open source products are known to be geek-friendly. They require a higher computer literacy in handling, compared to proprietary versions. However, to bridge that gap distributions like Ubuntu OS and other large scale F/OSS products come with a user friendly interface that even the lesser experienced can handle.
The developer perspective: Open source projects can rely on existing open source projects. Thus they warrants less cost and time. The developers have a sense of ownership in the product they are empowered to maintain. It is open to flexibility in light of developments in the field and keeping abreast of the changing requirements and features.
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