Anthony Trombetta once wrote about his experience earning two tickets to see the White Stripes, suggesting that one must have lived under a rock if they had not heard of the White Stripes.
OK, so before they came here, I had no idea who the White Stripes were. And I am here today to tell you what’s under that rock.
Under that rock I found software. Yes, software. Perhaps you have glimpsed it, it is Open Source software. And even if you are not aware of it, there is a very good chance it is affecting your life in some way.
Don’t believe me? If you have a cell phone that was produced in Asia over the last year or have viewed Google’s website – or if you are reading this paper – then you have the taste of Open Source software.
Linux is perhaps the most touted example of Open Source software, it is a fully functional operating system being used by businesses, governments, educational systems and home users the world over.
There are too many examples of Open Source software, really, to list here. But they include everything from operating systems, office suites and video players to sound mixing, HAM radio software and scientific applications.
The catch is that the software must be free. Yes, free. Free.
What did you think when you just read that – free? Did you imagine a CD out of a cereal box? Does it conjure images of pop ups, virus alerts and Blue Screens of Death?
There is a connotation in our society, a meme if you will, in our world of plenty; anything free is probably not worth having.
This is why Open Source software avoids references as free software, because that is not what they mean. It is one thing to get free beer, but it is quite another thing to stand as a free man and to be able to express ideas in freedom.
When it is said that Open Source software is free, it should be thought of as “free” as in “speech” and not as in “appetizers”.
Richard Stallman, in 1985, began a moral crusade against proprietary software. The way Stallman sees it, software is like a recipe. It is an idea on how to use a computer, much like a recipe is an idea on how to use food and one should not fear being sued for sharing software any more than for sharing a recipe.
Finding his views in disagreement with the law, he founded the Free Software Foundation and, in 1989, published the GNU General Public License, commonly referred to as the GPL.
The GPL is an End User License Agreement, or EULA. You have probably never read a EULA, but almost certainly you have seen it on your computer. It is that part where you have to put the check mark agreeing to the terms before it will let you press the “next” button.
Where most EULAs restrict the modification, redistribution or unlicensed use of software, the GPL uses a unique legal feature called a copyleft. The copyleft explicitly grants the rights to modify, redistribute and install software at will and prevents copylefted material from being copyrighted.
This creates a wonderfully delicious irony: the explicit right to copy and redistribute produces the side effect of no cost. It is free. As in speech. It is also free. As in beer.
One could charge for a CD containing Open Source software, but the charge would be for the material of the CD and the time to burn it. The actual software is distributed freely.
And there is a lot of quality production level Open Source software out there. Red Hat – a Linux-based company – has been in business for over 10 years.
Novell, a major contender in the server market in the 80s and 90s, has moved to a Linux platform. Companies like IBM, HP, and Google employ and contribute to Open Source software. Many software development companies use the Open Source model and have proved a business case for it.
Governments are getting on board with Open Source software, too. Licensing fees for an operating system, an office suite and server software can be astronomical, even for a small government body.
When China joined the World Trade Organization, compliance requirements demanded that usage of low-cost pirated software on government computers be discontinued, so it opted to migrate to Open Source software rather than buy licenses.
Other governments that have integrated or plan to integrate Open Source software include Chicago, Munich, France, Malaysia, South Africa, Brazil, Chile, Cuba and countless others.
Of more significance than cost to some governments is the fact that the source code is open. By using Open Source software, a government or business can verify the quality of the software. A trusted individual with the correct skills can examine the code and make sure the software is not doing anything covert, which would not be discovered with Closed Source software.
Transparency keeps everyone honest.
That same transparency also makes for good defence against viruses and other security concerns. Most Closed Source software implements “security through obscurity”, the premise being that if one doesn’t know it’s there, one cannot break it. The flaw is that it only works if one doesn’t look for what he doesn’t know is there.
However, having a community of thousands of programmers examining and tweaking the code of a program usually uncovers security holes and has the added advantage of increasing the frequency of feature upgrades. And should a malicious individual find and exploit something, a large open community will react faster to produce a fix than will a small proprietary community.
Open Source software is just getting started; the next step is the children of the world. The One Laptop Per Child Initiative uses Open Source software for laptops being developed that will eventually cost less than one hundred dollars each. The goal is to make computers available to children in poorer nations.
More than half of India’s school districts use Open Source software. Much of South America uses wireless technology and Open Source software in it’s expansion of it’s education systems.
China and India together have almost half of the world’s population; if these two countries fully adopt Open Source software, then in 10 years when graduates enter the work force almost half of the world’s computer users will be fluent with Open Source software.
Add to this the population of South America and many other developing nations only just entering the information age and, soon, if not already, the bulk of the world’s children that have access to computers will be using Open Source software.
When these children grow up and populate the Internet, you certainly won’t have to look under that rock to find Open Source software. And hopefully they will keep with them the value of freedom in software.
Bob Miller is owner and operator of Computerisms. Send him your questions at firstname.lastname@example.org. Join him at the Linux User Group Meetings on the second Wednesday of each month, at 7 p.m., at the Polarcom training office at Strickland and 4th.