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Review: Free and Open Source Software - Part 1

by Jo Shields on 22 June 2004, 00:00

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You Can Take Our Lives

You've just bought your brand new sleek sports car, you get it home, and then you ask yourself what it looks like under the bonnet. You mess around for a good half hour, before realising that it's welded shut. "Odd," you think, "I'll check the handbook." A friendly message tells you that the bonnet is welded shut in case anyone steals the advanced "engine" technology to make their own cars. Not only that, but every time you wash it, you have to ring up the dealership to ask for permission to drive it again.

Far fetched? Not exactly.

Software has been written under these rules for many a year. Knowledge is power, they say, and companies have a vested interest in keeping the power for themselves. Not everyone who buys a car wants to know the advanced theories behind the internal combustion engine, but they might have a pretty good idea of what goes where, and how to fit some turbos to it.

Now, consider another way of doing the job. You want to build your OWN car, so you start work on a powerful home-made engine. Your friend Bob down the road rings you up: "Hey, I heard what you're working on. I've got this home-made chassis here that might go well with your work, and my mate Alf has a few cool things up his sleeve." You all swap notes, on the basis that your combined efforts will be a hell of a lot better than your individual efforts. Throw a few hundred or few thousand more people into the equation, and you have a heavily armoured tank that goes at 400 miles an hour on a pint of household waste.

This system of production, mirrored in the software world, is often referred to as Open Source, and it follows a simple principle: you can get ahold of the recipe sheet (in this case source code for a program), as long as any changes you make to improve it are sent back for everyone to benefit. If a programmer finds a bug in some Free/Open Source Software (FOSS), he can fix it, send the patched code back to HQ, and everyone can benefit from the fix.

The FOSS people aren't naive though, and they license their software just as commercial companies do. The difference is whereas with commercial software you have a 27 page EULA detailing all sorts of liabilities and legal rights, the licenses used in FOSS are simple. The most popular of these licenses is the GNU Public License, or GPL - though many other licenses exist. The GPL states that if you make changes, you have to distribute them, if you sell FOSS software, you have to give the source code with it, and that the source code comes with no warranty.

So, what does this all mean for you? How about some apps which not only come with a £0.00 price tag, but are free too.