Free and Open Source Software is simply computer software that provides its users with specific freedoms that are not usually available with commercial or proprietary software. There are various subtly different interpretations of what these freedoms should be - these are formalised in the definitions provided by two major groups:
- The Open Source Initiative (OSI) has an Open Source Definition
- The Free Software Foundation (FSF) has a Free Software Definition
The essential point is that Free and Open Source Software provides you with the source code (the "blueprints" from which software is made), and the freedom to modify the software if you want to. You can even distribute these modified versions to others if you wish within certain simple to understand guidelines.
This means that software development becomes a collaborative rather than competitive process and from that collaboration comes innovation. Usually Open Source Software is developed because people want a specific piece of software to exist, either so they can use it or in order that others may. This means that a lot of Free and Open Source Software is developed in direct response to a real world need. This is in contrast to the situation where software companies develop extra features for their products that most end users do not want or use and then attempt to create a market need for that feature.
While the concept of Free and Open Source Software may seem odd when you encounter it for the first time, it actually works very well and has been in operation for a lot longer than the proprietary or closed source model. It does not mean that software developers cannot make money off of software, it simply means that they cannot make their money by holding other business and end users hostage through complex license agreements.
Many companies large and small produce Free and Open Source Software and some notable examples are OpenOffice, created by Sun Microsystems and Mozilla/FireFox, created by AOL Time Warner. Small companies can instantly gain market share by open sourcing their product, eg TrollTech with their QT Library. Also, users can modify or create software to fulfil their own needs, or just for fun. Users can also see others use, improve and maintain this software with them.
An analogy is often made here between software and cars. A proprietary closed source computer program is like a car that is sold with its bonnet welded shut with only those that the manufacturer "certifies" permitted to look inside the car or to maintain it. This can lead to the costs of operating the car to escalate as there is no competitive pressure for balance.
Free and Open Source Software is like a normal car where you choose the best and most cost effective method of maintaining it. Any developer can maintain or improve your software for you, so you are assured that you can always obtain top-quality service. This is rather than relying on the original vendor who may choose to stop supporting you, or to manipulate the software licenses to achieve their wider corporate goals. Even if you know nothing about engines, the fact that you can choose who maintains your car for you is a valuable thing.
With software though the situation is even more pronounced. Software is essentially information, and information is the only thing that you can give away without losing it yourself. People may borrow information from one Free and Open Source project and include it in another without depriving the original developers of anything.
Free and Open Source Software development is also able to proceed at a vastly greater pace than conventional software development. This all allows development to produce excellent products and has the added benefit of boosting competitive pressures and forcing proprietary software development organisations to lift their game. This results in better software quality overall which can only be beneficial for businesses and other end users.
Another good way to look at Open Source is as a community of equals. Typically there is a real-world community built around the mailing lists and support groups of Open Source, but more importantly, as a user of open source you regain control over your use of software. You are not simply a powerless consumer. You can, at your own discretion, take the software and use it for any purpose, provided you comply with the very simple license terms that Free and Open Source software is released under.
Some of the time, Free and Open Source Software development is an art. Many developers produce their software only so that they can show it to others. They are proud of their work and want to see it being used, running on the desktops and servers of as many people as possible all around the world.
We hope that you will come to appreciate the art of Free and Open Source.