Why Open Source Matters

I am a developer, user and an advocate of open-source software and systems. I feel strongly about this, and as much as I can get away with (I still work in a corporate environment, so some of my software choices are not my own) I use open-source software exclusively: The software that runs this website? Open-source. The operating system I’m using as I type this? Open-source. The operating system on my phone? Open-source. The web-browser I’m using? Open-source. The software that I, personally, develop? Also open-source. I could go on and on…

Yet, why the concern? Why does this matter to me?

I feel that we, as humans hoping to survive together on a planet with about 24,925,372,294,893 miles to the nearest star (a mere 4.24 light-years to Proxima Centauri) should, together, own and contribute to our technology, and that we should insist upon open standards and reject closed, corporate-controlled proprietary formats for our data and media. Any government that purports to care for its people should also be wary of using closed-source technology, as well.

In essence, we are putting our society’s access to technology, access to our data, and access to each other in the hands of large corporations that care nothing for us–only for our money and for their own agenda of acquisition and growth.

Software can divide us just as much as the other artificial constructs of our day: money, nations, “race” (we are all human here, people! Sheesh.), religion, economic class, and so on. Companies peddling this or that technology fall in line with such behavior, and publicly disparage each other in advertising and actively encourage the users of their technologies to do so, as well. We have “Windows” people who sneer at the “Mac” people who sneer at just about everyone else–and what for? Because their technology is slick, cool and useful? No, that’s actually the advertising talking. It’s because they were told to, and they bought the line (sinker, hook and all).

However, when we work together, as a people, to solve the problems that we face, we all benefit. We can leverage each others’ unique skills, intelligence and personalities to create technology that will propel our entire (again, I mean human) race forward, and by working together, we show that the divisions that have been created in order to control us and that keep us fighting one another over land and resource rights are, in fact, wholly imaginary and should not be honored in our modern, connected world. We gain freedom from illusion, and we grow stronger together as a people.

We know we should do better, and we can do better.

Woah, I thought we were talking about software, right? Yes, yes we are. Specifically, about why open-source software matters, not merely to humanity as a whole, but to you. You, the solitary user of your own computer, or tablet, or phone. Using the software to browse the web, compose letters, balance your books, watch movies, make music or art, store your data and passwords, and so on. Yes, you.

Closed source software is fundamentally broken: it does not play well with software from other distributors and the companies that control such software are never interested in providing compatibility with other technologies unless there is a clear business reason to do so. People like you and I are left in the lurch because we increasingly depend upon this software to carry out our daily lives, and many of us feel that we have no other alternatives. When corporate interests are placed before our own, then, well, we are forced to live with the corporate interests… before our own.

I’m fiercely independent, so that thought alone makes me a bit irritated. However, there are more practical issues that are fundamental flaws in the closed-source software model–lack of transparency, and lack of maintainability among them.

Without access to the source, you really don’t know what the software is doing. Now, most companies wouldn’t put anything in their software that’s harmful… well, not unless they had a business reason to do so and were reasonably sure of not being caught at it. Can’t be really sure though, can you? How much do you trust corporations to hold your most secret, your most secure data private? When that same corporation supplies all of your software, from the operating system to the apps that you store your passwords in, you are placing a lot of trust in that company. I hope, for all of us, that they’re all above-board.

With open source, such worries are suffered only by the uninquisitive. The nature of open-source software means that you can examine the source code yourself. You can find out exactly what the software is up to, if you like. You can even compile it yourself from source that you control if you are so inclined. If you can’t read source code, you can learn how or you can have a trusted technical advisor do it for you. The point is–this isn’t usually an option with closed-source software. The company in question may let you have a peek at it if you’re a large government agency and a huge, lucrative contract is on the line, or you have scads of money to dispose of and you sign all of the appropriate non-disclosure agreements–but they more likely won’t.

They have their corporate “intellectual property” to protect, after all. I hate to break it to you, though, that all this corporate IP is holding us all back–all of us as a species on earth. It is stunting our growth as a people. What would happen if all of our companies started sharing their technology freely with each other? Do you think that the software might start working together, too? Might all of it start to get better as people learn from each other? That’s having consumer interest, in my opinion.

The corporate suits don’t like that talk. It’s not their style, they who’ve grown in an environment that prizes the acquisition of “wealth” (which is primarily a fabrication itself these days, you know) above all else. “If I share, how can I keep more for myself?” Yes, such a problem it is. I can’t imagine the terrible anguish that those decisions wreak upon the minds that must suffer them.

Alright, enough digression, I’m beginning to become tearful about all of that vast wealth I could have had if I were less sharing… Let’s get back to the point. How does open-source software help you, exactly? Where do you, the daily user of software (known as ‘apps’ now… sigh), fit in?

When something goes wrong with software that you use, what are your alternatives? You can contact the customer service department of the company that makes your software. They’ll be sure to listen to you, but may decide that your single voice among the many hundreds of thousands, or millions perhaps, of their customers isn’t enough incentive to devote hours or days of their highly-paid developers’ time to address your issue with that $40 piece of software you’re using. Even if the software cost you $400, the cost to the company to fix the bug that’s in your way is likely to be more than what you paid for it.

If you’re lucky, it’s an issue that many other people are reporting and the company sees that they’ll lose more than a few hundred customers over it… something financially significant enough to make them take notice… because if its not, it’s likely that nothing will be done.

With open-source software, you have alternatives when the software breaks, even if the developers of the software aren’t interested in fixing it. If you’re the enterprising sort and know a bit of programming (or are willing to learn), you could fix it yourself. In fact, you could even modify the software that you use to work exactly as you wish it to be. If other people like your changes, they may start using them, as well.

This is the nature of open source. Contributions can be made by anyone. Anyone! …and that includes you. You benefit others by changing the software to suit your own needs–some of those needs are likely to be shared by others. You also gain benefit when others do the same. When we experiment, when we truly innovate with freedom from market pressure–when we do it just to make the software better, we all benefit, and the software actually does get better.

Even if you’re not the programming sort, you still have alternatives if you find bugs in open source software. Even if the current developers of the software are unwilling to fix the problem (maybe they just don’t have the time?), you can hire a freelance developer (you might even know some yourself!) to fix it for you. There are many services out there that specialize in providing such freelance programmers a place to look for software bounties. Wait, now you’re thinking: Hmmm, what if I wanted to do more than merely get the bugs in this software fixed? What if I wanted a whole new feature added? What if I want support for a new file format or for an obscure piece of hardware? Yes, you can hire someone to add that, too.

With open source, you have alternatives. You are the master of the software you use, and not the other way around.

Furthermore, when we work on, or support, open-source software, we are contributing to work that benefits everyone, even if our own self-interest (“I just want this damned software bug squished!”) was the original motivation. You’re helping yourself, and all of the rest of us at once.

If that sounds awesome, it’s because it is awesome.

Do you want to learn more?

If you want to read more about open-source software, I recommend beginning with the Wikipedia article: Open Source. Wikipedia is also a meta-example of open-source technology. Not only is the software that runs it open source, but the writing is, as well!

If you would like to learn more about open-source advocacy, you should consider learning about, and perhaps becoming a member of, the Open Source Initiative and/or the Free Software Foundation.