Open source software is software that is free to use, modify, copy, distribute and more (actually, one could charge for open source, but the licensing means that the code must be freely available). Open source software has a big place in technology and our world. I’m a big believer in open source software. It is something that hits at our altruistic nature. But it really is more than that.
How can something that is free be any good? How can it be sustainable? How can it be trusted?
Quite frankly, I’m usually suspicious of things that are free. After all, there is no free lunch (at least that’s what my mom taught me). I worry about a lot of free services that educators “buy” into. After all, in most cases, if you are paying for it, you are the product. Some of these work out fine. Some don’t.
Let’s take a look at some free and some open source software.
Although Google software isn’t usually open source, it is free. Google wants to keep you on the web. They make money be selling advertising. The more you are enculturated to spending time on the web, the more money that they make. Thus, trading services for your habits works for them. This is a similar model to television for much of the life of television (though that changed a bit with cable TV). (This also leaves out of the discussion entirely the concepts of privacy and how Google may be sifting through your data). For the most part, this is a trade off that people are satisfied to make. People trade seeing ads for free email service. People trade seeing ads for the ability to upload and watch videos.
Nings were very popular at one point. Nings provided a social aspect combined with blogs. Lots of people spent considerable time and energy developing communities that were tied to Nings. Only one problem, the owner of Nings needed to pay the bills. They decided to switch over to a pay model. Currently, Ning is still around. For $25 a month, you can get a basic plan.
There are lots of free sites out there for teachers to use. However, all of them have bills to pay, server fees, hosting fees, and more. Some make money like Google by selling advertising. Others sell products or other services and use the free portions as their own type of advertising. Some are free now and will convert to a pay model once they have enough users (see Ning above).
So how does open source work? Well, generally, open source works on a couple of plains. Number one, the code is shared. Thus, even if the originator or original company wants to make a profit from the product, others can still use it for free. Others can continue to modify and develop the software.
Open source- model one – extras
One model of open source provides for the basic functionality of a product. If you want extras, you can pay for them. This is great model and people can try things out and decide if they need the advanced features or not. It also allows for users to become used to using things and decide on their own that they want additional features. This model is also useful in that people with highly technical skills (or the willingness to learn) can use the free version, but those who want someone else to do the work can simply pay for the service.
Open source- model two – altruism
A second model of open source is something that is developed and given to the world. This is one expression of altruism. These are frequently shared by many experts. Many of these products drive our world today. Things like Linux, which most web servers run, and Apache, another web server software piece, have been developed to make the world a better place.
Open source – model three – support
Sometimes businesses realize that they can make money off providing support and training for the software instead of the software itself. This is roughly analogous to music bands that really make their money by touring and doing live shows.
Many times businesses realize that their business is improved by contributing to open source software. Thus, some very large companies will actually provide employee time to continue to work on and develop open source software.
Below are a few examples of open source software that I use. This is not a comprehensive list. These are things that I actually use.
• LibreOffice – This is a suite of software tools that can replace MicroSoft Office.
• OpenOffice – See LibreOffice.
• Calibre – eBook management. Also very useful for converting ebook files from one format to another.
• Moodle – Learning management. You’ll need access to a server to use this. This is a very powerful learning management system.
• GIMP – image editor package. Similar to Photoshop.