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'Free' or 'Open Source' - Which Kind of Software Do We Need Most?

'Free' or 'Open Source' - Which Kind of Software Do We Need Most?

In many ways the differences between the Free Software and Open Source software movements have more to do with social goals than the software itself.  The Free Software movement had its roots in Richard Stallman's initial effort to create a 'free' operating system. This effort led him to quit a job at MIT and begin working on it full-time. His primary goal and motivation was to create something to which all users had free and open access and that could be inspected and modified by the users themselves.

He quit his job to dedicate all his time to this and to ensure that MIT would have no possibility of copyright or patent claims based on any of the work he did.

I recently had the opportunity to interview Richard and spent time discussing this exact point.

It was really about power in many ways. The power to know what the software on your machine is doing, and the power to change the software if you wanted to stop it from doing things you don't want or to add features to make it do what you need.

One of the great examples Stallmam uses regarding the value of free software today is 'spyware' -- code embedded in your systems that monitors and reports on your activities.

For example, if as a user you want to, he reasons, you should be able to modify Microsoft products to limit the amount of data that MS can collect on you and the applications you run. The central tenet is that this is a 'right' we should have -- a right that we as a user community have not claimed.

The goal of the Free Software movement is to provide free versions of software that does *everything* you need. Free operating systems, free utilities, free productivity applications, etc. Many even believe that software inside your cars, in your cell phones, in voting machines, in your Tivo box, in your entertainment systems, etc should all be free. We have the right, it is reasoned, to know what this software does.

[Look for the interview of Stallman to appear in an upcoming issue of LinuxWorld Magazine.]

Open Source

The Open Source movement, on the other hand, is based on sharing source for more pragmatic reasons. While user control of the software is certainly part of the reason for Open Source, it is not necessarily the primary one.

The reasons software is developed as open source have to do with the fact that it in many ways is a superior model for developing software. It allows the users themselves to fix bugs in the software, allows greatly expanded testing ('many eyes on the code'), and can speed innovation because it facilitates the adopting of new ideas from so many different sources.

The principle method by which software is considered 'open source' is if it is licensed under terms that meet those specified by the Open Source Institute (http://www.opensource.org/ ). The terms software must meet to be considered 'Open Source' are located at http://www.opensource.org/docs/definition.php. These terms were developed by Bruce Perens along with Eric Raymond and a few others. [Bruce is on the advisory board of LinuxWorld Magazine and we have reprinted a recent speech on 'the state of Open Source' in this month's issue. We also featured an interview with Eric Raymond in our October, 2003 issue.]

LinuxWorld Magazine will continue to provide information on both these communities. Our February, 2004 issue, for example, is planned to focus on nothing bu profiles of free and open source software projects and applications.

More Stories By Kevin Bedell

Kevin Bedell, one of the founding editors of Linux.SYS-CON.com, writes and speaks frequently on Linux and open source. He is the director of consulting and training for Black Duck Software.

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