The value of free open source software and collaborative communities

Six misconceptions about open source software

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In information technology (IT) and software development fields, there are a few fairly common misconceptions about the use of open source software. These misconceptions were debunked in a discussion at POSSE RIT 2012, and we’d like to share (and spread) that conversation.

Misconception: Free means there is no monetary cost

One common misconception that has existed since the beginning of open source software is the idea that free and open source software means that the software is free in price. The term 'free' in free open source software refers to freedom, not monetary cost. Though most free open source software is indeed free in price, the term 'free' is referring to the freedom to use the software and source code as you please, as long as you attribute copyright to the person (or group) that created the software and the software stays free and open source when it is distributed to others.

Misconception: Open source is free development

Another common misconception that is similar is the idea that free open source software is free (in price) development. Though much development in open source is done for no monetary cost, it is frowned upon to consider open source development as free labor. Open source development takes place in communities. A considerable amount of open source development is paid for by individuals and companies who are contributing back improvements that they made for their own benefit. They are sharing these improvements with the project's community.

One can think of it like sharing a recipe: You are given a recipe that you improve for your own benefit, but then you offer the changes back to others for their benefit. Other developers are much more selfless and contribute to projects they enjoy or projects that need help. These are almost always considered favors by developers and should not be considered free labor. In fact, referring to open source developers as free labor will often discourage further work on a project, as the term does not respect their time or contributions.

Misconception: Open source means poor quality

Many industry professionals believe that the majority of open source projects are poorly written and immature, and have few experienced contributors. However, for many open source projects--especially those that are well-established and are managed on a large scale--integration and maintenance of code is handled by a talented subset of project members. The code undergoes a thorough testing and review process to ensure quality and accuracy.

Misconception: Open source has no support

At POSSE we learned that while not all open source projects offer a department dedicated specifically to customer support, a vast amount of developers of open source projects are directly accessible. When asked nicely, most will offer help debugging a problem with the software or answering questions about how to correctly use the tool. The primary point of contact with these developers is on the Internet via mailing lists, discussion forums, and IRC chatrooms.

Some projects have multiple mailing lists dedicated to more specific purposes, such as a developer mailing list to discuss hacking on code, and an end user mailing list for leveraging the product functionality. Many projects also use a system for tracking existing software bugs. Users are able to submit bug reports and feature requests using this system and can often view the status of the submitted bugs as the developers apply patches to the project. To determine the potential for long-term support for a project based on its anticipated lifespan, the project should be analyzed in terms of usability and thoroughness of its documentation, developer team size, user-base size, and the strategies the project uses to introduce new developers to the project.

Misconception: Open source is bad for business

Open source software is found in nearly every area of today’s IT industry. The misconception is that open source software can damage a business by giving away a product for no profit or by forcing a product to become open source itself. This is not true. Many open source licenses allow you to use the open source software with a proprietary product--only the open source software itself must stay open source. The open source code may not be used as a proprietary product and may not be included in the proprietary product as proprietary code. It is important to note that not all licenses allow linking to or use in proprietary products. This is usually done on purpose so that people can ensure that their projects are used freely and openly, without proprietary implementations that may hinder the project's success.

In our experience, many developers believe that using open source software within a business is advantageous. Open source software allows companies to build on other projects to create a better product, while improving a project that benefits development as a whole. Though other companies can begin to use the open source project as well, the improvements to that open source project can continually drive quality advancements and innovation in the industry while lowering development costs, and producing better products and services for consumers. The open source project itself may be beneficial for non-profit and personal uses, and can continually be improved by businesses contributing back.

Misconception: Open source does not generate business revenue

While it may be extremely difficult to profit directly from the sale of an open source product, many companies have been successful providing consulting and support for popular open source products. The owner of an open source project may also sell exemptions to the terms that the project is licensed under. Some products generate revenue by recommending products that complement the project in exchange for a portion of the earnings from the recommendation. Open source software can serve as a catalyst to other possible sources of income, by making it easier for consumers to access revenue-generating services offered by the business. Projects may also take a lower-revenue (and lower-effort) approach by simply requesting donations from users.

It is important that people realize how valuable free open source software is, and understand what it means for a project to be free open source software. If you ever get the chance to attend a POSSE event, we strongly recommend attending. You won't regret it.


About the author

Dave Kelly & Cody Van De Mark - This article was co-authored byCody Van De Mark and Dave Kelly.