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Open Source for the Non-Expert

Enter the search term “open source software” into a search engine and (last time I looked) you get around 65 million results to look at – so we know there are a lot of articles out there. This article intends to explain – to the non-expert – what open source software means in real terms and why we support it as part of our Purpose and Values. I have also signposted some extra resources if you want to geek out and learn more.

(EDIT OCTOBER 2022 – Also See “You thought you bought software – all you bought was a lie!“)

The easiest way to explain open source software…

Tux – the mascot of GNU\Linux the worlds most popular operating system.

Imagine you are a computer programmer. One day a friend of yours who runs a local charity asks for some help. His charity lends out tools – for free – to people in your town. Your friend asks you to write some software to help him keep track of which tools have gone to which person and when they are due to be returned.

After a couple of weeks of late nights you have written this software and it works pretty well, but it’s not perfect and – because you have other commitments – you can no longer afford the time to fix the bugs in it or add the new features you know would make it even better. Instead of letting your hard work go to waste – and to  make sure your friend can ask someone else to fix this bugs while you step back – you decide to publish the software on the internet so anybody can download it for free. What a nice person you are!

Because of your generosity not only do you let other people with other tool libraries download and use that software for free, you also release the ‘source code’ for the software, which includes all the files needed for other programmers to look at and change how the software is written. Publishing the underlying ‘code’ (the act of making it open) has made it possible for other programmers to fix the bugs in the software and even add some new features that other tool libraries have realised will help them. Most critically, the source code is released for free on the condition that any new features or bug fixes will also be published for free.

In a nutshell, this is how open source software works and has done for years. Open source software is cheaper, more secure, transparent, and good for society. If you think this is pie-in-the-sky then I am reluctant to tell you that you are ignorant of the facts:

The web site you are reading this article on is hosted on a server (like MOST of the web servers in the world) that runs an open source operating system called Linux. In fact WordPress – the tool used to edit this article and display this web site – is also free and open source. WordPress has grown to become one of the most popular ways in the world to publish content on the internet. It’s free in the sense that no money has changed hands but it’s also free in the sense anyone can inspect the source code and change it to suit their needs. This principle makes WordPress one of the most important, most democratising tools for web publishing there ever was. Unlike closed source software, WordPress does not contain hidden code designed to steal your data or become obsolete at the whim of the developer in order to please shareholders.

Examples of open source software…

There must be tens of thousands of open source applications out there you can download and use for free – right now. Many open source applications are as good as or better than commercial equivalents and you are probably already using open source software without even realising it.

While some commercial equivalents are in some ways better that their open source equivalents, open source software is always cheaper, usually more secure and can often be ‘good enough’ – incorporating most of the features you need without the added complexity of those you do not. I have added a very short table below of what I think are the most useful open source software tools you can download and use completely legally and for free, there are more links to find more at the bottom of this page.

LibreOfficeA business ready office suite alternative to Microsoft Office (Word / Excel etc)
ShareXA screen capture, file sharing and productivity tool.
7 ZipA file compression tool we already install on most customers systems.
VLC Media PlayerA multimedia player that plays most multimedia files as well as DVDs, Audio CDs and more.
PuTTyThe tool we use to connect to servers, CCTV systems and more.
Firefox ESRThe enterprise grade web browser we like to pair with DuckDuckGo.
GimpA Photoshop alternative graphics editor used for image manipulation and editing, drawing, converting and more.
LibreCAD 2D CAD software - AutoCAD alternative.
ShotcutShotcut is a free, open source, cross-platform video editor.
AudacityA digital audio editor and recording tool.
KeePass Password SafeStore all your passwords in a single secure database protected by a single password and key file.

How is open source software sustainable if no money changes hands?

The fact that open source software can be downloaded and used for free does not mean that money does not change hands. You might not need to pay for it but you can still pay somebody to support the software in exactly the same way as you pay someone to support commercial software. If you are running a business on open source software you can still pay someone to install and configure your server, install and set up your desktop computers and applications, and pay for support if users need training and things go wrong.

If you do want to pay for the software you can offer donations to the developers or if you are using open source software and it doesn’t quite do what you need it to you can pay someone to change it. Open source software really is sustainable and when more people choose open source, the principle of its use becomes stronger.

How does open source fit at IT\norwich?

Full adoption of open source software may not be for everyone. At time of writing, many of our customers are using what we call the ‘Microsoft Ecosystem’ and will have invested time and money into those platforms and will benefit from features that may not work in the same way as with other platforms. (To paraphrase – most customers have been locked into using Microsoft products and find it hard to get free). As well as using operating systems such as Microsoft Windows Server and Microsoft Windows Professional, they will typically use desktop applications such as Microsoft Office. While the Microsoft Server operating systems are reasonably reliable, the reliability of desktop operating systems is ‘adequate’ at best and applications such as Microsoft Office are a mixed bag. Of course our customers needs come first and while we are not proposing to make big changes to any customers systems without their say so, we are hoping to introduce new items into our service catalogue and help customers that are educated about open source alternatives try them out. We are already committed to offering open source operating systems and applications on desktop computers and are putting together open source servers suitable for small businesses. We also hope our work with the non-profit sector might ease transition to open source where appropriate.

How does open source fit more globally?

Open source software is not only cost effective,  it’s is the ‘right thing to do’ for publicly funded organisations. Whether you run a small charity or set the the IT policy in a government, when your organisation is funded with public money, that money should be directed to open source initiatives. Publicly financed software used or developed by  non profits or the public sector should be made available as open source. If it is public money, it should be public code as well. Across the world, small and large organisations are taking this moral obligation seriously:

How the European Commission is making its software open source to benefit society.

If you are going to Mars you’ll want Linux, not Windows!

The UK Government commit to an Open Source First policy (yeah, right – deeds not words please)

Is 2021 the year of Linux on the Desktop?

Linux is winning!

The French government is doing it…

But the Canadians did not and that was illegal!

Ready to learn more…?

If you are based in Norwich and Norfolk and want to see if open source is right for your organisation, please contact us in the usual way or (if you are not one of our existing customers) please use this new customer enquiry form. Alternatively you can use these resources to lean more about how open source works and what you can do to experience the benefits and encourage its use.


The Open Source Initiative

What does free really mean?

The Free Software Foundation

Free Software Foundation Europe

Public Money Public Code

And finally…

Get yourself a hot tea and a packet of rich tea then settle down to watch this documentary. The hour and a half long Revolution OS is a 2001 documentary film that traces the twenty-year history of GNU, Linux, open source, and the free software movement.