What is open source software and what does OSS mean?

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If you are an avid internet user and have searched the web for free software, chances are you have come across the term “open source”. Today, there is an abundance of open source software available on the Internet. So much so, in fact, that we often take it for granted.

But it has not always been so.

While the term may be self-explanatory to some, it is still important to understand the term, its history, and what open source software (OSS) really means. This article helps you better define OSS.

What is free software (OSS)?

Coding terminal on a MacBook

Traditionally, most software used for commercial purposes has been closed source. This essentially means that the code with which it was made, i.e. the source code, is solely in the hands of the company that made the software. Average users like us can’t access the code, and we can’t make changes to it either. Open source software, on the other hand, is the exact opposite of this.

Basically, to classify software as open source, its source code must be freely accessible to the public. The source code is usually made available as a free download through the official software website or through platforms such as GitHub.

Related: What is GitHub? An introduction

Apart from that, there are many other prerequisites for any software to be labeled as open source.

What Makes Software Open Source?

The Open Source Initiative (OSI) describes various conditions that must be met for software to be truly open source software. Some of the conditions that must be met are listed below.

  1. Source code available for free: As pointed out previously, the source code of the software in question must be accessible to the public.
  2. Redistribution: One of the most important conditions is that the software is free to redistribute. This means that you can share a copy of any open source software with your friends, and it will not violate any legal conditions.
  3. Modification: In addition to redistributing the software, you are free to modify the source code as you see fit and distribute your own versions of the software. Users can also create completely different software using the source code if that’s what they want.
  4. No discrimination: OSI places great importance on a policy of non-discrimination when it comes to open source software. Essentially, there should be no discrimination against any particular person or group of people. There should also be no discrimination in how people choose to use the program – you can use it in any area.
  5. License: According to OSI, open source software should not have to be part of a particular software distribution for users to benefit from the rights. All users, regardless of how they obtain the software, have the same rights. In addition, the license must not impose any conditions on the distribution of other software on the same medium.

Related: How To Create Your Own Software License Agreement

The difference between open source and closed source software

Android mascot next to an Android phone.

The aforementioned sections explain in detail what makes software open source. However, there are various other factors that separate open source and proprietary software:

Category Open source software Proprietary software
Source code Available for free for anyone to download and modify as they wish. The source code is not accessible to anyone except the creators of the software.
Trial The software is developed in an open manner and end users usually help polish it. The proprietary software goes through various stages of internal testing within the company. The public is not at all concerned.
Cost Open source software is free for organizations as well as for individuals. Companies generally charge money for proprietary software. This can take the form of a subscription or a one-time payment.
Installation OSS can be installed on as many computers as you want. Proprietary software vendors typically offer a single license key that can only be activated once.
Patches Because the community and the developers work together, bug fixes are actually released faster. Users find creative ways to tackle various errors. In this case, a single organization or group of developers is responsible for maintaining the software. Users can only report bugs but cannot do anything to fix them.

Another commonly talked about differentiator between open source and proprietary software is security.

Related: How Secure Is Open Source Software?

Where does the term “Open Source” come from?

Photo of two people working at their desks

There were several people who are credited with catapulting the concept of open source software to the crowds. Notably, Richard Stallman, an MIT student who has been a strong advocate for open source development, started GNU in 1983.

In short, GNU is a huge collection of free software that can be edited by anyone. Through the use of GNU, one of the world’s most popular operating systems, Linux, was born.

Stallman is also the founder of the Free Software Movement (FSF). Naturally, the FSF became a social movement which promoted open collaboration between developers and also encouraged them to create free software under the GNU General Public License.

Related: Why Almost No One Calls Linux “GNU / Linux”

However, the biggest event in the open source movement was Netscape’s decision to make Netscape Communicator, a set of Internet applications, available for free in the 1990s. This was a big deal because Netscape Navigator was the web browser of choice. no longer used at the time. In addition, the source code led to the creation of Mozilla Firefox.

Netscape’s decision marked the beginning of the snowball effect when it came to open source software, as soon after, on February 3, 1998, the term open source was coined. This happened during a meeting in Palo Alto, California. A little later, the organization known as the Open Source Initiative (OSI) was conceived with the mission of educating the masses about open source software and its benefits.

Open Source: an important part of the software world

So, now you know what open source software means.

As is evident, the open source movement and free software in general have shaped today’s technological landscape. Most of us these days are using some form of open source software without even realizing it. Whether it’s Android, Linux, or even VLC Media Player, life wouldn’t be the same without open source software.


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