Open Source Software is anarchy in action
by Alan Zisman (c) 2003 First published in Columbia Journal
, October 2003
to open source proponent Eric
Raymond, big corporate commercial software developments are
like a medieval cathedral, mass enterprises aiming at a single goal.
For example, the monolithic Windows operating system and Office
software suite, where the vast majority of computer-users worship at
the church of Microsoft.
alternative, mentioned in last month’s column, is Apple. While Mac
users “think different” Apple remains another large corporation, trying
to build its own (smaller and more innovative) cathedral.
of open source claim that they are promoting a real alternative. Unlike
commercial software, where the underlying programming code is
proprietary, in open source projects, this ‘source code’ is open to all
to read, modify, and reuse. The result is “a great babbling of
differing agendas and approaches”, a programmers bazaar filled with a
multitude of voices, rather than the top-down control of the cathedral.
numbers of computer programmers voluntarily help write computer code
for open source projects. The products of their work can be freely
distributed and modified for use in other projects—but under the
conditions of the Gnu Public License, a “copyleft” agreement from
Richard Stallman’s Free Software
Foundation, derivative projects must remain open source.
a result, open source software can be downloaded for free and installed
onto as many computers as needed. And unlike much so-called “free”
software, it doesn’t come with a hidden price tag of ads or spyware.
Few of us are computer programmers; we’re not likely to look at or
modify raw programming code. Amazingly, the anarchy in action model
used by the open source programmers’ community has resulted in a
collection of software projects that represent a vibrant challenge to
probably using many open source products without being aware of it: the
open source Apache web server software powers much of the World Wide
Web, while an increasing number of network servers use open source
operating systems such as Linux or BSD. Increasingly, open source
projects are aiming beyond their ‘techie’ roots at regular folks.
checking out: alternative web browsers and email software from www.mozilla.org. Their Mozilla and
Firebird browsers offer features like tabbed browsing and popup
controls missing from Microsoft’s Internet Explorer. Their Thunderbird
email program imports messages, settings, and address books from
Outlook or Outlook Express, while adding spam filtering.
Office (www.openoffice.org) is
a full-featured suite that can replace Microsoft Office. If all you
need is a word processor, Abiword (www.abisource.com)
is a fast and attractive alternative to MS Word. Open Office and
Abiword both do a good job of opening and saving documents in standard
Microsoft Office formats.
of these programs have versions that will run with your existing
Windows operating system; open source operating systems such as Linux
replace even that, while running on your existing PC hardware. If
desired, computers can be set to give the user a choice to boot to
either Linux or Windows.
comes in a range of varieties, known as distributions; many can be
purchased on CD, which gets the user some tech support from the
distributor, but all can be freely downloaded and freely installed on
an operating system can be a scary prospect; worth checking out is the Knoppix
Linux distribution (www.knoppix.net).
It’s designed to boot directly from the CD, letting potential users try
out Linux (complete with a set of open source applications), without
having to install anything on your computer.
to open source alternatives is not just a way of making a political
statement with the software you run. For individuals, non-profit
organizations and businesses it can be a way to get more use out of
your computers for less cost. And open source software is much less
prone to the wide range of viruses, worms, and security problems
afflicting users of Windows, Outlook/Outlook Express, Internet
Explorer, and Microsoft Office.