Business-like, isn't he?



Columbia Journal logo

    Open Source Software is anarchy in action

    by Alan Zisman  (c) 2003 First published in Columbia Journal ,  October 2003

    According 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.

    One 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.

    Proponents 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.

    Large 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.

    As 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 commercial standards.

    You’re 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.

    Worth checking out: alternative web browsers and email software from 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.

    Open Office ( is a full-featured suite that can replace Microsoft Office. If all you need is a word processor, Abiword ( 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.

    All 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.

    Linux 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 multiple computers.

    Replacing an operating system can be a scary prospect; worth checking out is the Knoppix Linux distribution ( 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.

    Moving 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.


Search WWW Search

Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan