Monday, April 14, 2008

Social Implications of Open Source Software

Here's the prompt for this week's paper:

“Positive or Negative social implications of open source or 'free software'.”

What is open source or 'free' software? In this analysis I'm only going to refer to open source software, or what is commonly referred to as “Free as in 'Free Speech'”. This means you have access to the source code, and are free to modify it however you wish, and even redistribute it. The other definition is often stated as “Free as in 'Free Beer'”, meaning it costs nothing. These often go hand in hand since when you have the source code and may redistribute it, nothing stops you from giving it away for free. I'm not going to discuss the economics of open source software, as I feel that it is a discussion well suited for a different place.

What are the implications of open source software? You have the ability to look into exactly what a program does and learn from it or improve it. People also tend to argue that software that is not open source is unethical. Although I am a huge supporter of open source software, I have to argue that they are wrong. An article titled The Social Implications of Free Software on FSM states:

“Above all, Free Software is an ethical choice—not one of convenience. NGOs also tend to receive, store and disseminate huge amounts of information. It helps to be able to access info (in digital format) without having to 1) break the law, and 2) spend money to purchase applications to “read” the information. Using free software enables that, as South India-based lawyer Mahesh Pai points out.”

The argument made here is a non-sequitur; the arguments for open source software is that it is free and legal, which in no way implies that proprietary software is unethical. There should be a distinction between ethical implications and economic factors. It is not unethical to charge people for a product. The point made here is that a social implication of open source software is that is it much more likely to be used in a economically challenged locale, due to the low cost of the software (which is often gratis).

There are many benefits to using open source software. Nearly all proprietary software now has an open source counterpart, and in my opinion, many of them are much better than their proprietary counterparts. (There are also some that are much worse too.) Open Source software is often much more secure than proprietary software, which is interesting due to the full source code being available for anyone who would want to see it. I have written about this topic before, if you want to read more about this, go read my previous post Security through Open Source.

Open source software is created by a community of developers who share a generally common set of beliefs. This has lead to it's own community of OSS developers and users. This community continues to grow and thrive today. The community has a great property which will lead to it's success, and that is that the more developers that work on OSS, and the more users who commit to the community, the stronger it grows. This is fostered by the idea that all the software should be available from source code, and that anyone is free to modify and redistribute it. As more people work on it, bugs will be fixed, features will be added, and the software becomes more useful to more people.

2 comments:

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