Friday, July 14, 2006

Free/Open vs. Closed Software

Sometime we very often are mislead by the term “open source”, and by “free” software. For some this is the same; which is wrong. There is some differences between these two. By definition OSS is, “Open-source software is computer software whose source code is available under a copyright license that permits users to study, change, and improve the software, and to redistribute it in modified or unmodified form. It is the most prominent example of open source development” . Where else the definition for free software is, “Free software, as defined by the Free Software Foundation, is software which can be used, copied, studied, modified and redistributed without restriction. Freedom from such restrictions is central to the concept, with the opposite of free software being proprietary software and not software which is sold for profit, commercial software. The usual way for software to be distributed as free software is for the software to be accompanied by a free software license (or be in the public domain), and the source code of the software to be made available (for a compiled language).”

So, whats the difference? The distinction between Open Source and Free Software is a matter of philosophy and approach. The fundamental difference between the two movements is in their values, their ways of looking at the world. For the Open Source movement, the issue of whether software should be open source is a practical question, not an ethical one. As one person put it, ``Open source is a development methodology; free software is a social movement.'' For the Open Source movement, non-free software is a suboptimal solution. For the Free Software movement, non-free software is a social problem and free software is the solution.

The open source movement which started off 1998, was mostly aimed at making free software more acceptable to the main stream business world. If I am not wrong, I think thats how it all started. Over the last few years it has also proven itself, that this model is a successful one. Even though the GPL(GNU Public License) model has been around since mid 80's, was not making much business. Surely it is the start of it all. Thats how it all started, but then the boost came in in the early 90's with Linux. The FSF movement was started in 1985 by Richard Matthew Stallman (frequently abbreviated to RMS), or simply Richard Stallman (the man). He was not happy with how things started to turn out in the software world. People like Bill Gates and others who tried to close software and take away the freedom which software was having until that point of time. The open nature of software helped it to improve and makes life better, that was more or less his philosophy. Stallman argues that software users should have freedom — in particular, the freedom to "share with their neighbor" and to be able to study and make changes to the software that they use. He has repeatedly said that attempts by proprietary software vendors to prohibit these acts are "antisocial" and "unethical". The phrase "software wants to be free" is often incorrectly attributed to him, and Stallman argues that this is a mis-statement of his philosophy. He argues that freedom is vital for the sake of users and society and not merely because it may lead to improved software. Consequently, in January 1984, he quit his job at MIT to work full time on the GNU project, which he had announced in September 1983. So whats GNU? Simply GNU mean GNU's Not Unix. This was chosen because its design is Unix-like, but differs from Unix by being free software and by not containing actual UNIX code.

So what is Linux? Linux is simple a kernel developed by Linus Torvalds in 1991 and subsequently developed with the assistance of developers worldwide. The GNU project was developing its own kernel was named; HURD. This had some bugs and was not very stable at the time when Linus made Linux public. The difference was again the approach to the kernel design. I think its the fact that Linux is not a microkernel and HURD was. Even Stallman has agreed to the fact that Linux took a better approach in developing the Linux, though HURD might have been more systematic and a better design. In any case, people started to use the kernel Linux developed and started to adopt it along with other GNU tools. Also Linux was released under the GPL model. This was nothing planned, it just happened. As UNIX is composed of lots of tools and a kernel, the combination was perfect. Even to date some people still argue that Linux should be called as GNU/Linux.

This is what changed the world. When people like Bill Gates changed things with letters such as The Open Letter to Hobbyists. At that point the world was started to get slowly dominated by Microsoft. Internet was at the verge of exploding. People considered software source code to be something of crown jewels, suddenly work of few individuals changed everything. They not only contributed the computing world, but also disproved the business models which has been laid down by companies like Microsoft and others. Companies like RedHat and a few others have proven that there is money in the OSS and Free software models. The point which most people still don't get is, this is not about money, its about FREEDOM. The freedom to choose software, modify and to distribute. Where you were not stuck with one vendor for the product and for the support. YOU NOW HAVE THE CHOICE TO CHOOSE. Of course, when you look for service you have to pay. Example consultation and support. That is if you are a serious company, and running a business or an organization. The advantage being lower cost in most cases and better service. Why better service? Because you had the freedom to choose rather then depend on one company (only) to give you support and updates.

Its interesting to note that Linux grew with a lot of other technologies. Most importantly, the Internet. Probably the biggest boost that Linux got was from Apache web server project. It too was a free software like the Linux, and at that time ISP's saw the advantage of Apache over others. Apache and Linux went on very well. Loads of ISP's started to adopt Apache along with Linux, for advantages like security, easy administration of remote servers. Things like the advantage that Linux ran on loads of platforms and cheap hardware. Then the rest was what we see today. Database developers and other application developers acknowledged Linux and boom, now its even competing on the desktop too. Projects like the Open Office project by Sun Microsystems and other contributions from companies like IBM and Novell has made Linux what it is today. But most of all its the individuals who made it happen, and the theory and love of “Freedom”. Its simply amazing.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

did u watch the movie Revolution OS?