Years ago, there were several concepts when it came to software available to the computer user: commercial, shareware, and freeware. Commercial software was the kind you bought before you could use it. Shareware was the kind you could use and if you liked it, you were expected to pay for it (it used to be cheap in cost) on your honor if you continued to use it. Freeware was that kind of a software that someone wrote and simply wanted to pass it around and let others enjoy its use. At first shareware worked quite well. I myself have paid for many pieces of shareware through the years. But eventually, as the internet grew and more and more people had access to the internet, the honor question became slowly put aside and forgotten and shareware slowly started to suffer from lack of payments. From it’s ashes came forward a new concept called crippleware. Crippleware is software that is either time-limited or does not contain all the features of a paid-for/commercial piece of software. Interestingly, commercial companies now use crippleware as a form of advertising for their products. Microsoft is a great example. You get to use the Office Suite for a delimited amount of time and then, if you still want to continue using it, you must pay for the license to use it.
But now to explain what makes Open Source Software (OSS) so attractive to me (and to so many others): it cost me absolutely nothing. Nada. Zip. Completely Free. How so? OSS is based on the concept that someone or a group of someones decided one day that the software that was available at the time either (1) didn’t suit their needs, (2) cost too much, and/or (3) they thought they could do better. Most OSS projects end up being a collaboration of many people (sometimes numbering in the thousands) who put together a package and release it and its source code to the world. Sometimes they request that a donation be made, but it is not required. But supporting the core set of individuals who have developed the software becomes something that is done out of generosity and thankfulness for the use of the software. Every user of the software become part of the testers of it. One is expected to report bugs and to make reasonable requests for future versions. The software truly becomes a product of the users. Unlike commercial products that seem to say: ‘This is what we are, deal with it’, OSS packages tend to say: ‘This is what you asked for, can we do better for you?’.
The second part of OSS that is unique is that OSS has those 2 words that give you so much power of its design. Open Source means that not only you get the software package and can use it, but you also get the original files that were created to make it. You have the ability to program in parts that will customize it to your very own needs. Maybe you might want to strip out a bunch of the stuff in it and make it faster or more compact of a program. You can do that with OSS. Of course, this is assuming that you know or are able to get someone to do it for you. However, this is the revolving door of OSS: you are expected to share whatever you do to the program code with the community at no cost.
What can I say? I love the stuff!
For the last few years, I’ve been using Mozilla’s Firefox & Thunderbird. After being a strong proponent of Netscape’s Communicator suite, I finally switched over in December of 2007 to Firefox & Thunderbird. Netscape had become obsolete and was no longer being worked on by AOL (Netscape’s owner) and finding something better and more suitable to my needs was in order. Took minutes to install both packages, and I quickly noticed that Mozilla’s software had a stark resemblance to my old companion of almost a decade. Firefox has evolved quite a bit from its early versions and so has Thunderbird.
When I first started my graduate studies, I used the Microsoft Office package that was pre-installed on my laptop. After 30 or 90 days (can’t remember which), I suddenly ran into a wall with it. It needed to be purchased, and even with the academic version, it was not cheap. As a grad student, my funds are limited. After looking around online for a couple of days, I settled into trying out LibreOffice. At first, I was cautious and doubtful, but once installed, it seemed to work quite well. It has a look & feel that is very similar to older versions of Microsoft Office and even WordPerfect Office. It’s been quite robust for the last few years, and I don’t see myself leaving it anytime soon.
I’ve been playing with another OSS package that caught my eye. GIMP is a program that is said to rival some of the more powerful commercial picture editing software packages. I’ve been having a lot of fun with it.
Almost forgot to mention something. This post you’re reading and the website it’s on is all built on an OSS package called WordPress. Neat, isn’t it?