Why Use Open Source Software?

The reasons to choose open source are numerous, ranging from the practical to the philosophical.


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Posted December 14, 2015

Matt Hartley

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Almost everyday, someone within the open source community is talking about how folks should be using open source software. I completely agree with this point of view. To further dive into the issue, I'll share my opinion as to why using open source software offers significant advantages over proprietary alternatives.

Software vs Operating Systems

Did you know that most people run their software because it allows them to accomplish a specific task, not because it runs on a particular operating system? While mobile users may be die-hard fans of their chosen platforms, when it comes to the desktop most people simply use what is familiar to them.

Some of the Mac users I know, for example, run OS X for the software and the user experience. When asked if the software and user experience could be offered elsewhere, these folks indicated to me that they'd happily move over to that platform if it were cheaper than a Mac. I've heard the same thing from Windows gamers – they stick around for the games, not for the platform itself.

Obviously this isn't a blanket statement claiming everyone out there feels the same way. That would be silly. Rather, my point is that there are enough people using proprietary software because it's allowing them to accomplish a set task – not because of the OS it runs on. Understanding this, I believe there are many folks in this area who would benefit from exploring the possibility of trying open source software vs their current proprietary applications.

Practical reasons for open source software

Some IT people and more technical computer enthusiasts believe that open source software is less secure due to its open nature. These same individuals might also feel that open source software is less reliable since many applications aren't backed by large companies like Microsoft, Apple, Adobe, etc.

I'd argue that isn't the case. I believe open source software is often more secure and more flexible than proprietary options as it has nothing to hide. The entire process can be vetted at anytime by examining the source code, offering to help with the software development and learning how the application works from the inside. I'd be lying if I claimed that all open source software is 100% secure and totally bulletproof. Obviously no application is completely secure, this is why updates and patches are important to install as they're released.

Taking the matter of updates further, when a proprietary application stops being developed, it's not uncommon for its updates to stop as well. With open source software, interested parties can fork or adopt the code for a given application and continue releasing updates for it. The Geary email application is a good open source example of this. When Yorba shuttered its doors and stopped supporting Geary, the GNOME foundation took over hosting it. GNOME is also handling the support and development end of things as well, including IRC chat, mailing list, and code contributor submissions.

Another significant reason to use open source software is to prevent vendor lock-in. For example, let's say you're using a proprietary publishing application. One day, the company releases a new version and explains that going forward, older file versions for the application won't be supported by the new version. This means if you have an older version of one PC, and the latest version on the second PC, they can't exchange files due to compatibility issues. The company's motivation is for you to run the latest version of the software on BOTH computers.

Had the company been using open source software, the file format would have either remained unchanged between software versions or the ability to import the older files would have been provided. A great example of this is found with Microsoft Office documents. Even though today's LibreOffice has fair docx support, it's still known to cause formatting and other compatibility issues due to Microsoft's document standard. With LibreOffice's support of the ODF format, Word 2007 and higher all support the file format just fine. After all, it's an open document standard. So adopting it into an application is transparent. The same can't be said for docx.

The last consideration is important to companies that rely on software support. Getting proprietary software support means getting it from the original software vendor. If that company goes under or stops supporting the application, you're out of luck. But even if they still support your software, perhaps you have had lousy experience with the software provider's customer service. And why should they care – if you want support, you're forced to come to them.

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Tags: open source, Linux

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