How open are you to Open Source?

Open source software is gaining a lot of popularity worldwide, and is increasingly the preferred product in a number of circumstances. This post examines the pros and cons of open source.

“Open source software” (OSS) refers to software for which the source code (or underlying computer programming text) is publicly available, can be modified, and can be freely distributed by others. In many instances, the source code is available at no cost, and is termed “free and open source software” (FOSS). OSS differs from freeware. Unlike OSS, the proprietary rights of the freeware software owners are protected.

Although many of the most widely used computer applications are commercial and proprietary programmes, OSS has been steadily gaining popularity. Table 1 highlights some copyrighted and OSS versions of common applications.

Software category Proprietary software OSS/FOSS
Office productivity Office (Microsoft)
iWork (Apple)
OpenOffice
Operating systems­ Windows (Microsoft)
Mac OS (Apple)
Linux
Mobile operating systems Symbian OS (Nokia)
iOS (Apple)
Blackberry (RIM)
Windows Mobile (Microsoft)
Android (Google)
Web browsers Internet Explorer (Windows)
Safari (Apple)
Opera (Opera)
Chrome (Google)
Mozilla Firefox (Mozilla)

Table 1: Available OSS/FOSS versions of proprietary applications

The increasing focus on OSS has been aided by the proliferation of professional and amateur software developers, who are eager to debug, modify and customise existing programmes, if given the opportunity. It also means that we, the consumers, are getting more choice, and will no longer be limited to commercial products, which are often prohibitively expensive, especially in the Caribbean. To that end, more and more people are beginning to embrace OSS, but before one completely abandons commercially sold software, it might be prudent to examine some of the pros and cons of OSS.

Pros

Affordability. Most OSS is available for free (or for a nominal price). Proprietary applications can be quite expensive to purchase, and to upgrade.

Flexibility and modifiability. OSS source code is publicly available and can be customised by software developers and knowledgeable users. User/developers have the latitude to modify the programme as they see fit. On the other hand, this is not the case with proprietary software. Proprietary source code is rarely published and the public is prohibited from modifying the programme.

Reliability and stability. For widely used OSS, it can be reliable when a large developer community is available to scrutinise and update the software. Hence discovered glitches or bugs can be rectified quickly. On the other hand, for proprietary products, the developer pool is usually considerably smaller, so updating an application can be a protracted process

Performance and efficiency. Generally, OSS is designed to be more streamlined than proprietary products. it might not be as feature-rich as the latter, but then it often does not require as much computing power or disk space as a comparable commercial version. Further, this coding efficiency allow OSS programmes to load and operate faster, which means that they can be more readily used on “slower computers”.

Cons:

Features and functionality. Since OSS tend be more streamlined, they sometimes do not have as many features as their proprietary cousins. Correspondingly, their functionality might not be as extensive or comprehensive when compared with similar commercial applications. For persons who are versed in using particular products, the loss of certain features or capabilities can make the transition to OSS particularly challenging.

Reliability and stability. For some OSS products, users might experience a number of glitches for which suitable fixes and patches can be difficult to find. The developer community might not be as large or as organised, hence for the novice or business user in particular, the product might be considered less reliable and frustrating to use.

Compatibility issues. Although the outputs/files from OSS applications are often stated to be readable and editable by similarly purposed proprietary software, and vice versa, this might not be fully is true. For example when Microsoft upgrades Word or changes its file formats, there is likely to be an indeterminate period when the OpenOffice version is no longer fully compatible. Further, files saved from proprietary software with special features activated may not be fully readable with OSS. The user’s productivity would be affected, and he/she may still need to have access to the proprietary application in order to process those files properly.

Technical support. OSS products tend to have poor documentation, and technical support is frequently limited to the user and developer communities, who volunteer to answer questions posed. There is usually no formal recourse for problems that are experienced, and no specific person or organisation is responsible for attending to addressing complaints. In developed countries where technical or customer support is well established and available, this absence can be particularly worrying, especially for businesses.

User-friendliness. Due to the streamlined approach frequently employed by OSS, they might not be as user-friendly as we have all come to expect. This can be a deterrent to some users, especially though who have not been exposed to a broad range of user interfaces.

Transitioning difficulties. Although not necessarily a “con” of OSS itself, it must be highlighted that persons versed in popular applications in particular, can experience some difficulty in transitioning to comparable OSS versions. In many cases, the source of the discomfort stems from the loss of certain features and capabilities, but also from the change in how certain features/functions are implemented in the OSS version.

Summary

To sum up, OSS can be a popular choice when price is an issue. Although it might not be as feature-rich as copyrighted software, many users, depending on their requirements, might not even be aware of the loss. Further, for us in the Caribbean, we often do not have access to comprehensive or local technical support for proprietary software that we use, so we might not be as affected by that limitation of using OSS. However, two niggling and possibly determining issues might be, first, whether one is prepared to experience a period of discomfort when transitioning from an application with which one is familiar, to an OSS version that has similar capabilities. Second, the extent to which the compatibility issues between proprietary applications and OSS affect a user’s efficiency and effectiveness to read and edit documents. Nevertheless, if one is not prepared to make allowances for the differences between OSS and proprietary products, there might be a hefty price to pay to maintain the privilege of using the latter.

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