These days one sees so much software being given away for free, with no explicit or implicit conditions imposed at all. In so many cases, even the source code of the software is bundled alongside it – in fact there is plenty of software that is being distributed solely in source form – the writers of the code do not even bother compiling it for you. Such software is called Free and Open Source Software.
[The “Free” here is being used in the sense of “liberty”, and not in the sense of “gratis”. That is, it is possible to charge for free software, but once you own a copy, you are free to modify it as you deem fit, and even re-distribute it. There is a fine legal distinction between what is free and what is open source, but we shall not go into that.]
Authors of free software are actually giving you the opportunity to meddle with their creations, to change their programs as you like. In some cases, this freedom to modify the software is even enshrined by law – this is the GNU GPL family of licenses. If the author of the software chooses to publish under this license, she is taking conscious action to protect YOUR right to modify HER software! Amazing isn’t it?
But the FOSS movement goes even further.
Important and numerous projects in the FOSS world are today being hosted on websites like github.com where the authors are not only willing to let you modify your copy of the program, but they are actually inviting collaboration from you on their copy – the master copy! It appears that they want to not only hear from you – they are actually willing to let random strangers change important parts of their program – even take the project in a different direction than that originally intended!
FOSS is really good quality software
We have been trained to think of free stuff as trashy. The FOSS movement turns this on its head – much of FOSS is, in fact, really really good quality software!
This very blog, for instance, is hosted and run on the WordPress software. WordPress is an online text editor and content management system (CMS). Millions of blogs and websites on the Internet are being hosted on the WordPress platform today.
Another example of FOSS is LibreOffice, a feature complete office suite, comparable and in fact, in some cases, more advanced than Microsoft Office. For one of the most successful examples of FOSS, see the GNU/Linux Operating System – the entire stack from the kernel to the user-level is being handed out for free.
Hundreds of millions of people are today invested into the FOSS movement – as both authors and users (like me, writing this blog, or someone else using a LibreOffice spreadsheet). All these people can’t be wrong. The billions and trillions of dollars that are invested into this movement – again – both as promoters of the software, and as users – can’t be wrong.
It is undeniable that FOSS not only works, it works very very well. But why does it work at all? In fact, why does FOSS even exist?