Eadon: Go Ahead. Open Source Your Life

There’s no turning back! The world is going open source and, unlike most modern trends that are dragging us one and all into the deepest levels of Hell, this one is actually beneficent.

Rhetorical question: do you covet liberty, free stuff and quality? That sounds like a have-your-cake-and-eat it proposition, yet with Free Open Source Software (FOSS) that really is the deal, there’s no catch. You win! And nigh on no one loses. Well there’s always one loser, and in this case, it is none other than Microsoft. So using Open Source has a bonus qualia: it irks Microsoft. (More on this later).

You’ve heard of Open Source Software but what is it, in layman’s terms? Here is a car analogy and a cooking recipe analogy.
An Open Source Car would be a vehicle for which all the instructions for making it are available, so you could build that car. Simple!
If BMW were to “open source” a car then BMW would provide complete instructions on how to make that car. However BMW are secretive (which is perfectly legitimate, we have a right to secrecy), so BMW cars, like most cars, are not “open source”, instead they are “closed source”.

Another analogy: take a recipe. Most recipes are “open source”. You can go to the internet and download a recipe for how to make beans on toast, or (for the suicidally inclined) poached pufferfish served on a “bed” of mashed potato.

Those recipes would be open source because the producer provides the instructions to construct the product. However, on the other hand, some recipes are closed source: the secret formula for Coca-cola’s brown sugar water being one, because Coca-Cola(TM) refuse to reveal the recipe.

So what about Open Source Software (OSS)?

For the layman, here is a quickie explanation of what software itself really is. Software sounds like a material, but it isn’t. It isn’t even “soft”. Software comprises a trove of commands that are not unlike a cooking recipe in principle, but software is rendered in an alien language that computers talk. Software is like a cooking recipe translated for computers. Software can tell computers to “cook up” a computer game, a word processor or a web page.

A real recipe is written with words. Software comprises strings of ones and noughts, the language of computers.
As it transpires, people are generally lousy at understanding strings of one’s and noughts. So how do humans craft software? People create human-readable “computer programs” that contain words and symbols you can type on a keyboard. Then a specialised computer program called a “compiler” transmogrifies those words into ones and noughts so that the computer can take those ones and noughts and compute them.

Even though computer programs are made of words, they are not as free-form as words that humans usually use in conversation. But on the other hand, computer programs are usually not mathematical either – contrary to popular myth. A typical programme is a bit like a cross between the beautiful notations of Newton’s calculus and the flippancy of a Coronation Street script.
I’ll show you a trivially short computer program: it displays the words “Hello World” on the screen and the program “source code” might look something like this:
print(“Hello World!”)

OK, so we have our source code. If we were to make that human-readable source code freely available for other people to download, use – and modify (usually) – then that would be Open Source Software (OSS).

You can use Open Source software today, in fact you may already be using it! Do you browse the web using the excellent Mozilla Firefox and Google Chrome browsers? If you do, you are using open source. You can download the “source code”, inspect it and modify it (or pay a geek to do so) and thereby change the behaviour of the browser to your liking.

Back in the early nineties a Finnish geek wrote an operating system. An operating system is the software that makes your computer work, without one your computer would be an inert box. The most famous desktop operating system is Microsoft Windows. If you use a Mac, then that will usually be running an operating system called OS X (pronounced Oh Ess Ten). The Finnish fellow wrote an operating system and then gave the source code to friends and, well, everyone, and invited them to work on it. Which they duly did.

The operating system quickly became a success, moving from a hobby project to a system that is everywhere. You might have heard of it, it is called Linux, named by it’s afore-mentioned creator, Linus Torvalds.

Microsoft has had to fight dirty to keep Linux off most desktop computers. Microsoft has been successful fighting that battle, but it is losing the war, which is now being fought in the greener commercial fields of mobile gadgets such as phones and tablets. Android, Google’s mobile phone operating system, is powered by Linux! Android has trounced Microsoft’s weak mobile phone offering, which has the prosaic, and deeply uncool, moniker of “Windows Phone 8”. It’s worth noting that Windows Phone 8 is closed source software.

If you need a software programme, then before buying one, search (or “google”) for an open source version of what you want. You will often find that an open source equivalent exists and is often good enough, or even superior to the expensive version.

But be vigilant, do not confuse open source software with “freeware” (which is usually closed source). Both open source and freeware are free (as in money), but freeware is relatively untrustworthy or crippled or ad-supported in some way.

Take “office” suits which have a professional quality word processor, spreadsheet, presentation program, diagram-making program and so on. There are two Open Source “Office” suits that are highly popular, Open Office and it’s cousin, LibreOffice. I am able to highly recommend these Office programs especially LibreOffice, for both personal and also for most professional work (disclaimer: I accept no responsibility however, as with anything, use at your own risk).

I shall return once again to the gems of Open Source and explain why programmers often give their work away for free. Venturing fearlessly into the dark side, I’ll also explain Microsoft’s wrathful disposition towards open source and why their attacks on liberty are damaging but ultimately doomed to fail.

9 comments on “Eadon: Go Ahead. Open Source Your Life

  1. Dick
    August 10, 2013 at 2:13 pm #

    A nice introduction. You could also have pointed out that while googling, one is also using Linux. However, Linus is Finnish not Danish!

  2. James Eadon
    August 11, 2013 at 10:12 am #

    Dick,
    Thanks, the, er, typo will be fixed presently. I confused Torvalds with Hamlet, it seems, easy mistake to make 😉

  3. Anthea Redmond
    August 13, 2013 at 2:05 am #

    Sterling piece James, as to be expected. Coincidentally, I have both Danish and Finnish ancestry. Is Linus a friend of yours? 😉

  4. James Eadon
    August 13, 2013 at 5:07 pm #

    @Anthea – Hi, charming to see a lady address a geek blog! I’ve not a known connection with Torvalds, however I’m descended from Hamlet, Prince of Denmark! I guess you are the Scandinavian Viking lass here.

  5. Bit Twiddler
    August 14, 2013 at 12:48 am #

    Good intro. I think Apache deserves a bit of a mention here too (or perhaps you’re saving that for later). Subversion is another FLOSS project that has been enormously beneficial in my workplace, among others.

    I look forward to reading the rest of the series!

  6. James Eadon
    August 14, 2013 at 7:30 am #

    Hi Bit Twidder, I’ll dedicate my next post to mentioning most of the most important Open Source applications. The bitter struggles of the Open Source Wars post will then have to wait until part 3 to keep the column inches down 🙂

  7. andrewporter
    August 14, 2013 at 12:15 pm #

    Spot on! We have now ridded ourselves at home and in the office of microsoft! it is possible with opensource. I would highly recommend UBUNTU for desktops/laptops and Servers- it loads quickly, is stable,totally free and has a superb range of FREE software one of which mentioned above LIBRE. Anyone who uses microsoft on a server will know the HELL you have to go through to keep it working-UBUNTU though will allow you to keep sane and the rest of your hair.

  8. James Eadon
    August 14, 2013 at 3:17 pm #

    @andrewporter, indeed. My own experience too, having worked extensively with both Microsoft and non-Microsoft environments in home and enterprise environments is that the non-Microsoft world is superior as an experience, quality and also has a lower Total Cost of Ownership. Of course, there are grey areas: each platform has strengths and weaknesses. Most people use Microsoft software for three reasons: They need to use software that only works on Windows; they are locked in because Windows is the only world they know; and Windows systems are procured sometimes because managers believe that they won’t get fired for buying Windows kit. But as Windows licences continue to rise steeply, especially on the server side (recent news has it that Windows server licences just went up by 28%), that’s becoming more risky.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Open Source Your Life part 2 | Bogpaper.com - August 17, 2013

    […] source software (FOSS) programs for just about anything, so the below list contains highlights (See Open Source Your Life). I have focussed on desktop open source software. Some of the programs might not run on all […]

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