What Is Open Source?

One of the most common things I hear among people who are in leadership positions is an aversion to the words “open source” and consequently an aversion to open source solutions for software and web applications.

The feeling is understandable. In a world where security and privacy are big concerns to organizations such as Catholic schools, the word “open” doesn’t exactly have a positive connotation.

Open source, though, is easily misread as not secure and unsupported when you don’t have a background with it or are not familiar with it. In this post we’re going to explain what open source really is about, what the pros and cons are, and how to use it effectively in your organization.

The truth is, open source is one of the most exciting thing to happen on the web in the last 10 years, and it can save time and money, so let’s check it out!

The Tale of a Proprietary Software Program

Let’s say you go to your local Office Depot and buy a copy of Microsoft Office. You take it home, install it on your computer, and use it.

Microsoft Office Logo

Microsoft Word, like all programs, is made up of code. Code isn’t anything you can touch or hold in your hand of course, it’s intellectual property, and Microsoft created this particular bit code called “Office”. They paid the salaries for a group of people to develop that code and release a version for you to buy that is now running on your home computer.

Now, let’s say that you were pretty savvy with code, and you wanted to change the way that Microsoft Office works. Sorry, but no can do. Microsoft owns that code and they aren’t going to let you just go in and tinker around with their source. They have a hard enough time trying to stop people from pirating copies without just giving it away.

Microsoft Office is proprietary. It’s code that someone owns, and they maintain it, update it, and support it. Very simple.

An Open Alternative

So, is there anything wrong with this? Of course not. Microsoft paid for the development, and they rightly own the product. But do they own the concept of a word processor? Nope!

Enter OpenOffice.org.

OpenOffice.org Logo

OpenOffice.org is just what is sounds like: an open source office suite. You can download it free of charge any time you’d like. You can get the source code as well, any time you’d like. Just like the name implies, it’s open.

It does a lot of things that Microsoft Office does. It’s got a word processor, a spreadsheet program like Excel, a presentation program like PowerPoint, and even a drawing program and a database program.

OpenOffice Screenshot

You can open all sorts of documents, including Excel files, Word files, etc. It also supports an open source document format as well.

The Community

The immediate question is: where does something like OpenOffice.org come from? To answer that, take a look at OpenOffice.org’s mission statement:

To create, as a community, the leading international office suite that will run on all major platforms and provide access to all functionality and data through open-component based APIs and an XML-based file format.

The key here is “as a community”. The community is what drives OpenOffice.org, and has for 10 years. Instead of people being paid to work on OpenOffice.org, they are giving their time as programmers, marketers, help specialists, etc. You can even go to the website right now and check out the todo list for development.

Participate in OpenOffice.org

The community behind OpenOffice.org isn’t a free for all, meaning that not just anyone can go and contribute code that is going to end up on your computer. There is a board, senior members, and all sorts of things that sound like they are part of a company, but are actually part of the community. OpenOffice.org has been around for a long time, and as a result has created a large, complex community that regulates and supports itself, creating the office suite that you can download and use any time you want.

Why Do People Contribute?

There is a great article in the June 2010 issue of Wired Magazine (US version). Titled The Great Cognitive Surplus, the article is about Daniel Pink and Clay Shirky, two people who are rewriting behavioral science and challenging the classic “carrot and the stick” idea of motivation. They argue that what is truly motivating people in our hyper-connected world is internal factors. Things like satisfaction for your work and positions or feelings of mastery of a subject.

The thing is, a lot of people are stuck in a carrot/stick motivation at their day job. They do the thing their supposed to, and then they go home. At regular intervals they get money for that. However, there is a big cognitive surplus left over. A huge cognitive surplus, actually, and that’s where things like open source come from. For every person watching TV when they get home, there is someone editing Wikipedia contributing code to an open source project. And they do it for the intellectual satisfaction and the community.

Does it Work?

As Pink points out, 25 years ago the idea of open source software would have been insane – unfathomable, really. But it’s here, because of the opportunity the internet has brought for collaboration. We have huge networks of people doing things because they find them interesting.

That’s all well and good, but does it really work in practice? Well, let’s take a look.

  • Apache, an open source web server, runs 100 million websites, more than any other software.
  • Mozilla Firefox, the open source web browser, is used by 25% of internet users.
  • Linux, an open source operating system, runs 20-40% of all web servers.
  • WordPress, which this site runs off of, is open source and is in use on over 202 million websites.

Those are a few quick, prominent examples, but there are many. The point is, you don’t have look very far to find examples of open source software working in mission-critical situations.

Wordpress Logo

Evaluating Open Source Options Effectively

Understanding open source software is an important step to dealing with it effectively. One of the main points is to not assume that open source software is unreliable, unsafe, or low-quality. In many cases, it can be a much better solution that a paid product.

So, what should you do when you are looking at options and someone suggests open source? The first step is to evaluate it like you would a paid option. This means that above all you should consider if it meets your needs and the needs of your organization in terms of features and support.

The Question of Support

In many cases, the support provided via the community is enough for most solutions. For example, software like WordPress has a thriving community where you can usually get the answers you’re looking for.

In other cases, there are companies that charge for support. This is actually one of the business models around open source software. For example, some companies charge for installation and maintenance of open source software so organizations don’t have to.

One of the pros of open source software obviously is that it’s free – and that can be a large pro for a lot of organizations. That doesn’t take away from the fact, however, that you need someone who is technically skilled to install the software and to upgrade it. In other words, open source isn’t a free magic bullet. It needs support and technical expertise to install and upgrade correctly, just like a paid solution.


Although often misunderstood in organizations, open source software is a superior option in some (but not all) cases. Just make sure you evaluate it with knowledge of how open source software support and features work along with your other paid options.

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