Open Source Software

What is Open Source Software?

Perhaps the best way to describe Open Source Software, or OSS, is by an example. We also have a list of recommended OSS applications:

Imagine that you walk into a restaurant and order a piece of cake. You don’t sit and watch the chef place the ingredients in the mixer, dump them in a pan, bake, ice, slice and serve. You simply order a piece of cake and it is delivered to you. Software is the same way.

A lot of “baking” goes into the various programs that you use. But to “bake” that program, there are many ingredients used. In computer-speak, it is called the “Source Code.” Source code is like the recipe and ingredie­nts. The program developer sends it to the chef (a compiler on the computer) and voila! – out comes a cake – the program. Examples of programs most people are familiar with are Internet Explorer, Microsoft Word, Microsoft Powerpoint, Freecell, Quicken, and many others.

Now, a chef usually does not reveal his “secret” ingredients. Many companies that write programs, like Microsoft, do not, either. You buy the program, not the recipe and ingredients (technically, you only license it for use). The problem is that you have to rely soley on the maker of the software (called proprietary software) to fix any problems, and you are trusting their integrity. They alone control your data, and if they go out of business or change their format, then you and your data are at their mercy, and you are forced to pay money for an upgrade.Open Source Software is software whose recipe and ingredients are given out with the program. You can see exactly what went into making your program. It is like going to Subway. You can watch them put the ingredients on your sandwhich. You can tell them not to put pickles on it because you do no like pickles. Open Source Software, often referred to as OSS, is the same way. If something does not work – you can fix it. You can also check the integrity of the developer to ensure all your data is safe, and many years from now, you’ll still be able to retrieve your data because you know exactly how it was created.

Open Source Software is usually software that is "no-cost" to the user, which means our clients do not have to pay for licensing fees. Much of what Free Life Ministries uses falls under the GPL or the General Public License, which states that you can modify the program so long as when you distribute the program, you tell others what you did. So, improve the recipe if you like, but tell everyone what you did.

What advantage does this give? Every time someone improves a program, everyone benefits. Many big companies like IBM, Novell, Sun (the makers of Java – which is OSS) and others pour billions upon billions of dollars into OSS each year. They benefit from having good software, and they share their advances with the rest of the world because of the GNU license.

Many Open Source programmers write programs for one simple reason – they are doing what they love to do. Another key fact is that they often use the very programs they write, so it is practical, as well. True, they often do not get compensated monetarily, but in OSS, reputation is often more important to them than money. Their name is on the line with their program that they wrote. They take pride in what they do because it represents them. Think of your hobbies and passions that you do to help others and you soon understand their motives.

It is really Free? Be careful not to confuse free in price as cheap in quality. Many of these programs, including Linux, itself, have attracted the backing of major corporations. Sun Microsystems is one example and IBM has spent over a billion dollars on Linux research, shipping almost all of their servers with it installed. Even Walmart sells Linux computers now (for around $200). The city of Munich, Germany, converted 15,000 PC’s to Linux, even after Microsoft offered a 90% discount. Thailand, India, China, Japan, Brazil, and many other countries use Linux on their government computers. Some U.S. Cities are using Linux, and others OSS (like Austin soon switching to OpenOffice). Be careful not to confuse free in price as cheap in quality. Many of these programs, including Linux, itself, have attracted the backing of major corporations. Sun Microsystems is one example and IBM has spent over a billion dollars on Linux research, shipping almost all of their servers with it installed. Even Walmart sells Linux computers now (for around $200). The city of Munich, Germany, converted 15,000 PC’s to Linux, even after Microsoft offered a 90% discount. Thailand, India, China, Japan, Brazil, and many other countries use Linux on their government computers. Some U.S. Cities are using Linux, and others OSS (like Austin soon switching to OpenOffice).

Every person who works with Open Source Software can list a myriad of reasons why it has advantages over the "competition." Perhaps five of the most compelling advantages, however, are Cost, Capability, Compatibility, Data Longevity and Security.

Cost >> Perhaps the most obvious choice there is… most Open Source Software costs you nothing.  Be careful not to confuse the price with the quality, though.  You are simply benefiting from the work of many companies like IBM, Novell, Sun Microsystems and many others who have literal put billions of dollars into Open Source Software to improve its quality, stability, and they use it in their own companies.  How do they make money, you ask? Well, one of the best models out there is is tha­t they charge a subscription fee for services and support.  The advantage of this model is that you can choose who you want support from, and still use the software you choose.   If you don’t run your own server farms, you can normally get by fine without the contracts… hence the price you pay up front is nothing.

Capability >> Many of the organizations that FLM is dedicated to helping are using older versions of software. In many instances, those versions have even been brought from home and their legitimate status is in question. Most commercial End User License Agreements only allow for one copy of the program to be installed on one computer, even though this isn’t always put into practice. These programs are often five, eight or over ten years old. Consider MS Office 97, which is over eight years old and is commonly found in non-profit organizations. Because of this, many new features and advances made over the last few years are not available.

Enter Open Source. Because of the type of licensing OSS uses, it can almost always be freely redistributed (more on this in Compatibily below). It is also up to date. Unlike Comercial Software Vendors, who must find a way to get you to upgrade to their latest offering, Open Source Software has nothing to gain by waiting to give you the latest feature. In fact, Open Source has more incentive to give you features as fast and as soon as possible. Many times updates are available on a monthly or even weekly basis. This, in turn, makes you more productive in your daily tasks.

So what if a particular program doesn’t meet your need? Well, that is another side benefit of Open Source. There is a community built around it that wants to help. Really. It is not uncommon for organizations to move to OSS and find someone to customize or tweak a piece of software to their needs. Often, volunteers will do this, or you can choose to pay if you want to ensure support services. There are two benefits to this. First, you get exactly what you need to support your organization. Second, that "feature" you had added now goes into the community to help every other organization using that software. You’ve helped yourself and made the Open Source community stronger and better.

Compatibility >> The issue of Compatibility has to be looked at from two angles: Internal and External. We’ll look at the latter of these first. The number one reason given for not moving to Open Source is usually along the lines of, "But everyone else is using MS Word or XYZ. How will I share documents with them, and what happens when others try to come and use our software?" Each of these needs to be addressed. For simplicity sake, most examples will be looking as Microsoft Office and OpenOffice.

"But everyone else is using MS Word or XYZ. How will I share documents with them?" For starters, this statement isn’t necessarily true. Just because you receive a document in the .doc format does not mean it was created using MS Word. OpenOffice, a prime candidate for replacing Word, has filters that allow import and export to the .doc format. While native file format (.sxw) is preferred, it is not mandatory. Using OpenOffice, you will still be able to receive and open over 95% of files from other people. The only major hiccups in this method are extensive macros, but a vast majority of people don’t use macros (and if they do, they can simply rewrite them for OpenOffice).

The superior advantage of Open Source software is that everyone can use it and redistribute it. Instead of ten people having three different versions of software at work and still different ones at home (or even illegal copies of software from work), they can all install and use identical versions at work and home and there are no financial or legal penalties. Everyone can be on the same sheet of music easily and effectively. Begin to multilply this with the number of work and home computers represented by even a small organization and the benefits are obvious. Greater compatibility, faster integration, easier workflow and simplified training are only a few of the advantages readily available.

Data Longevity >> Your data is important to you, and you should be able to access it anytime you like and from anywhere you want to. Open Source Software guarantees you access unlike proprietary or commercial software. Ever try opening a MS Word 97 document in MS Word XP or worse, opening in reverse? Margins get mixed up, printer settings strangely affect things and all that time you spent formating has been wasted. Not to mention that you are entrusting your data to a Commercial entity that may or may not have your best interest in mind. Create your resume today and there is no guarantee in five or ten years that you will be able to open it when you go job hunting again.

Companies use proprietary (closed source) formats to store your data so that they can control what programs you use to access it. When they cease to offer support for a format or program, you are forced to either lose your data or buy an upgrade. This is not true in the Open Source community for several reasons. First, with OSS the bottom line usually is not profit so much as useability. Second, Open Source programs are more likely to use open standards to store your data. Ten or fifteen years from now, you may not be able to use the same program to open your data, but the specifications used to store it are public and accessible, which means you will still know how to get the data out. If your data is valuable to you, Open Source Software is a far better solution.

Security >> In June of 2004, The U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Computer Emergency Readiness Team (CERT) recommend using web browsers other than Microsoft’s Internet Explorer (IE) for security reasons. The company failed to patch a critical vulnerability for nine months and it was being exploited on a consistent basis. As such, Internet Explorer lost 1% of its market share in July and Mozilla-based browser use increased by 26% (compared to its previous share). Many idividual sites show a shift of up to 20% of people moving from IE to other browsers.

"Hacker Insurance" (yes, there is
such a thing) costs 5-15% more when the commercial operating system MS Windows is used compared to OSS Linux. Worldwide, 70% of web servers (the computers that store the web pages you are viewing) use Open Source Software instead of proprietary software. That majority also has a disproportionately fewer amount of security issues than the smaller amount of servers running non-OSS programs.

Compare the average time for companies such as Microsoft to fix vulnerabilities (usually weeks or months) to Open Source, which is usually a matter of days. The fact remains that due to the nature of Open Source Software (it is reviewed constantly by thousands of programmers), it is far less likely for critical security flaws to be incorporated or go very long without an update.

In short, Open Source Software almost always means that your data and your machines are more secure. Flaws that are found are usually less severe than their commercial counterparts and they are fixed in a more timely fashion. The only question that remains is whether or not there is an OSS program to fit your needs.

This page gives you a quick overview of various programs you may be familiar with and their Open Source Alternatives.  This list is, by no means exhaustive, and remember that there are often several alternatives in the Open Source world, each with a unique strength.

Click on the Counterpart’s name to see a quick overview of the advanta­ges and disadvantages of using that particular program.

Program functionality Commercial OSS Counterpart Where to get it.
Office Suite: Word processing, Spreadsheets, Presentation software Microsoft Office, MS Works, Corel Office Download OOo or run a portable version available at
Desktop publishing – flyers, bulletins, newsletters, etc. MS Publisher Scribus

Download Scribus or run a portable version available at

Web Browser Internet Explorer Mozilla Firefox Download Firefox or run a portable version available at
Email program Outlook, Outlook Express Mozilla Thunderbird Download Thunderbird or run a portable version available at
Database Access, Oracle MySQL
Image Manipulation Adobe Photoshop GIMP Download the GIMP or run a portable version available at
Online Curriculum Management & eLearning Blackboard Moodle Demo of Moodle
School Administration Edutrack Open Admin
Operating System MS Windows 9x, NT, 2000, XP, 2003, – Mac OS X Linux

Categories we will eventually cover in depth:

* Productivity
* Educational
* Internet & Email
* Operation System
* Graphics
* Multimedia

The question inevitably comes up: “Why not just use MS Windows? (or some other program XYZ) Microsoft practically gives software away, don’t they?”

First, there is no way I can do with MS Windows what I do with Linux. You cannot just make a copy of the cd and install it anywhere you want (with Linux you can). You also cannot simply run it live from the CD without installing to the hard drive.

Second, ask yourself, “Why does Microsoft give away software?” The answer is this, “They know that once you become comfortable with it, you will always use that software. And trust me, when you leave school, they do not continue to give you that educational discount.” In simplest terms, I liken it to tobacco companies that used to give away cigarettes. They knew that eventually you would be back for more and more and more. Once they have you, it is hard to switch.

Third, Open Source Software supports a philosophy that is much needed in today’s society. Many of the programmers that write OSS do so simply because they want to do a small part for the greater good. They do not get paid, they get very little thanks, and they listen to people whine about features that need to be implemented in the next version. But the point is they do it out of selflessness. I think teaching that to our next generation is far better than, “Use our product now and you can never leave.”

This bring up the issue of, “But won’t MS Windows be what they will use in the ‘real world’?” Yes and no. Even if it is MS Windows, by the time they get there, it will be unlike any current version, so the same learning curve exists. Second, if asked at a job interview, “Do you have computer experience?” a student would be able to say, “Yes, I have much experience working with several different platforms and many applications.” Their skills will translate just fine. A word processor is a word processor is a word processor.

This is not a battle to fight Microsoft. They do what they do very well – marketing. It is unfortunate that they release a product usually not finished that has known security holes and crashes regularly, and then they expect the consumer to pay for an upgrade to fix the problems they would not in the earlier release. What if your car arbitrarily shut down on the road? What if they sold it to you knowing it leaked gasoline or oil? You would not accept it. You could go down the road to a different dealer. Microsoft is a monopoly (the US DoJ agrees) and they play the game well.

Simply put, Linux achieves our goals far more competently, and I dare say that anyone used to MS Windows could probably switch to Linux and hardly know the difference. I have had people sit down at my computer, use it, and never know they were running Linux instead of MS Windows.