Today I got another one of those InfoWorld articles with one of those sensational titles called "Beware these open source lock-in schemes". I had to take a look. The open-source world has really come a long way. I remember when telling people a product was open-source would be a cause for immediate argument and accusation. Now there are businesses and governments who are looking for open-source as a requirement. As is always the case, people are stepping forward to take advantage of that interest in somewhat nefarious ways.
There has been a lot of information floating around about the "hidden costs of using open source", as though there were no hidden costs to using any technology. It's true. Any piece of open-source software will make demands of you. You will need to understand it. You will need to spend time making it work the way that you want. You will need to make sure that others who use it also know what they need. I have never bought a piece of technology that came with someone who prevented me complicating my life with it through either improper use or making mistakes.
The whole point of working with open-source from my perspective is leaving your options open. Right now I'm using Ubuntu, but it's not my only Linux option. I have run other distributions in the past and may run others in the future, but it's my choice. Linux is at the core of all of them and the software that is important to me runs on all of them. They keep me because they serve my needs, not because I'm too invested to move.
In the article, Simon Phipps mentions the "four freedoms" of open source, which should be protected in any choice that you make. These freedoms are fundamental and important. I'm quoting them here from the GNU philosophy page with my own comments:
The freedom to run the program, for any purpose (freedom 0).
Have you read the license agreements for many of the things that you use? Most of us don't and when we do we shrug our shoulders and click "Agree" anyway because there is work to be done. You will become amazed by some of the things hidden in license agreements about what yoiu may and may not do with the software and what they may do to you if they decide that you have violated those terms. (There is a South Park episode that parodies this, but I will not point you there. You will have to search for "south park humancentipad" and find it on your own because it is terribly rude.) I don't say that people who license software to you should not be able limit its usage with a license. It's entirely up to them. However, you should know that there is an arena of software that does not impose such limitations. It's really your choice.
The freedom to study how the program works, and change it so it does your computing as you wish (freedom 1). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
Invention stands on the shoulders of previous inventions. It's the way of humanity. Because of the compiled nature of software it imposes a barrier to this sort of learning and development. Again, there is nothing wrong with hiding the true nature of software, but there is something wonderful about leaving it in a way that you can take it apart and learn from it.
The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor (freedom 2).
Sharing things that help us has also been a large part of human experience. Think of all the things that are a part of our world that were shared so long ago that we can't imagine a time where people didn't do it. I'm talking about things like making beer, irrigation, use of simple machines... It is natural to want to share best practices with others. Open source software encourages this sort of sharing so that good ideas get spread around, freely.
The freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions to others (freedom 3). By doing this you can give the whole community a chance to benefit from your changes. Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
This gets to the "improvement" concept that I mentioned before. If I have a great idea for improving a commercial product, but the owners of that product don't wish to incorporate it, that's the end of it. I could go create a competing product, but I would really need to be invested in my idea for that. If I share my idea openly about how to modify the commercial product they can sue me for violating their license agreement. (See how all of this fits neatly together.) With open source, I can contribute a simple idea and share it with whomever I wish. Many projects have unofficial patches that anyone can apply to affect the function of the software. Sometimes these ideas are incorporated into the core, but they don't need to be.
So, there you have the four freedoms... the hidden benefits of open-source software. These are the reasons why open-source matters. It's true that these freedoms come with a little bit of effort to make the most use of them. They can introduce a certain level of chaos into your technical life which you will occasionally have to manage... but I'll bet that you do those kinds of things already and call it the "cost of doing business". Think about it.
Things around developerWorks
Tuesday is publishing day on developerWorks, so here are a few items that you might have missed, but shouldn't:
Ian Shields has been doing updates to his series on the Linux certification tests. His latest refurbish is "Plan Linux hard disk layout and partitions". I've worked with Ian behind the scenes at IBM for a while and his shares my perspective on being a repetitive voice in support of Linux and open source in the work place. In any meeting on new things it was always a contest to see which one of us would be the first to ask "will it work on Linux". Ian is the real deal and you can learn a lot from his articles whether you plan to take the LPI test or not.
Over in the Real World Linux community, Himanshu Arora has put up a nice blog entitled "Zsh - The new Linux/Unix shell everyone's talking about". Zsh has actually been around for a while but it's worth learning more about. One of the interesting features of a Linux/UNIX environment is that you have choices for your command-line environment. I normally use BASH, but there are times when another is helpful, especially in scripting. Since you can tell a script which environment it should run you can pick your favorite to type in but have the others whenever you wish.
You should also take a look at the entries in the Real World Open Source communities: "Linux is obsolete - A must read debate between Andrew S. Tanenbaum and Linus Torvalds" and "Songbird - Connecting fans everywhere".