What is Open Source?

Posted on January 27th, 2009 by Karl Beecher

Computer Floss, the video series that aims to enlighten the general audience about free/open source software. Here is a transcript of the first episode:

Welcome to Computer Floss, a series of videos all about the the open source software movement. In this series I’ll be trying to enlighten and inform you about what open source actually is, how it works, why it matters and who’s doing it.

You might have heard this phrase “open source” before, but it may not mean much to you. So you may be thinking: What is it Why should I care? What does this open source thingy matter to me?

Dilbert... a nerd.

Dilbert: nerd.

To begin to answer these questions, I’ll have to lay out one or two fundamentals. As I’m sure you’re aware, programmers are spotty nerds that sit in front of a computer typing away all day long writing programs — but what are they actually doing when they write programs?  They’re writing a collection of instructions, and these lay out exactly how a program behaves. These instructions are called source code, and what’s critical about source code is that it’s understandable by humans beings…and programmers too.

Source code is *not* understandable by a computer, so before it can be run by a computer it has to be put through a special program called a compiler and turned into what’s called machine code, that archetypal binary sequence of 1s and 0s that only a computer can make sense of.

And so, at the end of a compilation, you have two things: you have the program that’s made up of machine code, and you still have the source code you began with. It’s essential to keep that source code, because if you ever want to extend your program, or fix it when something goes wrong (as it inevitably does), you need to amend the source code and run it through the compiler again to create an updated copy of the binary software.

With these fundamentals explained, we can use them to define “open source software”, so here goes: For computer software to be “open source”, the author must permit users of the software access to the source code, and grant them the right to change and redistribute that source code according to their needs. In recent years, this concept has become important to a great many organizations, to the extent that *you* might have heard of it and now prowl the internet looking for videos that explain what the hell it is.

Now we know what it is, we should know *why* it’s important. There are many reasons why, and later videos will explain them, but this is a good opportunity to quickly dip our little toe into history and tell the story of the spiritual father-figure of open source software, bearded computer god, Richard Stallman.

Richard Stallman... bearded

Stallman: beard

Stallman was a programmer in the 1970s, and up until that point hardware was king; computer companies cared only about selling computers — and software was just a boring sideshow. But this notion died away along with disco as the 1980s set in. Gradually, software became important, and lots of companies thought that they could make more money by selling only the binary code and keeping the source code a secret, rendering it proprietary. Stallman grew increasingly frustrated by this, until everything came to ahead when his organization got a new printer. Unlike their old one, the source code that controlled this new printer was kept secret and proprietary by the supplier, so Stallman was no longer able to fix all the faults when the damned thing wouldn’t work properly. It would have been quite a simple job for Stallman to fix the faults, and even tailor it to his organizations particular needs. But when the supplier denied Stallman’s request for a copy of the source code, citing it as a trade secret, he got mad with the increasing inability to alter the software that he had paid for, and so quit, and started the GNU Project devoted to developing what he called “free software”, for which “open source software” is basically an alternative name.

The printer story is an important one because it illustrates what happens when source code is kept proprietary. Under these conditions, software essentially becomes a black box which closes off the insides to any amateur tinkering, like sealing up the engine of your car. In fact, worse than that, it welds the box shut in such a way that it’s impossible for *anyone* to get inside to make any changes whatsoever, other than the original manufacturer. When software is open source, it guarantees that you, or anyone you choose, can alter the software in whatever way you want. And that’s, well, good isn’t it? After all, even if you knew nothing about car mechanics, you’d still prefer that your engine wasn’t welded permanently

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