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Open source software is awesome! Or is it? Despite the growing popularity of open source alternatives to all kinds of proprietary programs, many people still misunderstand the nature of the open source industry.
Some people think that open source software will ruin the world of programming. Others believe that open source software is the only hope for humanity. Bad myths are circulated by both extremes, making it hard to discern the underlying truths of it all.
Do you still believe these open source myths?
Myth: Open Source Is for Linux Users
Linux’s history and environment is steeped in open source culture, so it’s easy to see why people assume that open source software is “a Linux phenomenon”. And to an extent, the statement is true: many open source programs are made with Linux availability as a prime motivator.
But if you’re a Windows or Mac user and think you don’t need to concern yourself with these things, you’re mistaken. In fact, there’s a good chance that some of your favorite programs are open source and you just didn’t know it.
Examples include VLC, Pidgin, GIMP, Audacity, Calibre, and WinCDEmu, among others.
The truth is, open source programs are still useful even if you don’t adhere to the open source philosophy. It’s not just for Linux freaks and geeks; it’s for everyone. In the end, that’s what open source is all about, anyway.
Myth: Open Source Is Less/More Secure
Information security is a big deal these days, but what’s funny is that people on both sides of the battlefield — those who are for and those who are against open source software — use “security” to prop up their arguments.
On one side you have those who claim that publicly-available code inherently makes a program insecure. After all, it exposes the internal workings of a program for malicious eyes, making it easier for hackers and malware creators to break in and exploit vulnerabilities.
On the other side you have those who claim that open source programs are more secure. Opening the code up to the public means having more eyes that can catch errors and more hands that can quickly patch security holes when needed.
The reality is that both sides are right depending on the context. What everyone can agree on is this: open source software faces a different set of problems than proprietary software. Neither is necessarily better or worse than the other.
Myth: Big Companies Avoid Open Source
People write open code for many reasons, mostly involving amateur or independent programmers. As such, people think that “serious companies” like Microsoft or Apple are above the open source cause.
That’s not quite true, though.
Last year, Microsoft went ahead and open sourced their .NET Framework, a move that generated a lot of chatter amongst programmers. This year, Apple followed suit and open sourced their Swift programming language, another move that shocked programmers worldwide.
Here we have two of the world’s most proprietary companies warming up to the open source ideal. Never again can somebody say that open sourcing is only for amateurs and independents. When it works, it works — no matter who you are.
Myth: “Do Whatever You Want”
The concept of open source is simple: the actual code behind a given program is made available to the public. When people hear this, the immediate thought tends to be, “What if someone steals the code?”
And in fact, some people do steal open code. Some people believe that if code is made available to the public, they can go ahead and use it however they want — but that’s not how it works. Like images, videos, and music, software is also protected by copyright.
Long story short, this means you have to obey the stipulations of whatever open source license the code is released under.
There are some licenses (such as the BSD and MIT licenses) that actually do permit you to “do whatever you want” with the code, even going as far as allowing you to commercialize derivatives and what not. But not every license is like that, and it’s your responsibility to find out what’s permitted and obey.
Myth: Open Source Coding Is Chaotic
Imagine trying to design a car with a hundred other people shouting their suggestions at you. Hectic and frustrating, right? “Design by committee” rarely works in the real world, so why does it work for software development?
Well, it doesn’t. Open source development is not “design by committee”, even though it certainly sounds that way on paper.
“But I thought anybody could contribute to an open source project!” They can, but public contributions are vetted and approved by those who manage the project. If a proposed change doesn’t fit the project’s vision, it can be denied. The whole process is surprisingly straightforward and orderly.
But when project leadership starts to disagree on vision and direction, that’s when things can get messy — and that’s when projects get forked, a term that describes the process of cloning open source code as a separate project and developing it in a different direction from the original aim.
Myth: Open Source Coding Is Pro Bono
Just because open source software is often made available for free doesn’t mean that open source developers work for free. Some do, of course, but there are several ways for an open source programmer to make money.
Sometimes a program is so useful and critical to a company’s workflow that the company will sponsor the coders of said program and provide funding so that they can keep working on it.
Another example is when programmers offer the source code for free but charge for binary downloads. Take it one step further and you’ll find programmers who provide the downloads for free but charge for technical support.
That’s just scratching the surface, but it does show that pro bono is not a necessary attribute for an open source developer.
What Other Myths Are Out There?
Knowing that the above myths are exaggerated and/or untrue, does you feel more likely or less likely to embrace open source software? Personally, I’m neutral on the matter. If a program is good, I’ll use it no matter how it was made.
That being said, we know that plenty of other open source myths are still floating around on the web, so if you encounter any, feel free to tell us about them.
What are your thoughts on the open source movement? Share with us in the comments below!
Image Credits: Abstract Computer by bluebay via Shutterstock, Locked Laptop by rangizzz via Shutterstock, Code Syntax by photovibes via Shutterstock, Group Arguing by Ellagrin via Shutterstock, Desktop Programmer by Corepics via Shutterstock