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Whether you’re aware of it or not, open-source software has had an impact on the way you live your life. You may know of open source programs that are free to download and available for anyone to edit. But do you know how the term “open source” began?
The phrase comes from a movement in the late 90s to rebrand free software in a more ethically neutral way. Two men involved in this movement, Eric Raymond and Bruce Perens, founded the Open Source Initiative in 1998. This organization maintains an official definition of open source software and works to expand adoption of the concept.
February 2018 marks OSI’s 20th anniversary, and the effort to spread open source has been a resounding success. Here are a few of the ways open source software has changed the world.
1. Open Source Desktops Have Become Viable
When the Open Source Initiative started, Linux had only been around for roughly half a decade. The K Desktop Environment (as it was then known) was a year old. GNOME didn’t yet exist. Linux simply was not something particularly easy for someone to use as a replacement for Windows or Mac OS.
That situation has changed.
Linux is now straightforward to install and easy to use. There are many desktop environments to choose from, many of which are welcoming to first-time Linux users. There are mature open source programs available to handle most tasks. I exclusively use Linux in my work as a writer, and I don’t have any need to use something else.
2. The Top 500 Supercomputers Run Linux
Supercomputers crunch an insane amount of math, making trivial work of tasks that would require legions of people and countless hours of time. These machines are how meteorologists, for example, are able to compare a deluge of regularly changing variables (temperature, wind speed, atmospheric pressure, humidity, etc.) to create accurate weather models and deliver forecasts.
Supercomputers also make the world a cleaner and safer place, allowing scientists to run simulations instead of actually blowing things up.
Supercomputers are specialized, which is one of the strengths of open source software. People are free to use only the components they need, change them as necessarily, and make whatever additions are necessary without having to pay or check in with anyone. This is part of the reason why all 500 of the world’s top supercomputers now run Linux.
3. Many Transportation Systems Also Run Linux
Many large infrastructure projects such as US air traffic control rely on Linux to monitor all the airplanes in the sky. Train companies use Linux to keep track of what’s inside of freight cars. Linux also powers some of the pumps you see at gas stations. Some airplanes use Linux to power their entertainment systems.
Google uses Linux inside of self-driving cars, and it’s hardly the only one. Traditional car manufacturers such as General Motors and Volkswagen also turn to Linux for their self-driving projects.
The International Space Station transports people around the earth. And guess what? It runs Linux too.
4. Open Source Is Behind Many Smartphones
Android, the world’s most popular mobile operating system, is based on Linux. We’ve reached a point where when a new company wants to enter the market, they don’t think to create a new system from scratch, they base their work on Android or another version of Linux (such as Tizen).
For better or worse, new mobile devices are coming to market running Linux by the day.
Though while many of these phones use open source operating systems, the interfaces on top are often closed. Without modification, the Android phone you get from the store is effectively a closed source product.
5. Open Source Runs the Cloud
People are increasingly leaving behind local apps on their desktops in favor of services they access via their web browser. These sites exist on someone else’s computers, and they’re often the product of open source software.
Linux and other open source operating systems like FreeBSD are popular options for servers, computers that are primarily intended for other machines to accesses remotely.
Big data platforms such as Kubernetes and MondoDB are working on the backend. Competition is fierce among names like CloudStack, OpenShift, and OpenStack.
Developers, for the most part, prefer open source tools. This is also the reason so many open source programming languages are on the rise.
6. The Web Is More Accessible
Thanks to open source software, it has become easier for anyone to create their own website. While you have to pay for someone to host your website and for a domain name, creating the actual site doesn’t have to cost you a thing.
WordPress is an open-source backend to many of the sites you visit online. You can pay for themes or certain add-ons, but the free nature and adaptability have helped WordPress spread all over the web.
Admittedly, people have had the option to create their own website for free since the beginning of the World Wide Web. The catch is that they needed to know a programming language such as HTML in order to do so.
These days you only need to know how to point and click. This has changed whose voices we hear online, and how many are speaking.
7. “Open” Has Spread Beyond Code
While all computer code was open in the decades before the US Supreme Court decided it could be subject to copyright law, by the time the OSI came along, that reality had long passed. To release code for others to view, edit, and built upon was a niche idea.
Since then, not only has the concept of open source code gained hold, the idea has spread to other fields. You can now find innovations in open-source governance, open education, open business, open agriculture, and the list goes on.
People from many walks of life are embracing the idea that the systems which impact us should be open to view, access, and take part in.
Open Source Is Everywhere
I’m grateful to the people who thought up the idea of open source software and to all who have decided to make their programs free for others to use and edit.
These tools have aided me throughout most of my computing life. They are great resources, and I strongly recommend them to anyone wondering if they’re a safe and capable alternative to typical commercial software.