A Concise Introduction to Free and Open Source Software
Saturday, December 19 2009 @ 10:56 AM CST
Contributed by: Andy Updegrove
If you're like me, you became fully aware of free and open source software only gradually, rather than suddenly and all at once. In my case, the process was somewhat schizophrenic, because I was personally involved, through my clients, in some of the evolutionary steps of FOSS itself, and only realized in retrospect how they fit into the whole picture.
Over the past few months, I've been reading several books on the early days of FOSS (I hope to review them later), each based upon extensive interviews with those that made FOSS happen. That's been especially revealing, because in recent years I've gotten to know many of the same individuals, and didn't always appreciate the roles that they had played in the early days of FOSS.
Recently, I tried to put all of this together, and more, into a single article that could serve as an introduction for people that might have an incomplete knowledge of FOSS, or might not fully appreciate all of its many dimensions. While no single article could ever hope to fully capture such a complex topic, perhaps the concise overview that I've put together can fill in some of the blanks for people who have only a general idea of what FOSS is all about. And hopefully it will also provide the incentive for them to want to learn more (I've provided a brief bibliography at the end for that purpose).
Here's the introduction to that article, and you can find the full text in the August - September issue of Standards Today. If you have your own observations and thoughts (or differences of opinion) about what I've written, please do leave your comments, and I can take them into account in any future revision of this article.
Introduction: If you have at least a passing acquaintance with information technology (IT), you will likely recognize the phrase "open source software" (OSS). If you're familiarity with IT is more detailed, you will also have heard the phrase "free and open source software" (FOSS), and perhaps the somewhat puzzling word combination, "free, libre open source software" (FLOSS). Unless you have made an effort to dig deeper into what lies behind these acronyms, however, you may be at a loss to give a coherent definition of any of these phrases, much less a differentiated explanation of each.
The very existence of so many names for what would appear to be similar, or at least related, concepts suggests that there may be more to be learned than immediately meets the eye. And indeed this is the case. The evolution and current state of FOSS2 includes elements of political philosophy, revolutionary zeal, technical development methodologies, traditional as well as radical legal theories, and cold, hard business pragmatism. Needless to say, such a rich stew of attributes is likely to present something of a challenge to anyone interested in gaining a quick understanding of exactly what this new IT phenomenon is all about — and why, in some ways, it is not a new phenomenon at all.
The FLOSS movement is part of a broader, socio-political movement, energized in part by the ability of the Internet to enable the sharing of information and the active collaboration of people on a global basis
The reasons for investing the time to gain a better understanding of FOSS are several. From a sociological point of view, the FLOSS movement (as compared to the development of OSS) is part of a broader, socio-political movement, energized in part by the ability of the Internet to enable the sharing of information and the active collaboration of people on a global basis. That movement questions the utility and fairness of many traditional copyright and patent-based legal restrictions, and seeks to liberate information for the benefit of all. In the case of FLOSS, it also articulates a set of ethical rules intended not only to foster free access, but also to inspire — and in some cases require — those that benefit from such access to contribute their own modifications and additions to FLOSS back to the common weal as well.
From an economic point of view, the FOSS development model is reordering the business realities of software development in multiple ways: for a developer, the per-business costs of development of a given piece of software can be radically reduced by participating in a development project in which many others contribute their efforts as well; for an end user, access to the source code of a FOSS product grants independence from a proprietary vendor, since the end user can adapt the code itself, or put development work out for competitive bidding; for software vendors, profit opportunities move towards value added services and away from product design; and from a marketplace perspective, the FOSS model presents a disruptive force that offers opportunities for both existing, as well as new, businesses to attack the dominance of entrenched market participants whose advantages rest on the proprietary development and sales model.
And finally, from an overall business perspective, FOSS has become so thoroughly embedded in the reality of the modern marketplace that effective IT procurement and management is becoming increasingly difficult absent a working knowledge of what FOSS is all about. Active participants in the development and use of FOSS products additionally need to know how FOSS can be expected to evolve in the future, and how the legalities of FOSS apply to anyone that participates in the development of FOSS, uses a FOSS product, or embeds any FOSS code in their own products for resale.
In this article, I will provide an overview of the history of FOSS and its champions, the major philosophical differences that divide FOSS from OSS developers, the multiple licenses under which FOSS is made available, and the principle non-profit institutions that support and promote FOSS. I will conclude with a brief bibliography of primary FOSS sources for those that wish to learn more than this necessarily superficial review can hope to provide regarding such a rich and complex topic.
[Read the full article here.]
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