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What Is the Open Source Movement?

Page Coleman
Page Coleman

The open source movement commonly refers to the development of software by skilled volunteer programmers. Open source software allows a functional software product and its source code to be offered free to any and all users. Users may be individuals, or may be an educational, corporate or government entity. The open source movement has been credited with advancing technology and the Internet. The concept has also spread beyond software to open source hardware.

With open source applications, programmers may modify the source code, and then return it to the community to be verified and incorporated into a new version of the software. In this way, fully-featured software, with few defects, can be created by a cadre of dedicated volunteers. The open source movement evolved from the free software movement of the 1980s.

Man with hands on his hips
Man with hands on his hips

A milestone in the open source movement occurred in the 1990s when a Finnish computer science student named Linus Torvalds wrote an operating system he called Linux. Other students continued improving the operating system, and it was later distributed through a General Public License (GPL). Linux soared in popularity and is especially appreciated by technically adept users.

The open source movement reduced the cost of Internet technology and helped the Internet gain traction. It allowed educational organizations and non-profit groups to take advantage of technology that they otherwise could not afford. Many educational organizations support open source development by encouraging software development students to work on open source projects. Businesses of varying sizes also use open source software, and some corporations assist with development.

Some notable examples of open source products that have been made available to the public include the Apache web server, the Firefox web browser, and the Java programming language. OpenOffice was developed as an open source productivity suite that includes word processing, spreadsheet, database and graphic packages. Email open source tools can support high volumes of email securely. Wikepedia, which allows anyone to edit entries, is an example of an open source dictionary.

Open source software is often confused with free proprietary software. Although both are distributed free of charge, the licenses are substantially different. In the case of proprietary free software, the source code is not distributed, and the developing company retains full rights.

Although open source usually refers to software, the open source movement has spread to hardware. Some open source hardware manufactures publish their product design specifications. They allow any one to use open source design documents to manufacture the hardware without paying fees.

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