A: Open Source
Posted by Laurel L. Russwurm on September 26, 2009
[This was originally going to be the beginning of an article. As you can see it’s mushroomed into a much larger discussion. So, this is the first part of what may be three articles… but I won’t know until its done. So I’ll continue the alphabetical prefixes until I am finished with this issue. –LLR]
“‘Free software’ is a matter of liberty, not price. To understand the concept, you should think of ‘free’ as in ‘free speech,’ not as in ‘free beer.’
Free software is a matter of the users’ freedom to run, copy, distribute, study, change and improve the software. More precisely, it means that the program’s users have the four essential freedoms:
* The freedom to run the program, for any purpose (freedom 0).
* The freedom to study how the program works, and change it to make it do what you wish (freedom 1). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
* The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor (freedom 2).
* The freedom to improve the program, and release your improvements (and modified versions in general) to the public, so that the whole community benefits (freedom 3). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.”
what does Open Source actually mean?
Open source software is ‘free as in speech’ software which allows users to access the source code to make changes.
Closed source is software that doesn’t provide the purchaser any access to the program’s source code. Even if you’ve purchased the software if you “hack in” to source code, you are breaking the law.
Proprietary software is software with restrictions on use or modification. It’s proprietor(s) exercise control over what users can do with the software. Although more commonly linked with closed source software, proprietary open source software is possible. All it takes is for the proprietor to make the source code accessible and to designate it Open Source.
The first time I heard of open source software was a wonderful game called Supaplex.
Let me tell you the story of Supaplex. This was a proprietary computer game program that was sold commercially. Eventually the company that marketed Supaplex stopped supporting it and went on to do other things. But there were fans who loved the game, and some of them were able to do some programming, so they created level editors and added to the game as well as fixing the problems. For Supaplex, one big issue was the fact that computer speeds became far faster than they ran when Suplaplex was written. Without a speed correction Supaplex was inhumanly fast.
When the internet became available, one of the fans started started a webpage and began distributing and supporting the game, along with his level editor and levels and others supplied by other fans online for free.
This was early days, so no law enforcement agency broke down anyone’s door. You see, at first it didn’t occur to these game fans that this might not be legal. They had purchased the game. When you buy something if it breaks you are within your rights to fix it. Aren’t you?
Eventually they did realize that this might be a problem, so they approached the company, Digital Integration and the creators (Phillip Jesperson, Michael Stopp, Robin Heydon, Matt Smith and David Whittaker). These good folks said it was fine with them so long as no one made any money from it. The creators are quite happy because their work has survived.
I first played Supaplex more than ten years ago. There’s a bit of manual dexterity required but it is primarily a puzzle game. You need to solve the riddle of the level in order to get to the next. It makes you think, so it’s a great game on a number of levels. (accidental pun, I promise!) And you can still get it free from Elmer
When Supaplex was created the terms ‘open source’ or ‘closed source’ hadn’t even been coined. So although the game wasn’t ever intended to be open source, the proprieters allowed it to become open source. And because they allowed the people who had purchased the game to achieve all of Richard Stallman’s freedoms, the Supaplex game still exists and is in use today.
I would strongly caution against doing something like Elmer did in today’s world. Get your permissions first before investing masses of time. Although not originally intended to be anything more than a commercial video game, Supaplex is actually an excellent example of why open source is valuable.
You might ask: what’s in it for the company?
When the time comes that the work a company is putting into a product ceases to be profitable, a smart company pulls the plug. In the world of software, that means that the company doesn’t just stop selling the product, it also means that the company stops supporting the program. This is considered a good business practice, but can be bad for the consumer, because once a company stops supporting their product, the time will come that the product will not be able to function. Maybe because of faster speeds, maybe because there are no printer drivers for the software, there are all kinds of reasons this will happen, its just a question of when.
What benefit did the company(Digital Integration) that originally marketed Supaplex get? In the first place, they do not have an army of customers angry at them. They didn’t annoy their customers by making a business decision that would have been detrimental to their customers by rendering Supaplex inoperable. Without having to lift a finger or spend a dime, the game that Digital Integration bought and sold so long ago is still in existance and generating free publicity and a good reputation.
Because Supaplex fans have done their best to put in a good word for them. The word of mouth spreads every time someone new downloads the game, or someone old mentions them in an article like this. The programmers whose work would have been long gone are still getting this credit for their work. Creators want their work to survive.
How does open source software benefit the consumer?
I don’t know about you, but I have several board games in my cupboard whose manufacturers no longer exist. That doesn’t stop me from taking them out and playing them. Why should video games be any different?
People invested money in Supaplex by purchasing it, and then invested time in learning how to play it. But they didn’t lose out when the proprieters decided to pull the plug. Because a few of them behaved as if Supaplex was open source, they were able to make the necessary upgrades to keep it playable. In this way, their initial investment of both time and money was not lost. The fact that they made it available to others has not only kept the game alive, it also served the purpose of bringing together people who loved the game so much that they would create new elements for it. The Supaplex of today is no longer the same as the original because it has been added to.
Now most of us aren’t going to be messing around with source code. But if we have a program that is useful, or if its just a lot of fun, just because the manufacturer decides that they aren’t going to sell or support it anymore shouldn’t have to mean we have to throw it away. So long as the source code can be accessed, the game can remain playable. The program can continue to be usable. It may very well mean hiring someone to fix the problem or do the upgrade, but we can decide if it is that important to us. And THAT is good for the consumer.
And of course the environment benefits too if we aren’t pitching out computer gear every six months just because they tell us too.
If Digital Integration had enforced their proprietary rights Supaplex it would no longer exist. No matter how much anyone who purchased the original game might have loved it, it would be gone. After all, when’s the last time you saw a working Amiga computer.
Open Office is an excellent open source program. It is free as in freedom as well as being free as in free beer. It is always in development by volunteers. I started using it after the proprietary word processing software that I had purchased for myself stopped working because even though the version I was comfortable using worked perfectly well, it could no longer print anything since there were no new printer drivers for it.
I understand that computer software manufacturers want us to keep &rlsquo;upgrading&rdsquo; but &rlquo;upgrading” costs the consumer more than money, it costs us time. Whether we’re corporate customers or private individuals, there is a definite time and energy cost to upgrading because the software has to be relearned. Since I was going to be forced to upgrade periodically, I decided to switch to Open Office. At least here I know that the upgrades are done because they are necessary, not simply to wring a few more dollars out of me.
and then there is the issue of transparency…
Which is another compelling argument for open source software. If the source code is available, the public can find out what a program is actually doing. As the computer age has progressed and the internet has spread, all sorts of unwanted things have been happening. Not only are there vandals creating viruses, sometimes perfectly legitimate businesses put ‘spyware’ into their programs. I don’t know about you, but I certainly don’t want my computer performing actions I don’t know about, particularly since I am putting these programs on my computer alongside all my private and personal stuff. I certainly don’t want my computer passing along any of my personal information to some corporation just because I bought their software. Personal privacy issues have become increasingly important with the proliferation of the information age crime of Identity Theft.
Of course I can look at source code and have no idea if there is a ‘trojan horse’, or if the software is mining my personal information, but if there >is< something malicious in a program, there are plenty of people who can spot the bad stuff. And these programmers are likely to spread the word, which is good for the rest of us. Fortunately there are also programs that don’t allow your software to “phone home” to the mother company without getting your permission. If you use one of these programs you can decide if you really want your computer to contact the company.
[The second part of the series is B: Packets and the Internet >>]
I just stumbled across the The Canadian Association for Open Source
(No, I haven’t figured out why the website domain name is “cluecan.ca”… it should be CAOS … for all Get Smart fans anyway….)