Is Open Source the Death of Proprietary Software?

Open source, an emotive and complex argument for either side to battle against. Open source is a key factor in computing today and can be the joyous wonders of some tech fans but also a headache for more casual users. Open source can save money, but drive work hours through the roof – open source is now becoming extremely popular. The number of distributions of open source based operating systems rises by the week and users downloads are increasing exponentially. Yet is the surge in open source going to mean the end of the road for proprietary, closed software?

Open source is more than just software but a philosophy, it is a way of living and a nature of being. Yet open source software is either the scourge of the Earth or a angelic delight, dependant on your outlook. Open source software is no more complex in basic principal than the any other piece of software. The basic ability for free licensed use of a piece of software, free redistribution and access to designs and blueprints for any modification is what stands open source apart from the closed systems of Microsoft and Apple. We can track the basic principles of open source back through time, the need and ability to share is a consecrated human condition – yet since the introduction of patents and lawsuits we have seen a decline in sharing – until today. In the early development of the motor vehicle the industry was monopolised by single handed capitalists who had secured patents on blueprints such as the 2-cycle gasoline engine part, originally filed by George B. Selden. Through control of this patent the market became stagnant and start up manufacturers were heckled and sued for breaches of patents but many adhered to their demands and coughed up the cash. Yet in 1911 Henry Ford challenged the patent successfully and overnight it became worthless; a new association was established by all manufacturers (Motor Vehicle Manufacturers Association) in efforts to share a collaborate to advance technology. A cross licensing agreement between companies that could share and lend ideas between each other without payment or lawsuits. By the time World War 2 came their were over 515 patents being shared between companies.

IBMThis is one example of open source principles, these small advances in social and corporate models are what make open source viable. With the advent of the internet and computer age companies such as IBM allowed free access to the source code of their operating system and established the SHARE community. Prior to the mass adoption of the internet code was shared via BBS systems that required users to connect and log in to networks via a terminal. The name “open source” was cobbled together at a strategy session for free software in Pal Alto California, after Netscape announced it would make the code for Navigator (their proprietary web browser) open source. Many budding engineers and software developers attended including Linus Torvalds who would later invent the Linux Kernel.

Open source now has had a smaller uptake than many predicted 20 years ago, many forms of open source software exist yet many are not created ‘home grown’ as intended by the early adopters. There lacks an incentive to create open source software or sell it for free when the creator can not recoup any costs in the first place. Open source can prove a headache for copyright crazy business who see the community as a threat to their gross profits. Open source software can be seen as a bit of a taboo in firms and this results in many not adopting such technology. Open source operating systems exist in a variety of flavours and forms. Within the Linux community their are many different projects, GNU, Unix, BSD and others. Ubuntu remains the most popular OS, a form of the Debian OS, but Linux had also brought to the world the likes of Arch Linux, Fedora and openSUSE. Linux distributions remain a popular choice for those looking for a cheaper alternative to IT systems. As mentioned the GNU/Linux OS has performed on tops compared with other distros, but the general view of open source remains negative. Google’s highly popular Android OS is also another form of open source software although it has now been commercialised by the tampering of Google. As well as this, the companies that open source mainly rivals – the likes of Apple – also use open source code as a UNIX base for their Mac OS X operating system.

Open source runs a direct challenge to the likes of Windows and Mac OS X – although the latter is built on open standard it is a ‘closed garden’ for developing and a by-product of Apple’s early home grown, hippy grass roots. Nevertheless Microsofts Windows has had the major domination over the market for nearly two decades. Windows has dominated since the launch of Windows 2.0 – IBM and early makers shipped Windows by default and Microsoft has built a steady following by forced choice over the years. It has retained popularity by means of incremental, but necessary updates. Apple began the game with a opensourceclosed OS – it has a smaller share of the pie than Microsoft, but does not license its software to third party manufacturers. Apple has a loyal fan base and this is is majority of users. It is predominantly use in professional markets and seen as a ‘cooler’ alternative to Windows.

But open source threatens these ideas that Microsoft and Apple employ. A closed system were the users are tied to a corporate body for updates and new advances. Users are very much treated as a dumb and simple operator and have limited control. Yet in the open source camp the user is prized as a trophy of success, unlike Microsoft who have to lock users into their OS, open source enforces no barriers and therefore users stay on trust. Open source users are commonly seen as co – developers of software – the ability to ‘mod’ and customise software means it may be downloaded in one form yet leave in another.

Open source is growing in size and I feel that the days of the monopoly for closed systems are likely numbered. The interaction of the web provides open source a stage for the world to see. Windows had its run in the 90’s and is stuck in the previous millennium. It is now only catching up with touch screen computing where the likes of Android and user modded Linux Disros have been able to offer touch UI for years. Open source can offer a better functionality in control and also a more open and wider community assistance. That said Microsoft and Apple retain their position through fear. Consumers will not willingly download a Linux distro onto their machine, worried of the consequences. Many are scared of the unfamiliar UI of Linux distros and the lack of consistency, where they have been brainwashed by Microsoft. Not all users are geeks either, little support is available for many Linux distros and it is unlikely to change. As well as this there are fears of compatibility issues and also the quality of the experience. I must admit from a user who owns a Mac and PC, I would rather stick to what I know. Yet when I venture into the outer world I am bombarded with establishments forcing me to use open source – which ironically is a bit against the basic principles of open source. Suites such as Libre Office – a free Microsoft Office alternative – can have their uses, especially in cost cutting. Yet they are limited and the amount of times I have lost a piece of work to Libre Office is now uncountable. But it is a step – a work in progress.

linuxI wouldn’t be worrying too much in the next coming years about a mass take over of giant Linux penguins. But it is a threat the likes of Microsoft and Apple mustn’t ignore. At a time were wallets are tight and the cash flow isn’t so regular – I’ll be the first to jump upon the band wagon and get myself a freebie. Microsoft and Apple rely on what I like to call “comfort users” – those who only feel comfortable in their ecosystem and who don’t feel capable in using any other form of computing software. But soon it will change, we all have mobile phones that run, some of these run open source – open source will be everywhere and it will become harder to ignore. It might take time to evolve and trust me it is no where near perfect. For the time being I will be sticking to my Mac, just because the effort and flaws of open source, as a non developer user, are just too much of a distraction for me to get productive work done on the OS. But like any platform their are flaws and cut backs. Users will just have to make the decision and choice, the power will be in their clicks and decide if open is the future?