What is open source?

Have you ever wondered just what is open source? Jack Wallen explains the concept, why it's important, and what you can do to help the cause.

What is open source? That's a good question, and one I'm glad you asked. Why? Because there is often a bit of misinformation surrounding this particular topic that needs to be cleared up.

But first, just what is this source you call open? To put it simply, open source refers to something people can modify and share because its design is publicly accessible. In the case of open source software, not only is the design publicly accessible but so is the code. Even more, the open source license doesn't just allow you to share the design or code, it allows you to modify it, so long as you give attribution to the original developer.

SEE: Open source vs. proprietary software: A look at the pros and cons (Tech Pro Research)

In other words, if you use a piece of open source software and think of another way to implement it, you can make that happen by adding to or changing the code. Just make sure you give sufficient credit for the original designers and make the new code available to the public. Otherwise, it's not really open source.

Extending beyond software

Of course, open source projects do extend well beyond software and into hardware, engineering projects, and so much more. But as for software, open source has become a keystone for enterprises across the globe. Tools like Docker, Apache, PHP, NGINX, Kubernetes, OpenStack, and so many more crucial pieces of open source software have become the de facto standard for large companies. Without those tools, enterprises wouldn't be nearly as flexible, stable, and scalable.

Now one of the misleading aspects of open source software is that it must all be free from cost. That is not so. If you have an open source project, you are free to charge for it. There are open source projects that offer free community editions and business or enterprise editions for a cost. Most times, that associated cost includes support.

The thing is, developers cannot work for free, and their projects need to be supported. So if you do make use of an open source project (especially one that doesn't charge a fee), consider making a donation to the project, so that they can keep the lights on.

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Image: Jack Wallen

By Jack Wallen

Jack Wallen is an award-winning writer for TechRepublic and Linux.com. He’s an avid promoter of open source and the voice of The Android Expert. For more news about Jack Wallen, visit his website jackwallen.com.