Open Source: Where Is It Now and Where Is It Going?

Linux / Open Source
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Whether you realize it or not, you've been exposed to some form of open-source software in your travels. With the popularity of vendors embedding open-source solutions into everything from cellular phones and routers to Web applications and full-blown software installations for running businesses, most likely open source has touched your life in some manner. I guarantee that if you visit the Internet, you've been in contact with open source, since the open-source Web server application, Apache, owns roughly 70% of the Web market.

The term "open source" spans a broad area, which is exactly what contributes to most of its success. Open source can describe a simple software package, or it can mean an entire operating system. It's easily portable, adaptable, and small, which is a key factor in its massive growth in the industry over the past several years. The flexibility, lack of vendor lock-in, and price tag also present reasons open source is chosen over proprietary means. Open source encompasses so many things.

How exactly does open source affect your life? Maybe you use TiVo to record your favorite TV shows. Linux is the kernel behind the scenes (no pun intended) doing all the work. Many of your home DSL/cable routers are possibly running some type of Linux kernel. If you own some flavor of PDA, there's a chance it's running an open-source OS. Embedding open source is so popular these days, it's starting to become transparent to the normal user who just wants to buy a device and have it function. It's a win all around; the users get devices that just work, the open-source community is finally reaching a commonality in the market place, and the hardware manufacturer usually saves money and delivers a useful product at the same time.

Open Source vs. Proprietary

Although open-source software is growing rapidly in the IT community, it's under much scrutiny as it continues to do so. With success come the negatives. It's just bound to happen. Unfortunately, many see it only from a right-or-wrong, good-versus-evil perspective.

My example of this would be Firefox. Unless you've been asleep at the wheel, you already know the story of Firefox's growth in the Web browser market. Many desktop users hear of a better browser and immediately want to use it. Firefox provides many user-friendly tools, such as pop-up blockers and tabbed browsing, along with the promise of better security. The users care nothing about what software it consists of; they just want it to work and stop most of their issues. How many do you think actually realize this is an open-source application? Better yet, how many understand what open source is?

To the IT world, however, this subject obviously is construed in a different manner. When you research the success of Firefox, you find that IT professionals either love it or hate it; there seems to be no in between with this topic. I have had great success with switching from Internet Explorer to Firefox on all my Windows XP clients, but many speak ill of the open-source project and dismiss its success. At home, I run purely Linux, and for my distribution of choice, it's automatically included, so of course I personally love and promote the project.

Even though at times the Firefox and Internet Explorer debate seems to be more of a war, it's extremely hard to ignore the fact that most of the success Mozilla has received is because of users switching over to replace proprietary software. It's currently a hot topic in the IT community, and I feel it will continue to be so for quite some time. With Internet Explorer's continual bug issues, Firefox is proof that open source can be a success in a proprietary environment, as well as in its own domain. Open source has a place in both worlds.

This raises a very interesting question, though: When and why do you switch from proprietary to open-source solutions? This question is well-traveled on the Web today, at both the desktop and enterprise levels. At the enterprise level, companies have to decide what needs they have and what they will gain by moving to open source as opposed to sticking with proprietary. I realize I've simplified this quite a bit, but ultimately it's where to start looking. The bottom line is what people are going to get out of a product, period.

Unfortunately, there's no easy answer to this question. What works best for one company may turn out to be the opposite for the next. But you can hardly turn a corner online without running into success stories like this one, about a company taking the plunge to open source. Even the FAA moved completely over from proprietary to Linux. Both had to decide to accept the changes. Obviously, to them, the benefits of switching outweighed the reasons to stay with proprietary solutions. Open source can't always automatically be considered the best option for a corporation, but often you'll find that, because of the flexibility it offers, it is.

The Desktop

For desktop users at home, this question is a bit trickier to muddle through. Again, users just want things to work. They don't care what they have or how it works, and they don't see past what's displayed on a graphical window. Many don't even know what open source or Linux is, nor do they want to know. The key to winning over these users is to provide standardization, coupled with easy-to-use applications. Give them something they can use easily, and you'll start to entice them to switch over.

I was first introduced to Linux almost four years ago. Then, the Linux desktop was far from easy to use. Add the fact that I was used to Microsoft ways, and I was one disgruntled user from time to time. I had entered the Linux realm, and I often envied the functionality that other users had. For instance, many multimedia applications were either difficult to use or couldn't play many proprietary formats. I stuck with it, although many times I had to resort back to Windows for many tasks. As the years progressed, I weaned myself off Microsoft products. Linux, as well as many other open-source packages I use, finally grew to a level where they were able to replace the proprietary tools on my desktop.

Since I'm a tech-savvy individual, this ease of progression was feasible. For the normal desktop user, however, this isn't probable or practical. Many of the powerful tools are command-line driven, which presents difficulty for users. Which brings me back to the point. Open source has to find ways to present users with tools that are very simple and easy to use, in a standardized manner. The Linux desktop has grown in magnitude in this regard, but for the normal "mom and pop" user, there are still too many options available. Linspire's upcoming release of its Freespire operating system promises to resolve ease-of-use issues. Many open-source advocates, such as Peter van der Linden, are encouraged by the upcoming distribution.

Again, why do you switch from proprietary to open-source solutions? In my opinion, interoperability is key. A lot of folks love Java because of its run-anywhere attitude, and open-source has already moved in this direction. Many major open-source packages run on proprietary and open-source OSes. Also, many common open-source applications are Web-based and easily adaptable to any environment. If you build applications that allow users to easily move old data to new applications, then more people will be willing to make a move. OpenOffice, for example, is taking the word processing community by storm.

A big win for open-source advocates came recently with the adoption of the Open Document Format (ODF) by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). This beat Microsoft to the draw with its OpenXML requests. Almost immediately, Massachusetts asked for a plug-in to allow Word to read and write from ODF. The good-versus-evil battle ensues with this latest news, because many people disagree with having compatibility between Microsoft and OpenOffice. The plug-in is in the testing phase, but if it's successful, I see it as a plus and a win for the community. It would be wonderful to send documents to recipients and know they will be able to view them without any effort. Everyone can benefit from this major move toward interoperability.

Open Source Isn't Going Anywhere

Ultimately, whether you are for or against it, open source is here to stay. It's far from being mainstream, but inch by inch, open-source solutions are gaining ground as more and more vendors choose to embed open-source technologies. Whether it be home users using open-source tools for Web browsing or corporations finding benefits in cost-saving solutions, open source cannot be ignored, and it will show continued growth. Open source has a long road ahead of it, but whether you use it for fun or business, it has an obvious place in the IT world today.

Providing alternative and multiple ways to accomplish tasks, at a low cost, is exactly what the term "open source" stands for. The world is leaning more toward its use and is more compelled to consider using it because of the sense of freedom it delivers. It's becoming a powerful term in the enterprise environment, and as more standardization forms, I believe you'll find open source starting to win over the hearts of the everyday users as well.

As far as I'm concerned, since switching from the dark side of proprietary to open source only, I've been a happier user. My hat goes off to all the hard work many put in, often without any compensation, to offer us freedom of choice with software. To those, I say, "Thank you."

Max Hetrick is a PC Support Analyst/Specialist who holds a certification as a MCSA. He also has experience with installation and maintenance of Linux operating systems from the PC to server levels. Max can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..