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EOS Editorial — When Open Is Really 'Open'

Of late there has been a lot of buzz around what constitutes open source software

Of late there has been a lot of buzz around what constitutes open source software. Industry leaders and pundits alike have weighed in on the "openness" of certain software and companies' business models. The generally recognized test for open source software is the Open Source Definition drafted by Bruce Perens and endorsed by the Open Source Initiative, the non-profit organization that shepherds open source licenses and gives an industry-recognized stamp of approval for these licenses.

The Open Source Definition includes 10 criteria that define what constitutes an open source piece of software. Recently, a number of companies have launched products that meet a limited number of the criteria, while still waving the open source banner. The issue is being brought to light as more users are adopting open source software, and more software vendors are adopting open source business models. This has many established community members up in arms as they see these companies as having a lesser commitment to the ideals of open source software and providing a disservice to the open source movement. The question is: "What can be done about it, if anything?"

The Open Source Initiative's power stems mostly from public favor; they don't own open source as a trademark. Their Website notes the rising ambiguity and offers the following advice:

While there is agreement on the broad term "open source" as meaning approximately what is captured in the Open Source Definition the term has, ironically, now become so popular that it has lost some of its precision. We strongly encourage everyone who cares about open software to use the term only to describe licenses that conform to the OSD, or software distributed under such licenses; but since the term has passed into more general use, we also encourage people to refer to the "OSI Certified" mark, which has precision and legal force in identifying software distributed under licenses that are known to meet the OSD requirements.

Those intimate with open source generally know what the spirit and intent of open source is, and acknowledge the Open Source Initiative as the "governing body" for blessing open source licenses. The real fear should be that end users are going to accept these pseudo open source products as having the same benefits as real open source software. Consequently, if, or perhaps when, they have a bad result they will consider this to be the state of open source software in general.

You may be asking yourself, as an end user of software, should you care? For many of us the point of contention is the ability of the software to meet your needs at a cost that's acceptable. Cost is more than just dollars and cents. It may be the cost of the manpower to deploy and maintain the software. It could be the cost for vendor support contracts. It might be the cost to integrate a piece of software with another system. The cost of a piece of software relative to the benefit it provides is value. In many cases, the cost is so low it provides a much greater value than proprietary software. One hidden cost may be the lack of freedom you concede by not using software that is licensed under an OSI-approved license.

Most people probably lack any real religion when it comes to the open source movement. However, no matter whether you are using open or proprietary software, you should be aware of what you are getting up front. Be wary of bait and switch tactics where you think you're getting a truly open source piece of software, when in fact you're getting a crippled or incomplete piece software. Some software looks to be open source but really is a gateway product to a commercially enhanced premium version. In my opinion, there's nothing wrong with commercial enhancements as long as there is value in the open source product sans any add-ons, and the line between commercial and community products are clearly drawn.

Why should you care about the spirit and intent of open source? I believe that for someone to really benefit from open source, they should be a participant in the open source community. If you aren't a good community member, it's unlikely that you will reap the benefits of the community, including word of mouth, collaboration, and other forms of user support. This is where I think the power lies to enforce or at least influence good open source citizenship. Public opinion and consumer pressure are effective methods for causing companies to behave in certain ways. I would urge users to consider this as they make their decisions.

How do you tell if a piece of software is really open source? First, check to see if the software is released under an OSI-approved license. Second, make sure that software that is open source offers some inherent value without third-party proprietary enhancements. Also look for vibrant forums and mailing lists with frequent posts and meaningful content. Usually the existing user base can clue you in to what you are in for. Finally make sure you are getting what you want. If you want open source freedom and value, examine your choices closely.

Other Resources

This article is licensed under the Open Software License v 2.1:

More Stories By Mark R. Hinkle

Mark Hinkle is the Senior Director, Open Soure Solutions at Citrix. He also is along-time open source expert and advocate. He is a co-founder of both the Open Source Management Consortium and the Desktop Linux Consortium. He has served as Editor-in-Chief for both LinuxWorld Magazine and Enterprise Open Source Magazine. Hinkle is also the author of the book, "Windows to Linux Business Desktop Migration" (Thomson, 2006). His blog on open source, technology, and new media can be found at http://www.socializedsoftware.com.

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