Open Source Software

It is not common knowledge, in light of the market dominance of corporations such as IBM and Microsoft that the core of the Internet is and has always been built on both the concept of openness (as described previously) and open source software. Fully half to three-quarters of Internet activity is transacted over open source software – Linux and Apache in particular are used widely in functions critical to industries from banking to telecommunications.

Despite being known by the acronym FOSS (“free and open source software”), open source software should not be confused with free software; these two terms denote very different philosophies of the role of software in the information economy (despite some areas of overlap). The term free software is used by the Free Software Foundation (FSF) to denote software that is not only available at no charge (gratis, or “free as in beer”), but software that is also available without legal or copyright limitations on its use and distribution (libre, or “free as in speech”). This does not mean that the end user has access to or the right to alter the source code of the software. Open source software specifically refers to software for which the source code is open to editing and modification by anyone, but its libre or gratis availability is dependent upon the licence the source code is distributed under. Most open source software is distributed under a variant of the GNU general public licence however, making it both libre and gratis. The acronym FOSS (or FLOSS ) rightly applies to software that is provided both gratis and libre to the end-user and for which the source code is also available for editing.

Free and open source software has had a significant impact on the developing context in the last decade. The advantage of FOSS is not only freedom from proprietary licensing and update costs, but also greater access to information and local capacity building. With proprietary software the power over the program stays with the vendor – determined largely by the requirement to use proprietary file formats, or purchase suites of software to get specific functionality. Free and open source software, on the other hand, not only provides the code, but also additionally supports further development and changes by an invested user community which can support localization, local language support, etc.

The promise suggested by the positive and continually reinforced educational outcomes from FOSS development is that software innovations can and should come from developing countries (Weber, 2006). Emerging and developing markets need not be dependent on software transferred from the developed world. The open source process of software development offers developing markets a chance to have their own champion users who pull technology development towards applications that fit specifically the indigenous needs and demands of their own markets. In other words, the design principles pioneered in the developed world are not directly transferable to the developing world. Enabling those in the developing world to solve their own problems by developing their own tools and software (or adapting existing open source software) fits the per-poor model of development.

Examples of FOSS success in the developing context range from operating systems to translation software to support non-Western scripts. For example, Edubuntu, an Ubuntu distribution designed specifically for school environments, provides a free operating system developed specifically for classroom use by children. Edubuntu is based on the principles that that software should be available free of charge, that software tools should be usable by people in their local language, and that people should have the freedom to customise and alter their software in whatever way they see fit. Another example, the project, is an African project which aims to translate open source software like Open Office and Mozilla Firefox as well as a number of Linux desktops into 11 official South African languages.

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