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An Introduction to Free and Open Source Software

Lori Halley 13 August 2008 5 comments

As more cash-strapped non-profits, businesses, and individuals turn to free or open-source software to stretch their budgets, the open-source movement is booming. There may be no better time to talk frankly about the realities of using free or open-source software in your organization.

For just about any type of “brand name” software you can name, there are FOSS alternatives available or in development. Some of the open-source software is remarkably sophisticated, too; as feature-rich as their commercial counterparts, and often with long-wished-for features that the proprietary software may not offer.

First, a little background:

The tech communities that are associated with free software and open source are pretty picky about the terminology that’s used to describe each of them.

“Free software” is a matter of liberty, not price… [It] is a matter of the users’ freedom to run, copy, distribute, study, change and improve the software…

You may have paid money to get copies of free software, or you may have obtained copies at no charge. But regardless of how you got your copies, you always have the freedom to copy and change the software, even to sell copies.

“Free software” does not mean “non-commercial.” A free program must be available for commercial use, commercial development, and commercial distribution.

Open source is almost as difficult to get a handle on. Open-source software must be distributed under one of a variety of approved licenses, according to certain criteria that includes no-fee access to the source code for the program. Part of the open-source concept, too, is that open-source software is actively supported by a community of users; in practice, however, as we’ll see, that doesn’t always work out so well…

To add another twist, most (but not all) open-source software is free (in both meanings of the word) — and most (but not all) free software is open source!

In practical terms, to those of us outside those development communities, the two categories of software are close enough that we tend to use the terms interchangeably — and that’s probably not going to change. So the term “free or open source software” (FOSS), while a bit unwieldy, is a convenient shorthand to describe the immense body of low- or no-cost software that’s being developed outside the major commercial software companies.

In tough fiscal times, cutting your up-front software costs can be an irresistable idea, and that’s undoubtedly one factor helping to boost the current open-source boom. But it’s not just about the price tag: Flexibility and the ability to customize FOSS as needed, the freedom from being tied to one particular vendor, and support for the ideals of the open-source movement are among other key attractions.

No wonder that “FOSS is actively used in the nonprofit sector,” as a recent survey by the Nonprofit Open Source Initiative (NOSI) confirms. While the use of FOSS operating systems is still uncommon, many nonprofits use free and open source applications “everyday, or at least quite frequently.”

Over the next few weeks, let’s take a closer look at free and open-source software: the real costs, the barriers, and the trade-offs; some of the best FOSS alternatives to “brand name” software; and online resources to help you make the most of it.  And I hope you’ll bring your own ideas and experiences to the discussion — because nothing can test the true value of software like hands-on daily use, out there in the nonprofit trenches!

Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot] Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot]

Posted by Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot]

Published Wednesday, 13 August 2008 at 3:07 PM


  • Wild Apricot Blog said:

    Friday, 15 August 2008 at 6:17 AM

    This is the second part in our series taking a closer look at free and open-source software : the real

  • Mitchell Allen said:

    Tuesday, 19 August 2008 at 9:10 AM

    FOSS consultants are logical next step as overwhelmed and results-oriented organizations embrace the ideas expressed above: cost, customization, choice and culture.

    The complexities of software, regardless of the point of acquisition, require a dedicated and knowledgeable advisor to empower the organizations' technology department. Without that support, the organization may become saddled with time-wasting, under-performing software.

    That can be more wasteful than dollars spent on traditional branded software.

    I did a cursory search on FOSS consulting and turned up: International Open Source Network (http://www.iosn.net/fossatwork). Unfortunately, it seems targeted to The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).



  • Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot] Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot]

    Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot] said:

    Tuesday, 19 August 2008 at 10:05 AM

    "That can be more wasteful than dollars spent on traditional branded software." Good point, Mitch, and that's the sort of thing that's meant by the "real cost" of free software, of course. I hadn't carried on that line of thought to consider we might be seeing a boom in FOSS consultants, though: now that you bring it up, it seems likely indeed! One more budget item for the cash-strapped nonprofit? And/or will we see a parallel rise in demand for tech-savvy volunteers who can commit to long-term support?

  • Wild Apricot Blog said:

    Wednesday, 20 August 2008 at 9:47 AM

    This is the third part of our series on free and open-source software and the resources to help your

  • Mitchell Allen said:

    Friday, 22 August 2008 at 10:22 AM

    You might see a chance for technically savvy providers, such as Wild Apricot, to differentiate by adding FOSS consulting to their list of services.

    In fact, some software is appropriate for inclusion to an existing package, rendering the point moot.

    The danger in that, of course, is that the provider dilutes its "flagship" product.

    While there are always opportunists waiting to fill a business void, I suspect that the non-profit fruit sits too high up on the tree for casual pickers.

    That's a good thing, as the field will be developed by DEDICATED tech-savvy volunteers who can parlay community service into paying gigs in the for-profit sector.



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