Not long back, Microsoft ruled the roost in software industry. It is ironical that the software giant is now stretching itself to the limits to overcome the crisis it is facing largely from the open source software market. The software prices shareit for laptop have plummeted due the leveling factor the proprietary software faces now in the form of free and open source software. It is good to see programmers and software professionals, world over uniting to share their know-how to produce good quality software. During the 1980’s pc’s were introduced which paved way for large scale computerization in all walks of life. There was a time when software prices were astronomical and Microsoft dictated terms. Now with the advent of internet and web based applications, FOSS (Free and Open Source Software) is available for download and customizing from individuals as well as organizations.
Before we examine the nuances of FOSS, it would be appropriate to discuss the various barriers that exist in Proprietary or Closed Source model. Under Closed Source model the source code is not revealed to the public. Examples of this kind of software include the popular Microsoft Office suite which is the most widely used office automation package world over. Microsoft is the chief proponent of this category of software right from the advent of Pc’s. Compared to this, FOSS model allows the user to download the software free of cost and also make modifications to the source code. This has resulted in large scale development of free and open source software and a number of Indians have joined this bandwagon. The advantages cited by proponents for having such a structure are mutual benefits such as sharing of knowledge, superior products and acceptability and not to say the cost savings.
Free software means the user has the freedom to run, copy, distribute, study, change and improve the software. More precisely, it means that the program’s users have the four essential freedoms:
- The freedom to run the program, for any purpose (freedom 0).
- The freedom to study how the program works, and change it to make it do what you wish (freedom 1). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
- The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor (freedom 2).
- The freedom to improve the program, and release your improvements (and modified versions in general) to the public, so that the whole community benefits (freedom 3). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
From the above mentioned four freedoms given to the user regarding the use of free software, it is apparent that the user has a free hand in even deciding the using the software and customizing it. This is in stark contrast to the rules regarding proprietary software. The sense of service and trust is essential for FOSS to survive. Internet has opened doors for this acceptance by masses. With increased download speeds and reduction in usage costs, downloading a software is no longer a daunting task.
It is evident that for the primary business model for closed source software, the manufacturer imposes certain constraints and restrictions about accessing the source code and also on what can be done with the software. It may be noted that it is very easy to copy and redistribute software. FOSS suppliers do this as part of their policy. Taking this as a threat to their profit making motive, proprietary software firms sometimes create an illusion of artificial scarcity of the product. This is like black marketers who create artificial scarcity of food products during a crisis. In this case of proprietary software the end-user is not actually purchasing the software, but is only granted the right to use the software. Hence it can be clearly evidenced that the source code of closed source software is considered a trade secret by the proprietor.
FOSS (Free and Open Source Software)
FOSS does not limit the use of software as done by closed source software. The suppliers of FOSS generate revenue through support services. An example for such a company is Canonical Ltd, which gives its software free of cost but charges for support services. The source code is given along with the pre-compiled binary software for convenience of the user. As a result, the source code can be freely modified. However, there can be some license-based restrictions on re-distributing the software. Generally, software can be modified and re-distributed for free, as long as credit is given to the original manufacturer of the software. FOSS may also be funded through donations. Linux community has effectively harnessed this model to provide a number of successful and popular packages. Software like OpenOffice and MySQL has been immensely in the open market and has forced Microsoft to reduce its prices and provide error-free operating systems and solutions.