Saturday, June 2, 2012

Open Source Development Model

Many people do not understand what the term "Free" (in the sense of libre) means to the fullest of its power when it relates to software. Many confuse it with free as in free beer, or "gratis" as Linux creator Linus Torvalds calls it. This is an in-depth comparison between the two terms and how it relates to software.

Common misconceptions
Whenever I bring up the subject of open-source software with somebody who does not write code, they always use the same argument. "So, what? You don't think that people should be rewarded for what they do?" In fact, this is why many people associate open-source supporters with the communist party. However, this is not the case. Projects where a lot of the code is open-source (such as OS X or Android) still generate tons of cash. Advertising also draws a huge monetary gain for open-source developers.  In all revisions of the GNU GPL selling free software is strongly encouraged, showing that it can and is done.

Simply releasing the code does not make a program free (in the definition of the Free Software Foundation). To be free it must be licensed under a license that stops it from becoming proprietary in the future. In my "travels" I met a man that was a fan of the BSD license, boasting that it was even more free than the GNU GPL. However, the project he was referencing was not original. Had it been a few years later that he decided to maintain the project, it may have already become depracted by a proprietary variant.

Unlimited Potential
The difference in the development models of proprietary and open source development is described in "The Cathedral and the Bazaar". They differ in one key area: who writes the code.

In a closed-source development model, a developer or team of developers work on one copy of a product and release it to the public. Only they can monitor the code and they are wholly responsible for fixing bugs and making the code more efficient. This costs man hours, and it is why a lot of payed programs are proprietary.

On the other hand, Open Source development happens in a much more community-esque fashion. An author or team of authors conceives a product and begin development, and either immediately or at a point where the barebones functionality has been met they release it to the public under a free license. Up to this point the style this happens is much like a closed-source model, but the magic of open source occurs at the next step. Any hobbyist or paid programmer (some companies actually pay developers to write free code) in the world (if it is hosted on the internet) can write bug fixes and new features for the program. They can also host their own variant of the program if they feel their addition changes the functionality or aesthetics too much.

The Downside
The weakness of the Open Source model is the same as its strength: anyone can see the source. Crackers, malaware authors, or anyone wishing to break a system can analyze the code, find the weaknesses, and write exploits for them. However, whenever a gap is released it is usually spotted and squashed within weeks.

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