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learning.now: at the crossroads of Internet culture & education with host Andy Carvin

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What’s the Fuss About FOSS?
Part 1: An Intro to Free and Open Source Software

If you take a look at some of the comment threads that have taken place on this blog, you’re bound to find some posts by readers talking about “open source” software. For example, Tom Hoffmann recently posted comments on the need for an education-friendly, open source blogging tool. But what exactly is open source, and why should you care about it? This week, I’ll be exploring the issue in two blog posts, with a little assistance from edtech guru David Thornburg, who’s just published a book on the subject. Today’s post will focus on the basics of free and open source software (FOSS).

Before we go any further, it’s necessary to start with some definitions. There’s a lot of confusion out there when it comes to open source, because the term is often applied rather liberally to various types of software.

Perhaps the best way to do this is to begin by explaining what isn’t open source. Take a look at your computer’s desktop for a moment and see what software you’ve got laying around. Chances are you’ll see titles like Microsoft Word, Apple iMovie or Adobe Acrobat. What do these titles have in common? They’re all proprietary, commercial software. In other words, they’re tools that have been published by companies that wrote the software and control how it can and can’t be used. If you happened to be a programmer and wanted to improve one of these tools, you couldn’t, unless you worked for the company that published it. In other words, the software comes to you as-is, and if you want to change them, you just have to hope that the company makes those changes for you in the next software release.

Meanwhile, these tools generally have something else in common - you can’t share them without violating the company’s copyright. As any school technology coordinator will tell you, just because you’ve bought a single copy of MS Office or Apple’s Final Cut Pro doesn’t mean you can go around installing that one copy on every computer in your school district. Companies expect customers with lots of computers to buy licenses that cover usage on all of those computers. Otherwise, it’s considered software piracy.

So here we have two issues: with most proprietary software, you can’t edit it to your own needs, and you can’t share it. This is where open source software comes in. By “open source,” they mean that the underlying program, or source code, that allows the software to run on your computer is open for you to access and edit. On the surface, this may not seem relevant to most of us, since not everyone has the programming skills to go inside a computer program and adapt it. But the Internet changes everything, because it allows teams of programmers from all over the world to work together, creating and improving software on their own, often without any financial or corporate backing. Even non-techies are able to offer their input as these programmers build and tweak new software.

Take a look at the website known as SourceForge.net. This is an online community where over a million computer programmers are working on more than 100,000 open source software projects. They’re designing all sorts of software, ranging from operating systems to Web browsers to telephone PBX exchanges. Open source tools, by their nature, are collaborative efforts, building software based on the needs and desires of the people designing them. For example, the Mozilla Foundation has served as a platform for programmers to work together and create an open source Web browser and email client - Firefox and Thunderbird. Each time a new version of these tools gets released, it includes new features and improvements based on input from everyday users.

The open source movement can be very politically charged. For many open source advocates, there’s a strong anti-commercial tone to their work. For others, it’s about the creative opportunity to work with other programmers and design software that fills a particular niche, or provides an alternative to commercial software. Either way, the result is a massive online community of programmers producing countless software titles independent of the commercial software industry.

So open source software is the same as “freeware” or “free software,” right? Not exactly. A lot of people associate open source with software that doesn’t cost anything. In many cases, open source software is indeed freeware, in the sense that you can download it without having to pay for it. But there are plenty of open source tools that aren’t free. Take RedHat Linux, for example. RedHat is a company that sells a version of the open source operating system known as Linux. While it’s easily possible to find free versions of Linux available over the Internet, RedHat is able to sell their version of Linux because they offer customer support and other value-added goodies. Yes, it’s still open source in the sense that the underlying source code is open for all to see and tinker with, but they’re not exactly giving it away either.

And then there’s the idea of “free software.” Sounds like it should mean the same as freeware, right? Wrong. Because the “free” in “free software” doesn’t imply zero cost. Instead, it implies freedom: freedom to share, freedom to do what you’d like with it. The free software movement is the brainchild of Richard Stallman, a programmer and activist who has spent the last quarter century fighting for the public’s right to control their own software destinies. “Free software is a matter of liberty, not price,” writes Stallman. “To understand the concept, you should think of ‘free’ as in ‘free speech’, not as in ‘free beer.’” It’s about your freedom to use software any way you use it, change it, share it. And it doesn’t have to be non-commercial in nature. “You may have paid money to get copies of free software, or you may have obtained copies at no charge,” Stallman continues. “But regardless of how you got your copies, you always have the freedom to copy and change the software, even to sell copies.”

The free software movement has four basic tenets, which in its irrepressible hacker style, are numbered zero through three rather than one through four:

  • Freedom 0: The freedom to run the program for any purpose.
  • Freedom 1: The freedom to study and modify the program.
  • Freedom 2: The freedom to copy the program so you can help your neighbor.
  • Freedom 3: The freedom to improve the program, and release your improvements to the public, so that the whole community benefits.

To the uninitiated, this may sound just like open source. There are definitely similarities, but the differences are strong enough that the open source folks and the free software folks often see themselves as separate movements. But it many ways they’re complementary, which is why I prefer to discuss them as part of a broader movement referred to by many as FOSS - Free and Open Source Software. There are different species of software that fall under this category, but they’re all part of a broader genus of tools that embrace openness, collaboration, limited (or no) cost and a liberal interpretation of how they can be shared.

How is FOSS relevant to education? In my next post, I’m going to tackle this question in an interview with award-winning author and edtech advocate David Thornburg, who’s just published a book called When the Best is Free: An Educator’s Perspective on Open Source Software. To be continued…. -andy

Filed under : Cool Tools


Good job, Andy. I think that covered the territory pretty well.

Good stuff. Just a plug for those who don’t know—there will be a “hands-on” Open Source Lab at NECC 2006 in San Diego where you can play with lots of great Free and Open Source Software programs. It’s in the Sails Pavilion, and we’ll have 45 computers available. There will be a birds-of-a-feather meeting on K12 Open Source Thursday, as well as an informal dinner afterwards for those interested in
continuing the dialogue…

David Thornburg will be speaking in our presentation area at the Open Source Lab, as will several other Open Source / Web 2.0 folks. We are going to have a booth just devoted to Moodle, and one to Blogs and Wikis.

Also worth noting the shared roots of Open Source Software and Web 2.0. 1. Many of the Web 2.0 applications started as, or still run on Open Source Software or as Open Source Software. Blogs and wikis, two of the easiest tools to start using and applying in educational environments, largely run as Open Source. 2. Both foster collaboration. 3. Many of the same individuals are involved in both technologies, and Tim O’Reilly would say that they represent the same trend—the commoditization of software.

Another aspect of this issue is the long-term viability of non-proprietary file formats, and users’ ability to continue to work with their own data - images, video, text - without having to pay for upgrades to do so.

Good overview of Open Source. Although the term has been in front of K-12 for years, many teachers are still quite confused about the meaning of “free” and actually distrust its use.

I teach Open Source in an Emerging Technology course and feel the problem is that teachers do not know anything about Open Source. The other issue is that school tech personel do not care to share this type of information with either teachers or students. Once teachers are exposed, they see the possibilities and recommend their schools look at Open Source as a money saving proposition.

It would be my hope that FOSS, OpenSource and the Freeware community would have better public relations to put these resources in teachers and students hands.

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