As computers become more and more attached and rooted into our daily life, we started to know that the world of computer is indeed deeper than what we might think. Lately the term open source software became popular in recent years, since the dawn of the Ubuntu in late 2004. For those who don’t know, Ubuntu is a free and open source operating system.

Care to elaborate what an operating system is?

Well, to put it in a simple way, an operating system is an intermediary who talks to the physical hardware (hard drives, processors, DVD drives) to perform their tasks. The reason why your files are not going to move by itself, why you can use your computer is because of the operating system. You probably use the most widely used operating system for home user, Windows.

Since I mentioned Ubuntu earlier, I would explain about it. Ubuntu is, again, a free and open source operating system, which falls into the category of a Linux distribution. There are thousands of Linux distributions (or usually called distros), and yet we only knew about Windows (which is by any means not a Linux distro). However, you might be surprised that more than 90% of the world’s most reliable servers are Linux-based. But I’m not going to talk about the reason why Windows is more popular today. I am going to talk about the foundation of the Linux and why it is more reliable: open source.

So then, what exactly is open source?

Again, putting it in a simple way, when you make a software, or a program, you do need to code the logic and stuffs, such as what to do when this button is pressed, what to put in that position, and some other things. Usually these code are not visible and distributed to the end user (that is to say, us), since we probably have no interest in it, and most of the time we wouldn’t be bothered to look at it anyway. This is called a closed source or proprietary software.

However since the ICT industry keeps growing and growing day by day, the lack of viewing the code became somewhat annoying, since sometimes you know that this bit of the program is not right, but you cannot do anything about it. For example, you want to use the old taskbar in Windows 7, but you couldn’t. For end users, they might just ignore it, but for programmers, this is annoying since it is doable programmatically.

This is one of the many reason the open source paradigm is founded. Open source enables the developer to take a look on another software’s code and modify them as needed. It even enables them to rebrand and rerelease the same software as long as it remained open source software. Most of the time though, they only rebranded it if it is heavily modified.

But what good does it give for me?

Most of the time, open source software are available free of charge. Yes, you read that right, FREE of charge. And before you ask it, yes, Ubuntu and most of any other Linux distros are FREE of charge (but the server-based versions are usually not free). The reason why it is free of charge is tied closely to the principles that, if anyone can modify it, then one should not be able to put a price on it since by doing so, anyone who previously modified the software have to be paid as well.

And it is for the same reason, that open source software usually have a greater stability than proprietary since if everyone can have a look at the code, someone could point out the anomalies, and someone else can have that anomalies fixed.

There is another closely related principle to the open source software. Since anyone can modify the software, an open source software is usually a free software. However this free is different from the previous paragraph’s free context. This free software is in the context of “free as in free speech, not free beer”, as many would say. It means free software provides the ability and flexibility to use the software at any way you want, according to your liking.

Think of it as this way, if you bought a new notebook, or netbook, you’ll be bundled with several software that you might or might not use at all. Wouldn’t it be nice to have ONLY the software you want to be installed instead of all of that junk? Flexibility is one of the main advantage of using free and open source software.

On the other hand, free and open source software might not fit into the conventional business models, since by having the code being looked at by different people, it’s rather hard to put who owns what and who modifies what. And as you might have already guessed, newly released open source software are usually (although not always) full of anomalies. That is one of the reason why you are advised to try open source software when it is stable enough.

Okay I get it, open source is good, but why I only heard it rarely?

Mainly because we are end users, not developers. Since the dominance of Windows, we are taught to USE programs, rather than UNDERSTANDING what a program could do. The advantages of using open source and free software are imminent when we start shifting our position from a daily or casual user to a power user of a computer.

So, do I have to use it or not?

I myself only start using Linux since couple of months ago, when I started to think that open source is important. I didn’t think it was important back in Indonesia, where piracy is almost everywhere and you can always get what you want for cheap. Licenses and copyrights are not taken into account in Indonesia. Since I moved to Melbourne, I start seeing things differently, in the context of software development.

And it is exactly as what one might say, once you get to taste freedom, you would rather not go back to your caged life. I’ve tasted the freedom that Linux can give me. The softwares, the interface, everything, is user customizable in Linux. Therefore when I went back to Windows, I started being grouchy.

Well my recommendation is if you’re just a daily user of a computer who uses computer mainly for daily use, such as web browsing and such, you have to know that there is a free (as in free of charge) operating system, complete with the office suite available. However if you’re afraid of learning new things, then by all means just stick with Windows, since Windows got its own good stuffs. I use both of them to get the best of both worlds.