Why I Use and Promote Open Source software

Lately, I have become quite a fan and advocate of open source software. There are several reasons for why I have come to respect and embrace the open source philosophy in the past few years.
First, let’s talk about what open source means. I won’t go into detail regarding all of the intricacies of what it means for a piece of software to be considered open source. If you want a simple, easy-to-understand picture of what open source software is all about, visit this page from Opensource.com.
For a more technically detailed definition, visit the Open Source Initiative and read their explanation.
If you visit these links, you’ll see that there are several conditions which need to be met and agreed to for a piece of software to be truly open source. What interests me as a user is the fact that the source code is made available to anyone who wants it. What does this mean in plain English, you might ask, and why would I care?
Think of pieces of software that you use every day, such as the Windows operating system, Microsoft Office or Internet Explorer. I’m not mentioning these pieces of software to pick on them or to attempt to criticize what they do or the company which produces them. I’m just using them as examples of programs many of you use all of the time. All of these programs are written by using a specific programming language. That language is written in English but you need to use specific sets of phrases with the right syntax, specific punctuation marks being inserted in the right place, etc. We call this the code or source code which is used to write all of the various functions of the program such as the menus, where they should be displayed, what they should offer to the user, where the icons should be placed, etc. As an example, your Web browser has a feature which allows you to view the source or source code of a web page you are visiting. If you’ve ever examined that code, you could read it but it contains a lot of extra text that you don’t actually see on the Web page itself which may appear to be gibberish, with a lot of odd commands with less than and greater than signs. This is the source code for the HTML programming language, which is used to compose Web pages that you visit with your web browser.
Computer programs, such as Windows, Microsoft Word and Internet Explorer also use source code to make the programs do what they’re supposed to do. However, with the examples I’ve mentioned, the source code which is used to make the programs is not available to the user, just as McDonald’s doesn’t publish the recipe for the special sauce that they pile on to your Big Mac. They’re willing to sell you all of the special sauce that you might want but they’ll never divulge the recipe, no matter how much you’re willing to pay. In the same way, many software companies don’t and won’t divulge the source code for their software. On one level, you can’t really blame them. What do you think would happen if Freedom scientific released the source code for JFW? Someone who is knowledgeable in how to write and modify computer programs would download that code and could then compile it and make their very own free version of JAWS for Windows. they could be free to pass it along to anybody who might want it. Not only that, a programmer could modify the way the program behaved, such as removing the product activation requirements, adding new features and altering existing ones. Of course, this wouldn’t happen as it would mean that nobody would actually purchase Microsoft word or JAWS for Windows, ensuring that the companies responsible for the software would lose a ton of money.
Open source software has a very different philosophy concerning how software is distributed to the user. Not only are many open source programs free of charge, the source code which is used to produce these programs is also freely available, for anyone to download, examine and even modify.
There are many examples of this type of distribution model. One example is Mozilla Firefox. Not only does Mozilla make the product freely available but the source code is also freely available for those who want it. First, this opens up the program to people from around the world who are easily able to translate the product into their native language. It also means that people can modify the product and create their own custom version of that product, such as Seamonkey, which features many of the latest changes found in Firefox as well as offering an email client, chat client and an HTML editor.
One of the open source products which I use as well as teach is the NVDA screen reader from NV Access. This is a completely free as well as open source screen reader, which works on nearly all versions of windows, including Windows 8.1. It’s been translated into over 40 languages and all of the languages are supplied with the product in a tiny download which isn’t quite 16 MB. As with many other open source products, NV Access allows users to examine their bug tracking database to see which bugs have been reported, which ones are being worked on and which ones have been fixed. Very often, open source is more than just making the source code available. It also means there is total transparency during the entire process of programming the software, which I find extremely attractive.
Another example of open source software is OpenOffice, a free alternative to Microsoft Office. A few years ago, LibreOffice came along, which started out with the code for OpenOffice but released many additional updates and new features. OpenOffice is also working on many bug fixes and feature enhancements, providing users with two choices for an Office-type suite. As an aside, both programs are working on implementing accessibility via Iaccessible2, which should, in theory, work with screen readers. This isn’t quite ready for prime-time for most screen readers, but NVDA works reasonably well with the 4.1 beta of OpenOffice.
If you’re looking for a good source (no pun intended) for open source software, sourceforge hosts tons of open source packages.
Some might ask how these programmers actually make any money while they sweat and slave over a hot computer making this stuff. Some companies seek and acquire donations from corporate sponsors. Some are able to charge for support packages. The links I’ve provided in this post will give you a lot more detail about the open source movement and how it differs from other types of software and how users benefit from those differences.
By the way, I do actually use Windows and Internet explorer. I also teach JAWS, Window-eyes and Zoomtext which are not open source programs. When it comes to software, choice is always good for the consumer and the standard, well-known packages are fine if you can afford them and if they give you the features that you need. I’m just hoping that this post just might inspire you to delve deeper into the philosophy of open source software to give it a test spin on your computer. You might like what you find.


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