Terms of use: What is open-source software?

On this page:

  • Closed and open source software:  Why Apple will sue you if you give away their secrets and Canonical encourages you to give away theirs.
  • The benefits of open source software:  An easy way to zero your tech budget while improving your computers.

On the rest of this site, I’ve gone to great pains to make sure that everything is either something I’ve come up with my own or something that other people have given me explicit permission to use. With my discussion of using technology in education, I’m going to do something different – I’m going to blatantly take content without asking.  Let’s find out why…

Open source

You’re undoubtedly reading this post on a computer somewhere, and it’s probably running either Microsoft Windows or some version of iOS.  Both of these operating systems are owned by very large companies with a strong interest in making money, and there’s no easy way to make changes to them.  Because there are restrictions on how they may be used, and who may use them, these operating systems are referred to as either closed-source or proprietary software.  Apple Computer has taken this model to an extreme, creating a walled garden where they control both the operating system and the computer it runs on.(1)

Right now, I’m not using either of those operating systems.  I’m using Lubuntu 14.04, which is a version of Linux.  I downloaded this operating system from the Internet for free and installed it. I chose this operating system after trying many others – many of them put out by people who blatantly stole the source code from this one.  Just as this one originally stole source code from Ubuntu Linux.  Well, maybe “stole” is a bad word for this, because the folks who make Ubuntu are fine with other people taking their stuff and changing it.  Their operating system is said to be free and open source software, because it’s completely free to use and anybody may modify or use it for their own purposes.

You may think that the “free” in “free software” refers to the fact that you don’t have to pay for it. That is one nice feature, but that’s not why it’s called free software.  The “free” refers to the concept of liberty, as in “information wants to be free.”(2)  For example, Microsoft will be giving their Windows 10 operating system away to anybody with an existing copy of Windows (even a pirated one) – this means it’s “free” in the sense that you don’t have to pay for it.  However, this system will not be considered “free software”, as you’ll find if you try to put your own name on it and give it to others.

Why open-source is the way to go

As visitors to my blog will tell you, I’ve spent a lot of time ranting about how educational computer systems should move to Linux – a free operating system.  For those of you who haven’t read these comments, I’ll outline a few of the main points:

  • Linux doesn’t cost anything.  If you want it, it’s yours.
  • Educational software on Linux is also free.  In most cases, programs that cost hundreds of dollars in either Windows or iOS versions costs absolutely nothing.  That’s a budget all of us can manage.
  • Linux runs well on old and obsolete computers.  I’ve personally seen Linux running well on a stock computer from 1999.  I doubt you’d want to keep a computer around for 15 years, but it drastically increases computer lifetimes and makes it possible to obtain computers at cut-rate prices from people trying to get rid of their old stuff.
  • Linux has excellent security.  In order to hijack a Linux computer, hackers would need to have special permission to get into the system (called “root” privileges).  Without that, viruses won’t run.
  • Linux has excellent resistance to user screwups.  Again, if you don’t want a user to mess with something, don’t give them permission to work with it.

To put it more succinctly, if you have a running computer, you can change it into a modern Linux machine for free.  And I’ll show you how in the coming pages.


  1. Another example of a walled garden is Amazon’s Kindle eReaders.  A common feature of the walled garden model is that consumers are trapped in a closed “ecosystem” where using other products is nearly impossible without great difficulty.  Example:  How many of you using iOS do so because changing would mean you have to turn your life upside down?
  2. This phrase is attributed to Stewart Brand, and was adopted by Richard Stallman who articulated it more fully as meaning “freedom” rather than “without cost.”  Another way of putting this idea is “free as in freedom, not free as in beer.”  The GNU website discusses this pretty well on their page explaining what free software is.  Incidentally, Richard Stallman is the founder of the Free Software Foundation (FSF) and is extremely outspoken in his criticism of any software or product that’s not free under FSF guidelines. Though he is occasionally portrayed as being a nut (probably because he both looks like a nut and has the hubris to refer to himself as a saint – complete with matching halo), most folks agree that he does a good job of making sure that the open source community doesn’t forget the core beliefs on which it was founded.
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