Open Source Software
Author: Aidan Coward
Open-source software is based on the premise that the elements that make up the software you use — the source code — should be open to anyone. This does not only include being able to read the code, but also to change or distribute it without restriction. This form of software is behind many large projects, including Mozilla Firefox, Google Chrome, and the OpenOffice and LibreOffice suites.
The most significant benefit to the student regarding open source software is that it is free, with no conditions or fine print. This means you can share it with anybody or make as many copies as you want without any potential legal repercussions. There are no financial costs associated with obtaining or using this software other than the internet bandwidth required to download it onto your computer. One does not have to agree to any terms of service and potentially “sign away their soul” in order to use a program.
Another benefit to students is that large open source projects almost always have excellent documentation on the program’s behaviour and functionality. They usually also have forums for users to work with each other to solve their problems. These resources are provided free of charge — an obvious perk to those of us who don’t have enough money to pay for school, let alone computer support. Again, this wealth of assistance is not perfect, and one must occasionally puzzle together a solution based on the information from multiple forum posts that are only somewhat related to the problem at hand. There are certainly times when it is most effective and efficient to pay for a product that has on-call support to save yourself time, stress and effort.
The open-source community is known for having a large group of experienced users that are willing to help fellow users in need. However, this very same community is also known for being elitist and belittling to those with less knowledge or experience. One can be talked down to if their question is considered to have an obvious solution or is clearly mentioned in the documentation of the project. Part of open source software is the ideology behind it and individuals that do not buy in to the ideological aspect can be less respected.
One of the benefits of open source software is that the programs often have very fast development cycles because they lack bureaucracy. As a result, software bugs are often fixed faster than with traditional methods of software development. However, this lack of central authority can result in a lack of clear direction for the project if the developers do not agree with each other. Since open-source projects are often hobbies for the individuals running them, some bugs may take much longer to fix if they are not considered interesting or critical to the use of the program.
While bugs are usually identified faster in open-source software, the bugs are publicly identified and visible to the entire world until they get fixed. There is also no obligation, apart from pressure from the community, to report bugs. This can result in malicious users taking advantage of the flaws in the software to steal personal data or damage your computer. The organizational structure of open source software also presents a disadvantage here, as there is no one individual or organization that can be easily held accountable for the damages caused by these flaws. Many open source projects are provided without a warranty of any kind, further distancing themselves from any official legal accountability regarding the effectiveness or reliability of their product.
Open-source software provides flexible and accessible tools to the student at no cost. However, one must judge these benefits against the possible difficulties that users may experience in working past flaws or inconsistencies in the program.