A guide to open-source software (and why I love it so much)

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Hi everybody, Seth here.

If you already know a bit about open source, you can skip to part 3 for my useful open source software recommendations. If not, read on!

A cartoon of the author

1.What is open-source software?

2.Why is it important?

3. My top 5 open source projects that might be useful to you.

1. What is open-source software?

Open-source is actually a type of licence.

You know that box that pops up the first time you use a program? You scroll through legal jargon, click agree and move on with your life… That’s the usage licence.

Most of the licences that you will have seen are proprietary licences. They restrict where, how and what you can do with the software.

On the contrary, open source software follows these guidelines:

  1. You can give the program to anyone, and they can pass it on too, without restrictions for FREE.
  2. You give the user access to the code behind the program in the most useful format.
  3. The user can modify and redistribute modified versions of your code.
  4. It must be non-discriminatory.
  5. You can’t change the licence rules based on whether the program is accessed through Android, Apple, Microsoft or any other platform.

If you’re interested, you can find the exact requirements for a licence to be considered open source here.

Warning: you’re heading for a bit of a rant. I’m quite passionate about accessibilty and I don’t care who knows it. But, I also don’t mind if you’re not here for that sort of thing so you can: Skip Seth’s rant about accessibility and aspiration limitations due to modern proprietary licensing ->

I’m the age where I can just about remember it being unusual to have a PC at home. I can remember singing dial up modem sounds, whilst playing under my Dad’s desk, to help coax the internet into connecting. That’s right gen Z – I remember a time when you had to call up the internet and ask it nicely to come over for a while; but not for too long – because someone might need to call you, and not only was the phone stuck to the wall… it also didn’t work when you were online.

And yet, 10 years later, in secondary school, all of our assignments were expected to be completed on the computer and broadband was pretty common. There were maybe 3 kids in our year group that didn’t have the internet at home.

Technology has evolved at incredible speed – and those user licence agreements? They got longer and longer, and more and more restrictive. I watched it happen in frustration. I remember the fury in our house when Windows removed easy access to the DOS interface that underpinned its OS. They pretended for much of the 90’s that DOS was no more – that it was all now running as Windows, even though it was a bootstrap system. “How are you supposed to fix it when it goes wrong” my Dad would mutter in frustration.

But that’s just it – You’re not supposed to.

The limitations on usage have been locked down tighter and tighter as time goes on. In my lifetime, we have moved from buying the code for a program, in a box, and having to sit and type it into the computer to install it; to programs and apps with code totally locked down and restrictions on exactly how you use the thing that you’ve paid for (either with extortionate subscription fees or personal information which is then leveraged against us for advertising purposes). Either way, they want to make as much money as possible off of your custom, whilst keeping you as powerless as possible. You can read an interesting open letter from Bill to the ‘hobbyist’ community (as people with computers at home used to be called) denouncing them as thieves for sharing copies of his software and explaining that their piracy meant that he was essentially paid $2/hour for its development. He raises a fair point; but don’t feel too bad for him, he’s more than made up for it since.

I feel very strongly that there is a balance to be maintained; in my mind the relentless pursuit of ever increasing profit is discriminatory, but people should be paid fairly for the work that they do.

The biggest companies, however, don’t seem to care if their products are affordable and accessible to everyone, because they don’t care about you if you have no money to spend.

Food for thought:

Microsoft’s net income 2020: $44.281 BILLION

Apples’ net income 2020 $57.41 BILLION

That’s profit, after expenses and taxes have been paid.

To put that in perspective, apple’s profit in 2020 would pay my salary for over 4 million years. Or if they shared it equally between all of their employees they would get over $270,000 each for microsoft and over $390,000 each for apple employees. If I was a microsoft employee, that much money would pay off my mortgage and still pay my wages for over 8 years. And that’s just one year’s profits! As my Nan would say, “that’s funny money, that is!” Who NEEDS that much money?

In contrast, Blender, an open-source project, receives about $2 million a year in funding, which pays all of its costs and the developer’s salaries. So Apple’s net profit last year could pay to run blender for 28,700 years. Honestly, these numbers are so big it’s almost impossible to make sense of them.

*Breathes* … Okay, I’m done. Let’s talk about why open-source is important.

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