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

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2. Why open-source is important (and why I love it so!)

Open-source is freedom to innovate without discrimination.

To understand this we have to examine other software licences with accessibility in mind. I have already touched on a few reasons why I think that modern proprietary licences and software subscriptions are discriminatory. It is a little more complex than I presented it in my rant, but I think the main points can be summed up in 3 simplifications about companies that seek excessive profits:

1. They develop software with the stock holders’ and partners’ best interests in mind, not the end-users i.e. they frequently change user interfaces to match the latest “look” sacrificing usability in order to capitilise on trends, or they stop support for an old cheaper software, because they have released a new, more expensive replacement (even if the old one still functions well.)

2. They tend to have prohibitively expensive products and rely on specialist industries to pay the bill, this excludes access to the everyday user and makes it difficult to get entry to certain industries – increasing the digital divide* and destroying aspirations. For examples see the design industry – some of the industry standard software can cost over £200 a month in subscriptions.

3. They limit access to knowledge in order to maximise profits from it. This means that the company that “owns” the knowledge chooses who gets access to it and therefore who gets to innovate. They are holding back progress. In the open-source community anyone is free to suggest fixes and tidy up code, you don’t have to be brilliant at coding to have a brilliant idea – and there is always someone with the skills to help implement your creative solutions.

Open-source is a product development engine built directly on the common needs of a community, meaning that it is powered by the community’s common interests, not profit.

These projects gain strength as their communities grow and are funded by communities, for communities: meaning that growth is driven by collaboration and not competiton.

The open-source community is a welcoming place – you don’t have to be a coder to dive in. There are forums and meet-ups, you can make friends and meet like-minded individuals. There are also opportunities to write blogs to raise awareness, speak at conferences or manage fund raising. All of these things are great for personal skills development. It looks great on your resume and you might end up knowing a little bit of coding, too.

If you are just getting into coding, it gives you the chance to practise reading other peoples code; access to projects with huge repositories; other people will see any code you contribute and you may well see them refine it. It’s one of the best active learning environments that you can put yourself in. There are also a fair few people who get jobs out of working on open-source projects. Don’t just take my word for it, there are lots of blogs out there from developers who say the same thing, take Kent C Dodds for example: “How getting into Open Source has been awesome for me.”

As for the business case for using open-source, I seriously suggest that you read this blog from Rubygarage – I couldn’t have said it better myself.

Alright, let’s look at some of my favourite open-source projects for everyday use.

*Have you ever heard of the digital divide? It refers to the number of people that don’t have the resources or skills needed to access basic digital services like online forms or banking. If you’re into homework here’s the 2019 government report on it. Did you know that 20% of the adult population do not have the digital skills that they need to be considered digitally literate, in an increasingly digital world that is a concerning statistic. At the lab we are all about closing that gap.

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