Free software is the future, and here’s why

June 30, 2020

Alexey Podbolotov

Open source software is a common thing in the 21st century. An organization called Open Source Initiative was founded back in 1998, although there have been examples of open source development many times before. As the name implies, the main difference between such developments and closed (proprietary) software is that the code of the former is publicly available and any developer can either inspect it or change it at his own discretion. We are all familiar with at least one open source development – Android OS from Google. 

Yes, yes, the system installed on 70-80 percent (according to various estimates) of smartphones in the world is completely open, and anyone can change its source code as he pleases. Proof of this is the huge number of Android forks, on which custom firmware for smartphones is based. Here, however, there is one most important nuance: in fact, the entire Android OS loses a considerable part of its functionality without services from the same Google. Well, the latter, of course, are closed and completely controlled by the software corporation. The epic of recent years, in which Huawei was involved, is further proof of this.

However, despite some caveats, open source software is slowly taking over the world, and there are several very good reasons for this.

Free software adapts to the needs of users, not vice versa

Unlike proprietary software, open source software is generally very flexible. There is a simple reason for this – one of the main “principles of open source” is that “the user should be perceived as a co-developer.” This principle, along with others, was described by Eric Raymond in his 1997 essay “Cathedral and Bazaar”. According to it, the user must be guaranteed access to the source code, and moreover, the active participation of the user in the development is only encouraged. This can manifest itself in different forms: from direct edits to the code or documentation to it, to simple collection of bug reports (error reports).

Well, since the user is partly a developer, it is quite obvious that the final product will be more suitable for his needs than the initially closed software. To make changes to the latter, the consumer needs to contact the development company (which is not always easy to do), convey his vision to it and wait. Wait while she (possibly) makes these changes. Everything seems logical – you bought the finished product in the form in which it is sold, and agreed to use it exactly as provided by the developer. You can take an example from another area: when you buy a car, you are not trying to contact the car factory and force it to use a more powerful engine in this model, and the exhaust system is louder. Exactly in the same way as you will not turn to him to make a yacht on the basis of this machine, for example. Perhaps, if you were a very large wholesale customer, the manufacturer would have met you halfway at some point, but he certainly won’t reshape the entire production process for you. And even more so to admit you into it.

The same situation is in the software. When you buy a proprietary OS, such as Windows for your desktop, you agree that you will use it as the manufacturer intended. That is, install it (or purchase pre-installed) on a regular PC with supported architecture and hardware, you will not “cut out” any critical components from there and you will not try to use it for other purposes. For example, as a server OS or as an OS for a smartphone. You will either not be able to do it at all, or you will face multiple difficulties and limitations.

Here is an example of a smartphone based on desktop Windows – Fujitsu F-07C, presented in 2011. However, Symbian OS was still used for the telephone part.

Open source operating systems are another matter. If we consider Linux as a commonality of all its distributions, then it will be very difficult to find a target or “iron” architecture for which there is no Linux. Here is the OS for the Large Hadron Collider, and automotive software, and all sorts of “smart” things, and the largest backbone servers, and banal home computers. And many of these distributions remain open source as well. This means that each user of such a product can actively participate in its creation, supplementing it according to their needs. The same system for the LHC is a modified version of Scientific Linux, which was jointly developed by scientists from around the world. In turn, this version of Linux is based on the Red Hat distribution, which has also been “doped” for scientific use. Thus, scientists from CERN received a tool that best suits the implementation of specific goals, without creating the entire software architecture from scratch.

But a few years ago, CERN announced that it was switching to a different distribution – CentOS. Scientific Linux will be supported until 2024, but will no longer receive new versions

Open source software is easier to control

The open source code allows for the observance of the so-called “Linus’s Law”, which states: “With a sufficient number of observers, errors float to the surface”… Simply put, if all developers can view the source code, then there is a good chance that a bug will be fixed much sooner. The same principle works for the security of software: if the source code is open, then both accidental and deliberately introduced vulnerabilities and loopholes will be found in it faster. In the case of proprietary solutions, the search for errors can take much more time, and vulnerabilities can even be safely hidden in the source code.

Many remember the 2013 scandal when Edward Snowden released classified information on the US National Security Agency’s PRISM program. According to the published documents, the data of all Internet giants, one way or another, fell into the NSA, and the companies themselves either contributed to this or did not actively resist. Of course, it’s not just that all these companies use and produce closed source software. In addition, there are both political and purely human factors. But just one opportunity for an outside observer to study the mechanisms of movement of personal data could provide much more protection than any encryption. After all, encryption is, in fact, a lock that closes information with a key. And no matter how secure it is from hacking, it will not save you from situations when an attacker has a copy of the key.

Large organizations are moving to open source software

The above principles may not be so important for the average user (at least for now), but they are very important for the so-called “enterprises” – large organizations in which failures and leaks are extremely undesirable, if not completely unacceptable. The same can be said about non-profit organizations – the same research projects, as well as state and municipal institutions. A striking example of this is the administration of the German city of Munich, which has decided, if possible, to transfer the IT infrastructure of the city government to open source solutions. Several other German cities are also planning to switch to open source, but Munich’s example is particularly noteworthy. The fact is that the local municipality was the world pioneer in this matter – the first transition to open source software began back in 2003. It assumed the rejection of both separate proprietary programs such as Adobe, SAP, and Microsoft, and the closed OS of the said company from Redmond. 

They even developed their own distribution called LiMux (Linux + Munchen), and the transition plan called for an increase in the number of PCs running this OS to 80 percent by 2013. But many factors led to the fact that employees kept two systems in parallel on their workstations: conditionally “main” LiMux and conditionally “additional” Windows. This happened due to the fact that some specialized software did not have a version for Linux, and if it did, it often worked unstable on it. In 2017, the administration announced a return to Microsoft products, but this year there was a new turn. The new government proclaimed the slogan “Public money, public code” and adopted an agreement on the transition of the city’s IT infrastructure to open source software. Anything that is not related to confidential data will gradually (as the current contracts expire) move to software with publicly available code – this is how the government wants to ensure maximum transparency of its work.

Even tech giants are aware of the need to participate in the development of open source

It would seem, why should the largest companies in the information world, which make money on their proprietary products, get into open source? After all, this almost directly contradicts logic and common sense.

The notorious Microsoft adhered to this approach for quite a long time. It culminated in the leadership of Steve Ballmer, who declared in 2001: “Linux is a cancer that engulfs any intellectual property it touches.” But since then, everything has changed a lot. Not only does the corporation now own the most important stronghold of the world’s open source – Github, but every year it gradually brings its products closer to the world of open source. For example, in 2015, it opened its .NET framework to developers, and in 2018, the corporation published some parts of the Minecraft game source code used by developers. 

And the game itself has become a kind of informal open source community: together they create the most complex projects here, and recently they have created a computer emulator on which you can play Doom

And in 2019, she took an unusual step at all – she added the Linux kernel to Windows 10 for the operation of a subsystem called Windows Subsystem Linux (WSL). Before that, all versions of the OS from the Redmond company could only emulate Linux, but now it is an absolutely full-fledged subsystem, which is obviously aimed at developers who prefer this environment. For the same purpose, the Windows Terminal was created, with which you can access both the familiar PowerShell / CMD and the Linux kernel. 

All these changes are happening in a huge corporation for a reason. Her new leadership began to realize that the idea of ​​open source is becoming more important for developers every year and that over time open source will crush a significant part of the community. And this is where the good old principle “if you can’t fight – lead” comes into play. It was the groundwork for leadership in the world of open source that prompted Microsoft to buy such a not-so-profitable asset as Github. This situation is also seen in other major companies: many similar projects use the cloud computing power of AWS from Amazon, Apple at the beginning of this year began to massively hire key employees directly from the cloud computing world (including from AWS), and Google is a kind of standard of “open source” among commercial organizations. All the source code is open not only to their Android mobile OS, but also to the Chromium browser engine, and even the desktop Chromium OS. 

More than 2000 Google projects are open source

At the same time, the Californian company makes successful commercial products based on them, using the code with minimal differences. Roughly speaking, if you want to make your own fork (fork) of Android and use the latest sources, then only the absence of Google services will distinguish it from the original OS. Yes, in the modern world, these very services play almost a key role (again, we return to the situation with Huawei). But the fact remains – you can create your own mobile OS, on par with those of the world’s tech giants, absolutely legally and XNUMX% free. If, of course, you have enough knowledge and skills.

Open source does not mean “free” at all

And here we come to the fact that the perception of open source products as free is also slowly receding to the side. Yes, the principles of the open source community are closely tied to the free distribution of code, but they do not exclude its commercialization. RedHat is an example of an approach that combines these two seemingly incompatible things. Fedora is the Linux distribution she develops and is completely open source. However, the company is still a commercial company – it makes money from a service subscription for commercial customers and from technical support. Last year, the company was bought out by another once largest tech giant – IBM, but this did not affect the business model of RedHat. The distribution kit has been and will remain open, and the company plans to earn money now not only on subscriptions, but also on cloud computing. By the way, in 2018 the company earned almost half a billion dollars, which seems to be a very significant indicator for a company whose main product can be downloaded absolutely free.

Another popular Linux distribution, Ubuntu, is also developed by a commercial company. Despite the open source code of Ubuntu, its developer company Canonical earned about $ 2019 million in 11. Not the most huge indicator, but nevertheless it is a stable profit, and there can be no talk of any “non-profit association” here. The business model here is the same as that of RedHat – selling service subscriptions.

Conclusion

What’s especially interesting is that open source can be found not only in software, but also in hardware. For example, not everyone knows that the Arduino platform is open source and anyone can absolutely legally make their own copy of this microcomputer. This, by the way, is being successfully used by Chinese companies. However, the name Arduino itself is a registered trademark, and the manufacturing company makes money not only from the production of the boards themselves, but also from the licensing of the brand. 

Arduino Uno

You can be sure that open source will continue its triumphant march across the planet and even beyond. For example, the world-famous company Elona Musk SpaceX recently announced that it has already launched 32 thousand microsatellites into Earth’s orbit to provide the Starlink network, while their OS is all based on the same Linux. And the control of the Crew Dragon capsule is partly entrusted to a system of touch monitors, the interface of which is based on the source code of the Chromium browser engine. 

Crew Dragon capsule control center

But whether the shift towards full openness of the code will pass painlessly or will we still witness conflicts on this basis, time will tell. I suspect that open source will soon become the standard for all developers, and proprietary solutions will occupy a rather narrow, albeit still very noticeable niche. This process will be accelerated not only by the developer community itself, but also by users, and especially – by the governments of the countries. The trend towards transparency of everything and everyone is growing every year, and software will be no exception. What do you think about this? 

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