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With most software used in your corporation or organization, you deal with one legal entity that develops, distributes and supports the software. And typically you pay for it by securing a license of some type from that legal entity. Not the case with the open source software (OSS) movement. By its very nature, the structure of the OSS community and its intertwined business model looks like a piece of pre-Y2K spaghetti code.

To understand OSS' culture and its possibilities to help your company or organization better manage your information technology (IT) needs, users should look at three aspects of OSS:

  • Is the software really free and open, or just open (or just free)?
  • How are the roles parceled out among specific OSS developers, the organization responsible for developing and distributing a specific code set, and the sponsoring commercial organization if any?
  • What does the software really do?

For starters, the OSS community dances on the head of a pin explaining the differences between open and free. There are two different organizations working somewhat at cross purposes to explain the difference between the two terms. The Free Software Foundation (FSF) has declared itself a social movement and is rapidly moving to a position that all technology-based intellectual property (IP), not just software, should be as free as air. Through a pseudo-subsidiary, FSF offers some important Linux operating system utilities but the FSF is more important for the legal work it has done to support its "free as air" concept for IP. The Open Source Initiative (OSI) does not insist on the socialistic agenda of the FSF or the FSF's singular legal approach. It agrees with most users and most providers of OSS that multiple legal approaches are OK as long as the basic principles of the code being available in source format for revision and redistribution without constraint are honored.

The OSI has 10 principles that go into more detail and the FSF has 20 years of manifestos that do the same but I think the preceding paragraph sums up the difference between open and free best. As for "just free," one thing both the OSI and FSF agree on is screening out freeware masquerading as OSS. Freeware is sample software, try-it-you'll-like-it downloads typically from one commercial company with no associated development community and no ability to see or revise its source. From the user perspective, there is nothing wrong with getting something free but just be careful of marketing ploys that claim freeware to be OSS if the basic OSS principles are what you are interested in.


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