It’s generally perceived as cheap as chips and has passionate advocates but is open source software (OSS) something your school should be considering? Here Greg Adams looks at the pros and cons.
Licensed software, the products you buy from the likes of Microsoft and Adobe, has dominated the computer industry for many years. For a number of reasons most schools have gone down this proprietary software route. However, it’s not the only choice. Some schools are opting for what’s called open source software.
It may be something you’re already looking at – or you may be wondering what opening the sauce has got to do with computing. Either way, there’s no question it’s already grabbing many schools’ attention, and its importance will undoubtedly increase in the next few years. So, does open source offer a realistic and viable software alternative for your classrooms? Let’s have a look.
What is open source?
Basically, it’s where the source code of a software program – this is what instructs computers what to do – is made freely available by the makers. What this means is that it can be used, studied, changed, improved, and even distributed, mostly under what’s called the ‘General Public Licence’. If you want a more detailed explanation, check out the Open Source Initiative (www.opensource.org/docs/osd), which also provides information about open source licences.
Open v Free
In this context, be careful when using the term ‘free’ as it can be ambiguous. There are probably three terms to get to grips with: open source, free software, and freeware.
Free and open source software (sometimes referred to as FOSS) are almost the same … but not quite. The Free Software Foundation rather cryptically says: “Nearly all free software is open source, and nearly all open source software is free.” In short, both offer the source code to users, but with varying restrictions. What’s important to remember here is that ‘free’ originally comes from ‘freedom’ as is ‘free to use’. Since free and open source software may be freely redistributed, it’s generally also available at little or no cost. Any commercial gain from the makers (or re-distributors or service providers) is usually based on adding value, such as applications, support, training, customisation, integration, or certification.
The third term to get your head around is ‘freeware’. These are programs that are available free of charge. However, the authors of the code may retain some or all rights to the software.
Ultimately don’t worry too much about definitions. It’s not like you’re going to have to identify the open source product from free software from freeware. It’s not a test. Far more likely is that you’re going to follow in the footsteps of others, using programs that are tried, tested and trusted by your peers.
What are the benefits of open source?
There are number of positives to adopting open source products. Key points to consider are:
- Cost – As we’ve already said, a great deal of open source material is free. This means no software licence fees.
- Security – Coming from the community, open source software is generally less a target for hackers (who seem to generally focus their attentions on Microsoft). It remains remarkably free of viruses and other nasties. Of course, it’s no immune but the risk is definitely lower.
- Development – By design, this software is meant to be developed and improved. If part of the program doesn’t work quite how you’d like, you can change it to meet your needs. OSS also tends to employ open standards and is designed to work with other programs – the same can’t always be said for the commercial interests inherent in proprietary products.
What challenges do you need to be aware of?
If it’s free and not from a big corporation, it can’t be any good … right? The whole concept of open source does need a shift in philosophy towards using this sort of software. In addition, there are some others things you need to think through carefully before taking the plunge into OSS.
- Cost – Don’t think of open source products as free. Okay, so the ‘box price’ may be zero (or not far off) but there are going to be costs involved, not least in terms of time and training. You may also need to pay for additional professional help from a service provider.
- Support – Open source software tends to come from communities of developers rather than from specific corporations. While it’s true that these groups are very willing to share their knowledge and expertise, no one is obligated to do so, not in the same way that a company is when you buy their product. You may find the answer you’re looking for from posting a question – you may not. There are a growing number of companies that provide assistance for OSS but they will charge for the service.
- R&D – Companies like Microsoft and Adobe invest millions of dollars on research and development. Generally, commercial software provides more predictable development life cycles and defined offerings.
- Usage and standards – User loyalty is always hard to break, whether switching from PC to Mac, or proprietary to open source. There’s also always a familiarity and trust in systems and software you have used for years. Another factor to think about is the skills you’re passing on to the students (and, to some extent, staff). On the one hand, it’s good to expose people to new programs, new ways of doing things. On the other, trying new stuff for the sake of it or teaching people to become proficient in an obscure program that no employer will want, may not be preparing people for a world still dominated by Word and Photoshop. This is an argument that can go round in circles – it’s just something to be aware of.
Is OSS for you?
Some OSS is appropriate for schools, some isn’t. What’s noticeable is that the programs that are making inroads into classrooms are those that do a similar job to established proprietary ones. Often, it’s a like for like replacement, such as Open Office instead of MS Office and GIMP instead of Photoshop (which helps to get around the ‘obscure’ program argument, as the skills are largely interchangeable).
An increasing number of schools are successfully adopting open source materials. Some of the arguments are compelling – who doesn’t want to save money. But other factors need serious thought and consideration – who’s going to provide support?
OSS doesn’t have to be all or nothing. OSS and commercial software can happily co-exist these days, although there can be interoperability issues. You could try the odd thing and to see how it goes. Ironically, OSS vendors have been moving towards more commercial-orientated business models, while traditionally commercial vendors have been working on their own OSS projects. And, of course, the emergence of cloud based services – like Live@edu and Google Docs – is impacting both sides, as many of these services are supported and available at no or low-cost.
It’s safe to say that much of the extremism and ideology seen in the past with regards to software platform decisions has been replaced with a more pragmatic view and approach. Whatever your motivations, one thing’s for sure: you won’t know until you try!
Greg Adams is Editor of INTERFACE Magazine.
Thanks to Dave Lane (Egressive), Ross McKenzie (Novell), Wayne Mackintosh (International Centre for Open Education, Otago Polytechnic), Nils Beehre (Microsoft), and Mike O’Connor (Catalyst) for assisting with this article.
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