I have had a somewhat hard time explaining: Why use open source?  Generally, the perspective I see is that open source is for people that like obscurity and hate Microsoft because they’re the popular, big one, or that open source people belong to a select group of elites who have no consideration for what the average user has in mind.  Furthermore, why use open source, when closed-proprietary tools meet my needs?

For the sake of definition, open source software is software that is meant to be shared in terms of the code itself.  That way the next user can see what you have done and use it, learn from it, and redistribute it to others, giving the next person the same rights they received.  What this means is that another user doesn’t have to re-invent the wheel.  The big motivation is the sharing of knowledge.

At a Red Hat Summit a few years back, Cory Doctorow explained the difference like this:  Before we had science, we had alchemists.  Each alchemist came up with their own methods and had to discover for themselves that drinking Mercury was a bad idea.  The transition to Science happened when alchemists started sharing their knowledge with each other, and the whole culture itself benefited from this, through peer review, and building off of others’ research.

The environment of open source is therefore vastly different.  Instead of a large company with a lot of resources looking to build something to generate a profit, it is the end users who build the content.  And since this code is enormously peer reviewed, and redistributable, large companies such as Sun, IBM, and Red Hat benefit from this process, and further contribute back.  The other major benefit of this model is that you draw from a very large pool of developers, testers, documenters, and supporters, who in many cases volunteer their time, because they themselves have a stake in the software, whereas a proprietary model must find all these resources for themselves.

The case in point for this is that Fedora has a steady 6-month major release cycle.  The scope of this distribution can be scaled from netbooks and OLPC XOs to super computers.  It can run on 32-bit, 64-bit, and power PC processors out of box.  The Linux Foundation recently researched the cost for a large company to produce a major version of Fedora from scratch, and put that cost at $10.8 billion, when comprehensive costs in building software are considered.

Performance and security are also benefits.  Especially since many in the open source community are aware of vulnerabilities in other systems, and test open source systems.  Open source software does not rely on security by obscurity, but security by transparency.  Rather than hiding coding mistakes, open source subjects the coding to stringent peer review to patch security exploits at the source.

The sharing of knowledge generates communities around the software.  The motivation for doing the work, even for free, is often from a sense of helping out the greater community around the end user.  It is the software equivalent to loving your neighbor as yourself.

From a faith perspective, if one starts with the assumption that all truth is God’s truth, and the only thing we are working with is tools that God has given us, how can anyone lay a stake on truth and claim ownership?  Knowledge and truth are meant to be shared, for the benefit of everyone.

Historically, when knowledge has been withheld, it has greatly hindered societies, such as when an occupying nation has kept the captive nation from education, such as what happened when Poland was taken over, and like what the English had done to the Irish.  In both cases, when education was provided, it was shown that these countries both had great potential for academia, and have contributed much to society today, to the benefit of surrounding nations.

Whether or not to use open source is not a question about the bits that make up a program, it is a clash of philosophies regarding culture and the sharing of knowledge in general.  Knowledge is meant to be shared, for the bettering of yourself, and the world around you.

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