Recently, Ben, the main programmer for Elgg, has been getting some comments about the lack of documentation for Elgg. He has responded, correctly, that the voluntary developer team has not been able to complete all of the documentation but volunteers are always needed and appreciated. Dave, the concept guy behind Elgg, has set things straight with his post, Understanding Open Source.
I think that these misconceptions about open source being free and fully supported come from the now common phenomenon of free web applications, like Gmail or Skype. Perhaps the average user doesn’t know that there can be a difference between “free” and “open source”. Initially, it may not make much difference to the user, but it can be important later.
Open source software is released under a variety of licenses such as the GPL. Free software that is not OS is owned by someone else and only its use is made available for free, under certain conditions. With open source, the rub is that the community has to stay involved to make the software better. If you’re looking at OS software, check out the size and involvement of the developer and supporter communities first. With free software, you usually have to give something away in order to use it. Quite often it’s your privacy, as you do not own your data, or you may have to put up with advertising on your application. Someone has to pay.
Open source gives you something extra though, and that is the ability to take the whole application, source code and all, and move it or even modify it. For instance, my website uses WordPress, an OS blogging platform. If I am not satisfied with my host, I can take the whole application and set it up somewhere else. I cannot do that with Gmail or Skype. Therefore, I own my data and the application that makes my data available to my readers. With almost 1,000 posts on this blog, this data is becoming quite important to me as my knowledge base. The decision to use an OS system as well as an OS database gives me a certain amount of flexibility, evidenced by my switch from Drupal to WordPress this year. My only costs were labour. I could not have taken my data out of a proprietary system (like Blackboard) as easily.
Using open source requires a commitment. That commitment may be less with the more popular programs (OpenOffice, Firefox) which have corporate or foundation backing. The little guys need your help, but you can also have a lot of influence on smaller projects.
So if you’re using open source applications, get involved; because you get what you pay for.