Why “Open Source” software is too ambiguous

MJ Ray

1st October 2003
Abstract

A short paper summarising some of the problems that I have actually encountered with the term “open source” in the real world, written as a pastiche of a document published by OSI when they were trying to persuade people to stop calling it “free software”. I now think that “free software” is a much more accurate description to both lay and expert observers. I hope that you agree and will support your local free software group and the Free Software Foundation.

Contents

1 What Does “Open” Mean, Anyway?
2 What is a “Source,” Anyway?
3 So what does “Open Source” mean, Anyway?
4 And who does it mean it to?

1 What Does “Open” Mean, Anyway?

Some software is called “open” because the source code is available for some people to read in a limited way if they meet some conditions. The special deal offered by Microsoft to some customers for some of its operating system code is a good example.

Some software is called “open” because you can program and extend it as a normal user, adding new features or doing new tasks.

A lot of software is called “open” because it follows published interfaces, even if those are published by the software’s producer and cost a lot of money to obtain.

The standards-compliance of such “open” software ranges from total to non-existant, depending on the whim of the producer. There’s often not a lot that you can do about it, other than beg. Software that is “open” in the programming sense may also include nasty restrictions on how much you can share the extensions - not “open” in the sense of “openness between users,” clearly.

2 What is a “Source,” Anyway?

Some people see a source as a place to obtain a service, as in “sourcing a part” for anyone who deals with stock control.

Some people see a source as a type of publication that can be used as basis for further work, as in “source material” for a presentation.

Only people who know about computer software development know that “source” (or, more properly, “source code”) is what you download and compile to produce the actual libraries and programs that you run on computers.

3 So what does “Open Source” mean, Anyway?

From the above, it could mean almost anything. How about some material that a presentation is built on that follows published standards? Or a supplier whose inner workings are available for you to see? There are surely more than the few real examples mentioned here.

4 And who does it mean it to?

Many different groups and people use different definitions of what is meant by “open source” software. In this country, different national government departments have had conflicting definitions.

As a result, communication is hampered due to misunderstandings over whether what one person calls “open source” is actually what another calls “open source” or not. This is bad enough when the discussion is between people who agree about the basic idea, but it is almost impossible to make yourself understood when trying to persuade someone. Kludges like referring people to a definition are required, which hamper the discussion, especially when that definition is more than the 7 or so concepts that average people can easily remember at the same time.

If the “open source” label were ever to be enshrined in law, it would be all too easy to imagine Microsoft claiming that its operating system is some sort of “open source” because some people have seen its source code in restricted conditions. Would we really want that?