Myths about Open Source

Myths about Open Source
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First Published: Tue, Sep 22 2009. 09 32 PM IST
Updated: Tue, Sep 22 2009. 09 32 PM IST
Agent 001
I recently met an old school friend over a cup of coffee and we spoke about life, movies and music. Then the topic moved on to technology, the best graphic card and I suggested what motherboard he should buy. Giving such advice just never gets me tired. Anyway, the conversation moved to open source and how he really didn’t get the concept of it and he was just against it. This friend of mine was a loyal one operating-system man and didn’t want to move away from his comfort zone. He also had a few doubts about open source in general – but these were just myths and random rumours heard from others that I’m sure many people have come across. So I decided to go through them and be a myth buster of sorts. Maybe he won’t use open source, but at least he won’t be against it, is what I thought.
It’s not that I don’t use open source, I do use many free programs, so you could say I’m not against it.
Ah, that’s where you are mistaken. You see, everything free is not open source and everything open source is not necessarily free. An open source project is first started off with an idea from somebody. Of course nobody will just jump on the bandwagon immediately, as first that person will have to create the application or operating system he is making. From then on, an announcement can be made where in people will form a community around that project and help develop it. There is a licence called the GPL (GNU General Public Licence) under which there is something known as copyleft, which lets the creator have rights over the software, but at the same time it can be used, modified and distributed freely.
So where does money come into play?
Open source has licences that can be beneficial to the creators. Some companies have dual licences, which allows them to charge for their product or services. So their trademark is in place and they can sell their product. If there are individuals who are doing the same for their distributions or software, then it is basically the cost of the media that you will be paying for. (Eg. CDs, DVDs, etc.)
Sounds fair, but what about support for all this? I’ve heard so many complaints from friends that they keep getting stuck while using Linux either at work or at home. Not everybody went to engineering college and studied programming, you know.
You don’t really need to have an engineering degree to use Linux for day-to-day computing. The desktop environment has evolved considerably and is now very usable. Some might even say distributions such as Linux Mint resemble the Microsoft Windows desktop environment. The fact here is that your basic tasks really don’t need any support as they are quite simple, but when you do need support for anything, you just need to look to the internet. Each open source project usually has a community built around it that helps develop that particular application. So whenever you are stuck, you can always go back to them and they are normally quite friendly. The best thing about open source is that there will be multiple communities for the same thing. So there is support, although it is scattered.
Thinking from a corporate point of view, I really don’t think companies would advise their staff to go and look for a solution to a problem themselves. What would the IT department be doing in this case?
If you look at things from that perspective then there is a solution, but cost comes into the picture here. When shifting to an open source infrastructure, the IT staff will have to undergo training for open source. But if you are starting from scratch, then you just need to pick up those who already have knowledge in that field. Also some enterprise level solutions such as Red Hat provide support, according to the subscription you opt for.
But, how can I just trust any version of Linux to download, I mean since the source code is open to all, how do I know someone has not modified it to put in a trojan or something?
Well there have been many arguments about the risks of open source and how by distributing the source code itself, you give the evil-minded people a chance to create havoc. At the same time, a closed source project is prone to a similar case, but in this case the evil-minded person could be, for example, a disgruntled and frustrated employee.
So what about the viruses and worms running around in cyber space? Won’t I get attacked if I’m using Linux?
Actually you won’t. Permissions work differently in Linux, you are not always logged in as the Administrator, or in Linux – Root, so there is a smaller chance to install any malicious software on your PC. On top of that, the viruses being created are more Windows-oriented and even with the current anti-virus applications available for Linux, they all mostly scan for Windows-based viruses which don’t even affect Linux users.
I guess I am seeing the bigger picture about open source here, but seriously, the one major problem I see with open source is gaming. I need some time to play games, and I’m sure many others also want some games in their life, and I’m not talking about something like Minesweeper or Solitaire or even those web sites with flash-based games. How am I supposed to play Counter Strike, for instance, if I am running a Linux distribution?
That is a tough one, but can I offer you Quake 3 Arena instead? You’re right about one thing, that not all games are able to run on Linux systems. But at the same time, there are a few good Linux titles out there. As mentioned earlier, Quake 3 is one of them. There are MMORPGs such as Second Life and Vendetta Online that one could try out too, and don’t forget America’s Army, that works well on Linux too.
Yes, fine, there are alternatives, but what about Counter Strike or even Crysis?
Fine, you got me stumped on that for now. But it won’t be too long before these games will be working on any PC in the world, be it Mac, Windows or Linux. This is all thanks to the upcoming virtual gaming concept such as On Live, where all the hardware is taken care of. Think of it as cloud gaming. I’m sure you’ve already heard of Quake Live, that’s a good example of what I’m talking about. So there, it’s not going to be too long before everybody can game on an equal level, no matter what hardware is present.
There’s still time for that. But you have changed the view I had about open source in general though, maybe I’ll try it out.
Don’t rush into it though, you could always start off with something small, like say Open Office which is the open source equivalent to MS Office. You will see changes, but I’m sure it’s nothing you can’t handle. Maybe from there you could move on to Ubuntu or Linux Mint.
The bad side of open source
We aren’t talking about the drawbacks of open source here, but instead we are talking about how the whole concept of open source can be used for evil. The way open source works is that the source code of an application or project is distributed freely in such a way that others can modify and reuse it. But what happens when this is done by the villains, in this case hackers or script-kiddies? Hackers have not only been spreading viruses and other malicious threats, but in fact have been also spreading the whole recipe of how to create them. It all comes down to programming, and once the code is freely distributed, along with instructions on how to use it, there’s no stopping them. There are even communities based around this sort of open source activities where people discuss building new internet threats together. These communities are still present on various IRC channels, but don’t expect to join such groups in an instant, as they aren’t as easy as joining a community on Facebook.
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First Published: Tue, Sep 22 2009. 09 32 PM IST