Thursday, April 24, 2008

Open Source = Open To Everyone?

Do you use open source software?

How many average users do you know that have some level of programming skill? Given a few lines of source code, would your mother, your friend - even you know what to do with it? (CS concentrators need not reply.) Stallman writes:

"Complete system sources will be available to everyone. As a result, a user who needs changes in the system will always be free to make them himself, or hire any available programmer or company to make them for him. Users will no longer be at the mercy of one programmer or company which owns the sources and is in sole position to make changes."

Are users even likely to even have the desire to make any changes? Right now, the software giants of the world - Microsoft, Apple, Adobe, etc. - are creating programs that, at least seemingly, appear to provide all of the features & services that a user could ever need. But could this change anytime soon?

It's already apparent that more and more users are starting to get sick of software costs. More and more users resort to "software piracy," with cracks and keygens replacing CDs and receipts. The only way that open source software can gain more mainstream popularity is if:

a. Enough people know how to manipulate software so that support is decentralized. Stallman claims that " can hire any available person to fix your problem;" right now, this is simply not the case. In fact, this brings up a greater need:

b. Enough people gain computer proficiency, and knowledge about the open-source model. Right now, it's simply easier for the average consumer to trudge down to their local Wal-Mart, purchase a piece of software, and use it. It would take more widespread knowledge than now to recognize the flaws of commercial software, which brings me to the final point:

c. Open-Source Software must function at the same level as regular software. A great deal of open-source software seems to be in constant beta & bug testing, or their interfaces are unintuitive to regular users. Step-by-step tutorials, almost expected in today's software, often give wayside to internet forums - not exactly the friendliest place for "newbies."

There is hope. OpenOffice, a free source alternative to Microsoft Office, has been gaining popularity in the media. It's easy to use, maintains the same functionality as Office, and - most importantly to the average user - it's free. Check it out. Maybe in a few years, a user-friendly open-source operating system will gain widespread popularity. (Seriously, how many people can hear the word "Ubuntu" and keep a straight face?)

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