Free and open source software (FOSS) came about as a counter to proprietary code and hoarded information in academia. By design, FOSS frees users to accomplish more by sharing the burden of common programming tasks and eliminating the associated costs. But ultimately, FOSS is about freedom in many forms.
“FOSS advocacy means advocating for all users to have freedom. Freedom to control their computing environment, freedom to not be spied on or having their data collected without their consent,” explained Deb Nicholson, director of Community Operations at Software Freedom Conservancy, a not-for-profit charity that helps promote, improve, develop, and defend Free, Libre, and Open Source Software (FLOSS) projects.
“It is important because [otherwise] we can't call it freedom when we force people to choose between access to information, services, entertainment, health care and their autonomy, privacy and security,” Nicholson added.
“FOSS advocacy means advocating for all users to have freedom.” — Deb Nicholson, director of Community Operations at Software Freedom Conservancy
FOSS began with Richard Stallman’s GNU Project and the Free Software Foundation at MIT in 1978. Today, FOSS powers projects, careers, businesses, and innovations around the world.
“I’d stand on the top of a mountain screaming to anyone that can hear me that leveraging FOSS is essential to running a lean, profitable business. There are examples of entire industries built around FOSS that only exist because a developer needed to scratch an itch,” says Joe Cotellese, co-founder of AppJawn, the makers of ClipDish target, a recipe organizer app.
Despite FOSS’s resounding and sustained success across time, industries, and projects, it would not have come into existence, nor will it remain the powerhouse it is today, without continuous promotion and support.
“FOSS advocacy means supporting FOSS projects and encouraging people and companies to contribute their code under FOSS licenses. At a line-by-line level, that is how FOSS grows,” said Caleb Chen, content marketing manager at Private Internet Access, a consumer VPN company.
“Additionally, FOSS advocacy means supporting the infrastructure around the FOSS community – the best example I can think of that PIA participates in is support of the Software Freedom Conservancy, which in turn provides crucial support for FOSS projects and helps them navigate the legal framework of the world,” Chen added.
However, FOSS advocacy is also about getting the word out to everyone who needs it.
“FOSS advocacy is important because there are still a large number of people who have no idea of what free and open source software is and how it can level the playing field for everyone whether young or old,” said Don Watkins, FOSS advocate and technology journalist.
FOSS fans are also quick to point out its broader reach. “Free and open source software is an incredible enabler and connector. Without open source, the internet as we know it wouldn’t exist,” said Peter Thaleikis, a software engineer and open source fan working from Germany and New Zealand.
“No online business would even be thinkable, without open source being at least the underlying technology: Routers run open source firmware, servers run on Linux, the websites they serve are built using open source software. Open source and open standards are what made the internet possible,” Thaleikis added.
Beyond providing the means to build the internet, open source software proved crucial to building and maintaining websites. Open source thus became a bedrock for e-commerce and the initiator of even more open source software businesses to support it.
“For us, building free and open source software is very important. We believe that open source leads to better outcomes,” said Daniel Corbett, product director at HAProxy Technologies, a software load balancer provider and contributor to open source projects, including OpenSSL and the Linux kernel.
A central tenet of open source, Corbett explained, is “being able to view the underlying code, and since the HAProxy source code is available on GitHub, that means that anyone can study the project, see its commits, submit bug reports, and track the progress. This provides full transparency and allows the code to easily be audited for security issues. Another great benefit is the growth of a community around the project.”
Another major benefit is that open source software tends to be more secure than its proprietary counterparts, in part because there are many more eyes on the code to find and fix flaws and to build security within.
Interestingly, FOSS can and often does spawn organizations that comprise businesses and projects at the same time.
“Whole companies are built on top of open source software: open source doesn’t exclude building a business and making it sustainable,” said Thaleikis.
“TailwindCSS and Laravel are just two examples of open source projects which are companies at the same time and enable the creators of these open source projects to concentrate wholeheartedly on building something great which is still free for anyone to use. There are also companies which run a SaaS business and share the product as open source. InvoiceNinja is an interesting example,” Thaleikis added.
Commercial businesses that are not open source born have also embraced FOSS for myriad reasons. But they have done so en masse, indicating a sustained migration rather than a momentary trend.
“We’ve seen a big shift towards open source recently. This is due in part to ever-changing customer needs and the push to innovate quickly,” said Heikki Nousiainen, open source expert and CTO at Aiven.
“Today, we can identify open source as a strong component for processes like business growth and building new applications. The collaborative nature and benefits that root from existing open source projects are one reason its credibility will continue to balloon and cause more organizations to adopt it in the future,” Nousiainen added.
Examples are numerous and varied. “The cost of bringing our product to market would have tripled if we had to rely on only closed-source products. Not because FOSS is ‘free’ but because critical pieces of our stack just don’t have a commercial equivalent," Cotellese said.
“I’m a strong believer that open source collaboration maximizes innovation.” — Chris Aniszczyk, VP of developer relations at The Linux Foundation and CTO/COO of CNCF
Collaboration is key to realizing maximum benefits for businesses. Indeed, it is the very spirit of open source and the foundation for its success.
“As an open source advocate, I'm a strong believer that open source collaboration maximizes innovation. That’s why I co-founded the TODO Group that brings together companies to share best practices in starting open source programs. And, to ensure that companies help sustain open source while innovating in their business,” said Chris Aniszczyk, vice president of developer relations at The Linux Foundation and CTO/COO of the Cloud Native Computing Foundation.
“The more we all do to ensure that we not only consume open source but find ways to give back to projects we depend on helps us all in the long run,” Aniszczyk added.
While FOSS is software, it is built by people who in turn benefit from making it as much as those who use it.
“It allows you to learn from others by reading their code, it allows people to present their skills and share their work at the same time. You can find ‘virtual mentors,’ by contributing to their open source projects. Companies can find the best suitable developer, by checking his or her open source work,” Thaleikis explained.
Many a career is centered on or spurred forward by open source involvement.
“FOSS is why I have a career and is something that I am extremely passionate about. Behind the scenes FOSS software powers most major software projects around the world. It's the building blocks of most projects and a jumping-off point to building better software,” said Gene Chorba, senior developer relations at Riot Games.
Superstars are quick to rise on merit and effort. And more than a few have created businesses and projects from scratch.
“I’m a huge fan of open source as contributing to open source projects led to my first major job out of university, and I am forever grateful for that. Those early open source contributions to a Linux distro led to a career where I’ve been blessed to work on open source technology, from a maintainer to recently building an open source foundation around cloud native computing,” said Aniszczyk.
Opportunities abound as open source skills are the most desired on the hiring market. Even during this pandemic when unemployment is skyrocketing, FOSS offers career opportunities for those trying to advance and those just starting out.
“FOSS software is the arena where we see the future. Either in the types of software developed or in the people who are working on it. The people studying, working on and learning through FOSS development are the future of the software industry. It's also a huge shortcut that not enough people take advantage of to level up your career,” said Chorba.
Another big plus to FOSS is its inclusiveness for developers and users alike. And that is all the more reason to advocate its use to all populations and demographics.
“I'm routinely asked to provide solutions to senior citizens who live on limited incomes and whose computers are prey to malware and viruses. I like to provide them with the Linux and open source option. Most have never heard of that option and are surprised at how positive the experience can be,” said Watkins.
“For those who opt to remain on Windows or MacOS, many are simply unaware of the host of great software programs like LibreOffice, Audacity, Gimp, Inkscape, and more that can provide them with high-quality tools that can help them accomplish tasks that they thought were only possible with costly proprietary software,” Watkins added.
“In FOSS, the world is your oyster and you can learn at your own pace building whatever you want and helping on whatever projects you want,” Chorba said.
Subscribe now to FOSSlife Weekly and get news and features delivered to your inbox.