People make decisions between proprietary (closed-source) software and open-source software daily without even realizing it. Do you own an Android phone or an iPhone? Are you browsing the internet with the Safari browser or Firefox? Internet Explorer or Chrome?
Open-source software has a significant place in the world and in our lives, and that is especially true when it comes to all-things-internet-related.
Chrome, Firefox, and the new Microsoft Edge browser are all open-source. As is the Android mobile operating system. At least a third (probably significantly more than that) of all websites are hosted on servers running Linux, an open-source operating system, and more than a third of all websites run on WordPress and many more are on Drupal, Magento, Joomla, and other open-source content management systems.
What is Open-Source Software?
The “open-source” movement officially started in the late 90’s with the goal of promoting computer software for which the source code was freely available for anyone to use, modify, and distribute. The movement grew out of the “free software” movement from the 80’s which was a response to the computer culture of the day, that mostly involved large, expensive mainframe computers, running—also very expensive—closed, proprietary software.
The fundamental rule for any “open-source” software is that if you distribute (or sell) anything built with the software, you must also provide the code which creates the software. So I’m allowed to sell you a copy of WordPress (even though you can just download it for free here), but if you ask me for the source code (which, in the case of WordPress, is exactly the same thing as the final product) I have to provide it to you.
Another common attribute of open-source licenses is that if you distribute a version of the software that you changed, your modifications would have the same license by default. Which means your new code would also need to be available. That way any improvements can be integrated back into the original software.
Imagine if, instead of buying a box of Twinkies, you just asked Hostess for the recipe and they had to give it to you.
You could change the recipe and start selling your new-and-improved Twinkies, but you’d also be required to disclose your new recipe, and Hostess would be allowed to start using yours if they wanted to. Those would be open-source Twinkies.
Why does Open-Source Matter?
At this point, you might be thinking open-source sounds like a ridiculous business model. Since open-source software is generally available for free, how would a company make a profit? And if no one is making money, why would anyone continue improving the product?
It turns out that there are many ways to monetize open-source software, but even projects that aren’t monetized still grow and improve.
Imagine a scenario where Acme Co. develops an accounting program to use internally, but then they decide to make it open-source and let people download the program and its source code for free.
One day, a small business owner—let’s call her “Susan”—comes across the program and realizes she can use it to replace the expensive proprietary software she has been using. So she downloads it and starts using it.
But Susan misses a feature from her old software, so she opens up the source code and adds it, and then submits her new feature back to Acme Co. to incorporate into the program. She’s already saving money by using the free software, so it’s a small price to pay. Plus, next time she downloads the latest version of the software from Acme Co, it will already have the feature she needs (plus all the new features added by other people). Everyone benefits.
And that’s exactly what is happening every day on thousands of pieces of software, including WordPress and its innumerable open-source themes and plugins.
Should You use Open-Source Software for Your Website?
Proprietary website builders such as Squarespace or Shopify, generally spend a lot of money on advertising that touts features like ease-of-use, template options, customizations, etc. And the open-source alternatives tend to list the same or similar claims on their homepages, since those are the aspects that are most easily marketable.
But the biggest benefits of the established open-source options, tend to be subtler and less flashy.
Comparing the price difference (“free” vs. “not-free”) isn’t too difficult, but other benefits of the open-source options can be harder to put in a bullet point. I’ll try anyway.
Benefits of the open-source platforms:
- Can’t be discontinued. Even if Automattic (the company that owns WordPress) goes away, the platform will continue to develop and grow, because it is not dependent on any one entity. And that is true of all the open-source platforms.
- Are infinitely customizable. A service like Squarespace can only afford to make a certain limited set of features and customization options available to customers, because they need to know that all the options are fully compatible no matter how they are mixed-and-matched. With the open-source platforms, the only limit is your imagination, as they say.
- Improve rapidly. With thousands of developers all over the world constantly contributing to the codebase, the speed with which bug-fixes, security patches, and improvements are added to these platforms is often astonishing.
- Are familiar and popular with content-creators and developers. This is especially true of WordPress, but the other open-source platforms are also widely-known. And that impacts a lot of areas: finding someone to help add content to your site, finding a developer to add new features, or migrating your site to a new host or even a new platform.
The open-source movement has had a profound impact on the internet and the technologies available to us online. The open-source community continues to provide some of the most robust, flexible, and impressive tools and platforms for developing sites. If you’re wondering what the right platform is for your site, or if you think it’s time to make a change, or if you want to know if a platform is well-suited to your needs, get in contact with us, and we’d be happy to help you figure out the answers to your questions.