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Jason Ogaard: Many ways to use free and open source software

The first time I ever wrote a computer program was back in high school. I wrote it in a language called BASIC on my TI 86. The program wasn’t fancy.

It was just a menu of different mathematical formulas. Press on a formula and the program would display it on screen. As you might guess, I used it to cheat on tests in calculus. Back then I couldn’t be bothered to memorize the quadratic formula so I put it in my calculator. Eventually I figured out how to write the programs to actually do the calculations for me. You could enter in X and Y (or whatever the formula required) and my program would spit out an answer.

BASIC is one of the first programming languages. Many of the first programming languages were distributed with their source code (because there was no other option). That meant consumers that purchased the software could look at the source code and modify it to their desire (that’s how I learned BASIC).

Technology enthusiasts could modify the source code to add features, fix bugs, or port the software to a new language and redistribute the new source code for everyone to freely use. This is known as the free software movement.

Eventually the corporations that were writing software stopped distributing the source with their applications. This caused quite a stir in the free software community.

The free software movement still developed applications that could be used freely but the majority of applications written by companies did not have source code available to the public.

In 1998 many members of the free software movement adopted the name “open source.” Since then the open source community has become the largest community of developers that deliver software that’s free to use.

But, since us nerds can’t seem to agree on anything, not all members of the free software movement adopted the open source moniker. As a result the free software movement is still around and going strong.

There are also several different licenses that free software is distributed under. Some licenses allow you to take the source code and do whatever you want with it, others require that if you utilize open source code you must also freely distribute your code. The term open source has become a catchall for software that has source code available for anyone to modify.

The open source community maintains some of the most important software we use today. The Apache foundation updates the majority of web servers that are used to serve up content on the internet.

The many varieties of Linux are used by several million people around the world for their computers. Android, the most popular smart phone operating system developed by Google is open source.

Phone manufacturers really like Android because it’s open source. They are able to take the source code and modify it a little bit to suit their needs. That’s why an HTC Android phone can be a much different experience when compared to a Samsung Android phone. I suggest getting a Nexus device when looking at something with Android on it. Nexus devices are straight Android from Google with no modifications.

Today open source software is being used to create and distribute very inexpensive computers to impoverished communities throughout the world. If there’s a need for it chances are there’s an open source version of it. There are open source office suites, music players, web browsers, even stores set up for you to find and download open source software.

I’m willing to bet most of you could run your entire computing lives on free and open source software.


JASON OGAARD was born in Bemidji and is a software engineer for FICO, a Minneapolis-based public company providing analytics and decision-making services, including credit scoring credit bureaus.