Free/Libre and Open Source Software

What is FLOSS, and why am I writing about it in a parish magazine?

If you have a computer at home (or work) the chances are that it runs Microsoft Windows, and software programs by Microsoft and other proprietary software companies. Windows is the “operating system”, the software that gets the computer up and running and puts that friendly “desktop” on the screen with the “Start” button in the bottom left corner. On top of this run the programs that you use to do your work; like word processors, email and Internet browsing software. This software is all “proprietary”: you do not buy it, you only buy a licence to use it. And that licence is usually very restrictive: normally you can only use the software on one computer, and cannot analyse it or adapt it for your own purposes. Companies like Microsoft are very keen to stamp out “piracy”, where illegal copies are made of their software. They will take legal action against companies that are found not to have enough software licences. They attempt to create “lock-in” to compel more and more people to use their software, by creating proprietary file formats and other standards which become popular, and then essential if you want to communicate with others. Microsoft, undoubtedly the most successful software company, has become unimaginably rich and powerful.

There are a number of disadvantages to using proprietary software. You cannot adapt it to your own purposes, you cannot “look inside” it to see how it works and whether there are any potential security problems, you have to be very careful about licensing to avoid prosecution, and it is expensive. The developing world cannot afford to pay Microsoft prices for its software, which explains why software piracy is rife in such countries.

There is, as they say, an alternative. Open source software is free (libre) in the sense that the underlying source code (used to create the software) is made freely available for inspection and modification, but it is usually free of charge (gratis) too. Not only are you allowed to make as many copies as you like, you are actively encouraged to do so.

How does this work? How can this software be “given away”. Because the model is completely different. Companies which develop software for their own use make the results freely available for other companies to use and develop further. In turn they benefit from the free software which has been developed by those other companies. Rather than keeping their software secret and charging others to use it, they make it freely available for the common good. Many individual programmers do the same thing, giving their time to work on software projects. In return they get “kudos” (the approval of their peers), a sense of contribution to the community, and the right to use other programmers' work.

The main free operating system (equivalent to Windows) is called GNU/Linux, or just “Linux” for short. Linux is now well established on “server” computers, the big computers that form the Internet, and are used in companies to run the email systems and store data. Nottingham City Council now uses Linux to run their email system. And Linux is just starting to be used more widely on “desktop” computers, the computers that you or I might use at work or at home. Our City Council are currently considering whether to use Linux instead of Windows on the desktop computers used by their staff, and the Government is investigating whether to do this throughout the Civil Service. The head of IT in the National Health Service is also looking at installing Linux on 800,000 desktop computers throughout the NHS (although this may simply be a bargaining ploy to get Microsoft to reduce their prices). But the main places where Linux is becoming widely used are in the developing world: the governments of China, South Korea, Brazil, Peru and India are actively promoting the use of free software. Costs are dramatically reduced, there is less worry about security, there is no danger of becoming too dependent on a foreign supplier, and the software can be easily adapted for use by people speaking different languages.

I am writing about FLOSS because it is becoming increasingly important all over the world, but also because the model is appealing to those who are interested in the Kingdom of God. With FLOSS, the Western world is not profiting from its know-how and extracting exorbitant licence fees from countries that can ill afford to pay them. It is giving its software and its ideas freely, for the benefit of all. And this generosity will not go unrewarded, for the programmers in the developing world will in their turn give their improvements back to us.

I run Linux on my computer at home, but I do not suggest that you do the same just yet unless you are very keen. Linux is not quite ready for widespread use at home. But you can download and use Windows versions of FLOSS programs such as Mozilla (better than Internet Explorer and Outlook Express) and OpenOffice.org (almost as good as Microsoft Office). You can join the revolution, and it's Free.

Michael Leuty

© St Peter's Church, Nottingham
Last revised 11th January 2004