Open source for absolute beginners

by Elena Blanco on 31 January 2006 , last updated


Perhaps you have already heard about open source software and you can’t quite believe that it offers a way to use software for free. Perhaps you have heard that open source is a movement espoused by men (and some women!) sporting beards and sandals. Perhaps you have simply no idea what it is and you want to find out more. Whatever your motivations, it’s always a good time to start learning about free and open source software.

What is open source software?

Ask what the main defining characteristic of open source software is and most people will tell you It’s free! Whilst this is usually true it is not the defining characteristic. The key to understanding the meaning of open source software lies in the licence.

You may not have even been aware that virtually all software comes with a licence. Software is copyright material and the licence is needed to let you know what you can do with the software. Open source software is always software that has been released under a licence that has been certified by the Open Source Initiative (OSI). These licences are certified to meet the criteria of the Open Source Definition.

The criteria include granting of the right to freely redistribute the software, access to the source code, and the permission to modify that source code and distribute the modified version of the software. Of course licensing issues may not be of any particular interest to you. For open source software, however, these are crucial because only the licence gives you, as a receiver of the software, the permissions laid out in the Open Source Definition.

So is it free or not?

Nothing in an OSI-approved licence prohibits anyone from charging for a particular piece of open source software. However, this rarely happens. Since the licence enables anyone to redistribute the software freely, any customer could make a million copies and just give them away. Charging a licence fee for open source software just isn’t a practical way to make money. But yes, there are other ways to make money with software than merely charging a fee to let people use it. The important thing to note is that the low cost of acquiring open source software is a by-product of the licence and not a criteria for such a licence. There are others as well.

Is free software the same as open source software?

Yes and no.

The expression free software is championed by the Free Software Foundation (FSF). Free here always means free in the sense of freedom, not in the sense of having no monetary cost. It was coined long before the expression open source software came along. In the same way that the OSI is the arbiter of open source definition, the Free Software Foundation is the maintainer of the Free Software Definition. However, it is entirely possible that a licence can be deemed free by the FSF at the same time as being certified as open source by the OSI. Indeed, the best known free software licence, the GNU General Public License is also an OSI-certified licence.

One final point. Do not be mislead if you come across the term freeware. This is not open source software. It is also not free software (in the FSF sense). It is merely software with no financial cost. Again, this term comes from an earlier era. It is much less frequently used these days.

To find out more, try this OSS Watch briefing note: What is open source software?

How does the open source world work?

Why would anyone want to give away the software program that they have sweated blood and tears over? And how do they give it away? Moreover, what happens after the software has been released to all and sundry? Who looks after it and produces new and improved versions? To answer these questions we must consider open source as a software development methodology, and in the context of community building

Open source is developed by a number of people who may have no connection to one another apart from their interest in the open source project. Consequently, the software development methodologies adopted are not the same as those found in closed source development projects.

Since open source is developed by a group of individuals with a shared interest in the project this community of users and programmers is key to the advancement of any open source project. The following documents look at various aspects of both the development methodology and community in open source.

Can I try some of this open source software?

If you are reading this page online, chances are that you are already using or interacting with some open source software.

There are a huge number of open source applications and indeed operating systems available for download from the Internet. OSS Watch has a number of briefing notes exploring some of the software available.

A good place to start is the UK government’s Open Source Options, which lists open source alternatives for many commonly used pieces of software. The list is aimed at the public sector, though OSS Watch also maintains Open Source Options for Education with extends the list with software thats of interest if you’re from a school, college or university.

Another place to start might be the Top Tips guidance on how to choose open source software.

TheOpenDisc- is an excellent source of open source software that can be installed on your Windows PC. It brings together best of breed email client, web browser, office suite and more, all on one simple to use cd for easy installation (or uninstall). There is even a specialized version of the OpenDisc called the OpenEducationDisc which is a modification of the OpenDisc format by teachers and computer specialists with a passion for education.

You can download the ISO image for both of these CDs so that you can burn a CD yourself. And, because it is open source software, you can make as many copies as you like for your friends or colleagues.

If you have never used Linux, you may want to explore it and some common open source applications without going to the effort of installing the software. We suggest that you start off by looking at Ubuntu, a very popular Linux distribution []. Why not visit the Ubuntu website to download Ubuntu onto a CD or USB stick and run it from there.

external resources:

Stay in the loop

To keep up to date with what is happening in the open source world as it relates to the academic sector in the UK you may wish to

OSS Watch also provides specific consultation workshops for organisations seeking assistance in thinking through their engagement with free and open source software; for more information get in touch.


This document contains Creative Commons licensed images by the Free Software Foundation and Flickr users WingedWolf, Brice Foto and Colin 30d.