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Open Source and free as a bird

June 2008

There is a shy beast lurking in the internet undergrowth, almost too diffident to show itself, but we should do what we can to lure it out. It’s called open source software.

In short, it’s copyright-free software, distributed at no cost. All the magic ingredients under the hood that make it work are available for all to see (it’s known as the “source code” – hence “open source”), so anyone who understands that mysterious world can make suggestions to improve or enhance it.

Compare this with propriety software such as Microsoft Word and all the others. The companies involved create what they think we want, and make their money by selling us a license to use it on a limited number of computers (often just one). We can’t copy it, because the source code is hidden away behind high virtual fences.

That’s a perfectly reasonable commercial activity, but the internet, being the extraordinary collaborative tool that it is, has allowed enthusiasts to gather and create software with no commercial aim in view; this is open source software.

Why does this matter to Oldies? Mainly because it offers us the chance to thumb our noses at Microsoft and their expensive products, and use instead a particularly good example of this phenomenon, called

If you want the latest version of Word, Excel and PowerPoint on your new home computer, it will cost you at least £80, and more still if you want other programmes. For businesses it’s even more expensive, and the software licensing bill for a large company can be huge., however, which consists of a range of programmes that are very similar to the main Microsoft offerings, is free. Completely free. You may install it on all your computers, and copy it without restriction. What’s more, it can deal with stuff produced by others using their costly Microsoft programmes.

You can download your own copy from It’s a bit big (over 200MB), so you may prefer to order it on a CD (less than £15) but there is no need to.

All this may seem a bit too good to be true, especially to hard bitten Oldie cynics. Is it really free? It must be costing someone something, surely?

The answer is that mostly what it’s costing is time, other people’s time, which is freely given. It’s just like a choral society; we join it so that we can make music that is impossible on our own; we give our time, and in return create something that is greater than the sum of its parts.

So it is with open source software; the people working on it just like doing it. The overwhelming majority of them are volunteers; a small number are sponsored by their employers. Add the magic ingredient of the internet, which allows the members of the club to be in all continents and time zones, and it becomes a potentially huge community. As in so many areas, the effect of the internet is to render the restrictions of distance and time almost irrelevant.

All you need is an internet site from which to run these collaborations, and in’s case that’s provided by a partnership of Sun Microsystems (a huge US corporation) and Oregon State University. Think of my choral society analogy again; we rehearse in a local school hall for nothing, because the Head is keen on music.

So give it a thought next time you are equipping a new computer. Why not try out first, and if it does the trick, why give Bill Gates any more money? I think he’s got quite enough, anyway.