It's Software Freedom Day, and among the many other volunteers around the world, Sun-sponsored students have been working hard on their campuses to prepare for the opportunity to cry Freedom! One of the questions that came up was why students should care about software freedom; here's the answer Lowell Sachs and I came up with.
The growing popularity of free and open source software offers advantages and opportunities to students (as well as developers, users, and budding entrepreneurs) all along the adoption curve. Many will already recognize that the future for society is one of digital liberty, where every user of digital technology is a possible creator, and where all creators in the digital medium are, by definition, users. The open source model fits in perfectly with this emerging reality. In fact, the remarkable success of open source is the result of a feature that is at once a key characteristic of the program and a fundamental pursuit of people everywhere... freedom.
Many people, if asked to name the main appeal of open source software would reflexively point to the fact that it is free of charge, and thus a good way to save money. However, it is a different kind of ‘free’ that lies at the heart of the open source movement -- the freedom to acquire, adapt, tinker, develop and deploy code (applications) without the restrictions traditionally associated with proprietary offerings. All the best virtues of open source software are really derivatives of this kind of ‘free’ (as in liberty) rather than simply ‘free’ as in price … although the savings are certainly a nice draw as well.
On the academic front, open source software can serve as a real boon to the student looking to sharpen his or her skills or excel in a class. Those looking to build a career in IT will find open source software the perfect virtual laboratory to build skills or explore new ideas without the constraints and prohibitions that come with proprietary programs. Break it down, build it up, throw in something new. Hit a brick wall?... No problem. Try a different approach. It's yours to play with.
This freedom can come in as handy for those working on a supervised project as it will for those trying to seize a share of a new market. Looking for a little enlightenment outside of lectures? Open source software is there as well. It empowers independent learning by letting you tinker with the code on your own schedule and your own system -- no professor necessary.
Looking for an application that does what you actually need it to do? Gone are the days of having to hope that a large corporate player will develop and offer for sale a program that you want, only to discover that it is at a price you can't afford. And when you find it doesn't quite live up to the hype? No longer will people have to wait for expensive and imprecise updates or patches to fix their applications. When source code is shared and distributed freely under an open source license, anyone is allowed to use, modify and reproduce that code on a non-discriminatory basis.
With open source software you get to decide what to create and when to release it. Then your friends and peers can fine tune and improve upon it with the fruits of all this labor being offered back out to the general community... at no cost. Where will the next YouTube come from, or FaceBook or Wikipedia? It may just come from you. And now you don't need tons of capital and corporate infrastructure to launch that next great innovation. All you need is inspiration.
Transparency With Privacy
The emergence of open source promises a world marked by several digital freedoms -- the freedom to participate, collaborate, create, use and deploy. Open source communities can enable students to connect with each other and collaborate across the boundaries of geography and culture in a way that benefits all of society. Part of this emerging reality is a shift from the old model of security with secrecy, where lack of access to a program's source code often (ironically) spawned vulnerabilities and restricted choice, toward a new paradigm of transparency coupled with privacy, where communities can flourish while assuring quality and protection to their members.
It is a world of expanded opportunity, increased flexibility, and continual innovation. Keep your money - Release your ideas - Build a business - Launch a community - Start a movement! The barriers to entry (and exit) are down, new horizons are emerging, and the climate for innovation is more welcoming than it has ever been. Jump in!