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10 things people get wrong about open source (images)

Open source has become an important part of business but that hasn't changed many misconceptions from users minds.
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1 of 10 Jack Wallen/ZDNet

I can remember when mentioning open-source software in a business context was unthinkable. Fortunately, times have changed. Indeed, open source is now often considered first but that dramatic progress has not entirely removed a number of misconceptions from users' minds. So I thought it might be helpful to list a few of the things people still get completely wrong about open source.

1. It's just for Linux
Most users trip up over this point. When open source comes up in a conversation, talk inevitably — and almost always initially — turns to Linux. The public always seems to assume open-source applications are only for Linux. In fact there are plenty of open-source projects that are either cross platform or Windows only. The Open Source Windows site lists a variety of software for Microsoft's operating systems. But the site doesn't include the listing of major forces, such as Apache, MySQL and Drupal.

This story originally appeared as 10 things you should know about open source before you use it on TechRepublic.

Photo credit: John Vetterli/Flickr

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2. It's always free
To be considered open source, the source code needs be freely available. That free availability does not mean the application itself is inevitably free. There are actually many companies making money from their open-source projects. Often, the suppliers tend to attach the price to areas such as support or added features. They also tend to make a community version of their product, which is free.

When a company sells a community version, it's usually a stripped-down, bare-bones variant of the commercial, open-source product. A great example of this approach is Zimbra, a powerful email and collaboration tool that offers a free, open-source edition as well as editions that have price tags and more features and less access to source.

Photo credit: art crimes/Flickr

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3. There's no support
Some open-source software offers support, sometimes at an extra cost, and some doesn't. This issue is often critical for larger companies. But even though a piece of open-source software doesn't have a corporate-friendly, 24/7 support hotline, that doesn't mean there is no support.

Sometimes, there are forums or mailing lists for support. In other cases, the developers who created or work with the software can be contacted. Support options are certainly available — even if that support might not be compatible with the corporate mindset.

Photo credit: GenBug

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4. You need full access to the source code
Although this issue is generally not of interest to the average user, I bring it up here because it remains a significant misconception about open source. Open source does mean you have full access to the source code of a program but it doesn't mean you need that access to use the software.

This is a myth that has persisted for a long time. Just because the source is out there and available doesn't mean it's necessary. In fact, users can go their entire life using open-source software and without ever having to touch the source. But should you or your company want to modify an application, the code is there when you need it.

Photo credit: acme/Flickr

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5. It's just for programmers
A lot of the public seems to think that because of the nature of open source, only programmers use it. That confusion may arise from the availability of the source code and the accompanying assumption that the availability of code means that only those who know how to read, edit, and rebuild that code can and should use it.

In fact, anyone can use open-source software with or without the skills to modify and rebuild the software. It's a safe bet that the most open-source users do not have a single programming language in their skillset.

Photo credit: M. Keefe/Flickr

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6. You're breaking the law by adopting open source
Thanks to SCO, people used to think open-source adoption might be illegal. But fortunately, all that changed when the SCO case was thrown out of court. The use of open-source software does not break any intellectual property laws. Not a single case has proved that open source has infringed on other, proprietary work. So it's safe to say that if you are using open source, you are not considered a law-breaking rebel.

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7. You have to be an expert to use it
This point relates to the previous entries. I still hear that old question, "Do you have to write your own drivers to use that?" The answer has been, for a long time, no. Many people still believe that open-source software is for Übergeeks who can compile software in their sleep. Not so.

In fact, with most open-source projects, there's no need to install from source now. Most platforms have binary installers that make adding open-source software to your PC as easy as installing proprietary software — in some cases, even easier. And using most open-source software is the same. Like all things to do with computers, as the intelligence of the average computer user has dropped, the ease of use of open-source software has increased.

Photo credit: rb3m/Flickr

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8. It's hard to find
Open-source software is everywhere. It's available on Download.com, in the Android Market, in every Linux distribution's Add/Remove Software utility, and from websites across the globe. If you can do a Google search, you can find it.

There are dedicated sites for open-source software on specific platforms, and even Microsoft has a dedicated open-source site. Open source has come a long way from its roots, when locating the counterpart to a proprietary piece of software was like finding the proverbial needle in a haystack.

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9. Freeware and shareware mean open source
Most users are familiar with freeware and shareware. Those two types of software are not the same as open source. If the source code to the software is not made available, that piece of software is definitely not open source.

Photo credit: Exapower.com

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10. Not many people use it
In fact, you're probably already running it. Are you using the Firefox browser? If so, you are already using open-source software. Many people use open source without knowing it. OpenOffice, Thunderbird, Pidgin, Drupal, WordPress, GnuCash, Notepad++, and many more products enjoy widespread usage. And that doesn't even account for the snippets of open-source code that find their way into proprietary software.

A growing trend
Open-source software no longer bears the stigma it once had. Many open-source apps are now seen as either equal or superior to their proprietary counterparts. I would expect this trend to continue, especially as more users move away from the traditional desktop and to cloud-based or virtualised applications.

If you're considering the migration from closed- to open-source software, there are things you should know, but very little you have to know. Armed with the right information, your migration to open source can be painless. Alternatively, if you're already experienced in open source, perhaps you have encountered other popular misconceptions that you want to share.

This story originally appeared as 10 things you should know about open source before you use it on TechRepublic.

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