The Open Source debate..

Open Source

About a year ago i started writing this post, after watching one of the debates on television..

like many others, i followed the Cyber-Rite/Cisco debates, whenever my busy schedule permitted it.  I must say there were many good debaters there, and some were even very good. There was the eternal typically Mauritian problem of totally mangling up the pronunciation of some words in order to make it sound “British”or “American”. Wonder how come people calling themselves the elite, and vying for a million rupees, no less, quoting einstein and shakespeare, could come so badly prepared in pronunciation matters. If you are unsure of the pronunciation of a word, what does it take to open up the dictionary and look up how a word is pronounced? Of course the assumption here is that the person should know the phonetic symbols as well. But again, if you are vying to be the best debater and you dont know how to read or at least look up a phonetic symbol you better stay home.

The thing that, however, always strikes me in this kind of debate, and again in the debate about our government having to support open-source, was the fact that these guys hadnt got all their facts right. Yet 1 group managed to get 903 marks.  One has to reckon that the marks were given for debating skills and presentation of the matter. They wouldnt score much where understanding of their subjet matter was concerned. Especially from me, who have worked with open-source and free software for my whole career.

Proprietary Software:

One of the most blatant mistakes i noticed, was that both the proponents and opponents seemed to think that open-source meant appropriation of proprietary software. Let’s get things clear here. Use of any software is governed by its licence. A licence is the agreement (one can think of it as the contract) between the software provider, The provider of the software decides, when launching his software, which licence he wants to use.  There are two main categories of software licences. Those that are free and those that are not. Copyrighted (with limited rights to copy -this is the traditional closed-source)  and free.

However, the free licences are further categorised, something that none of the debaters that day seemed to realise.

There’s copylefted ( a pun on copyright, which means unlimited rights to copy, but liable to legal pursuit if the original copyright holder is not mentioned in every copy).  You get the software for free, can change, modify or distribute or use it at will, but you HAVE to give it away free, just as you got it.

And then there is free but non-copyleft. Like something that is in the public domain but on which there is no condition to keep it free. I could for example use your source-code, compile it and make someone pay for it. But copyleft licenses prevent this. If you get a software free, you have to give it free.

Linux and most open-source software are copylefted. Red Hat is open-source but copyrighted, but its copyleft clone Centos is fully, copyleft.

The Gnu General Public License  (The reference in terms of copyleft) is found here for further understanding.

And here is a classification of the different types of licenses:

Ms v/s Linux: From this fundamental point, all the debate was centered on something totally different, Microsoft Windows v/s Linux. If those contestants had prepared themselves a bit better, they’d know that the source code for Windows had just been released as open-source. The two groups focussed on whether the government should promote Linux or Windows. I guess i would have given them zero, NYET, NIL

open-source security:

One point raised by the kids there that showed a blatant misunderstanding of IT research was stating that something that is open-source is less secure. I dont usually recommend Dan Brown coz he’s a great fibber, but in this case i found it illustrates a great problem of ClOSED-SOURCE security.

When someone designs an algorithm that is closed source, no-one can tell if there is a back-door (read trojan) Does that ring a bell? Trojan is a class of virus that allows a person to surreptitiously take control of your computer.  Similarly, if someone has written an encryption algorithm which is closed source, how do you know he hasn’t factored in a code that will open up all your secret transmissions to him. Skype has its own closed-source encryption algorithm and this is exactly the debate going on about it.

Another point they raised was that if there is a loophole in the security of an open-source program a cracker would get to it. Totally missed the point of open-source. The reason professionals like open-source is specifically because there aren’t just 2 developers and 2 testers working on a piece of software, but because everyone, including you and me can review it, design and develop unit tests if required. And errors, critical bugs and problems are detected much faster than when closed-source developers are relying on simple-end users. In fact what is even better is that the end-user can himself change anything he wants to.

hackers,crackers, terrorists:

Along the way I really don’t know what caused those kids to start talking about hackers, crackers and terrorists. Open source is perfectly legal, perfectly fair software, judged by some fairer than closed-source software such as MS-windows which at one point forced users to use Internet Explorer and caused Netscape Navigator to crash.

Some Definitions:

Hacker: A person who uses a little known technological quirk to find a hidden/unknown entry into a system or make a system work differently. (read Geek)

Cracker: A person who uses specific methods to break down security protocols, e.g. to pirate a closed-source software.


definition: Using a copyrighted software outside its terms of use, or without paying for usage rights to the owner of the copyright.

It seems they were lacking ideas on what to talk about, and started implying that open-source software is pirated software. Everyone totally missed the point of successful open-source products, like e.g. MySQL, which gives its software for free , but makes people pay for additional services such as real-time help and and online assistance. The point is if a software is open-source its that the company owning it, consciously decided to release all its code to the whole world, so that everyone could review, check and compare it and try it. Nothing to do with piracy, kids.

open-source leading the way:

Everyone has heard of Java. Its a huge buzz-word rite? It seems to be THE open-source technology. Well fact is, it is developed by a huge multinational company, SUN listed as JAVA on stock markets. And it leads the way not only in open-source, but also in Object Oriented technology. I have worked with Java, ask me. Java defined Object Oriented Technology, and java software has been Object Oriented from the word go. Compare that to VB which from 1997 till 2003 never changed, then was replaced by visual studio .Net which to me Java professional just stopped short of being a byte for byte copy of Java. Think Just in time compilation, Intermediate Language, platform interfacing between hardware and code, portability. The ONLY technological difference was that Java uses a single language- Java, which is compiled to byte-code,  while any of the microsoft languages can be compiled to MSIL. And the names have changed. Java packages are .Net namespaces.

Thats what I had to say on this debate. Hope the message passes. There seemed to be so much misinformation about this topic and the sad thing is the whole country, or almost, watched that debate.