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February 15, 2023 · 4 min read

Making the most of open source software

How many times have you seen software that seemed so close to what you wanted, if only you could make a few tweaks to perfect it? If this is you, it sounds like open source software may be just the thing you’re looking to use for your next project.

What is open source software?

Open source software (OSS) is any software that’s released under a license that allows users to study, change, and share the software with anyone, for any reason. It’s almost always free software, which is an important factor for growing companies, and can be modified to fit your specific needs. It’s important to note that a lot of this development is done as a public collaboration between developers who all have different ideas of what a product can and should do. For this reason, there’s usually a core group of people who are responsible for making sure the code that is added and released is up to par and makes sense for anyone else accessing the software.

Benefits of using open source software

Obviously one of the biggest benefits of open source is the cost savings: free software is, well, free. But there is also a lot to be said for the flexibility that this type of software offers, since you can manipulate it to do exactly what you want. We’ve all been hamstrung at least once by having to work within the limits of a traditional piece of software, and open source can help bridge that gap.

Some other amazing benefits of open source are the ongoing access to innovation, and the improved security. With traditional proprietary software, updates happen at a slower clip, since there is usually a lot of structural organization behind those updates. With OSS, you’re working with the collective time and intelligence of a whole community, which can ship features and fixes much quicker. And because it’s more likely to be tested and reviewed by that community, it’s often more secure than proprietary software.

Types of open source software

In terms of “types” of open source software, there are two ways to break this down. First off, there are specific types of OSS. Open source in and of itself isn’t always free, and you aren’t always allowed to modify it (though that is generally the way OSS operates); it will depend on the licensing agreement. If a product is labeled as FOSS (free open source software) or FLOSS (free libre open source software), then it is, in fact, free. 

In terms of the software verticals you can find OSS for, it’s almost unlimited: programming languages, frameworks, content management systems, web browsers, media players, productivity tools, games….the list goes on. If there is something you want to incorporate into your product, there’s almost always going to be an open source version you can tinker with first. 

What’s included in an open source license?

The licenses associated with open source software will vary in terms of the amount of freedom you’re given with them. These licenses grant you the rights to use, modify, and distribute the software, but also often come with a caveat that any changes you make to the software will ALSO be available to others under that license. Getting this squared away prior to implementing any OSS is paramount, as violating the license can land you in a heap of legal trouble.

Incorporating OSS into your product

If you’re starting from scratch, integrating open source software into your product is as easy as designing your code base to include it from the get go. If you’ve already got a product in the works, your best bet is to replace components or elements of that one at a time. The approach to this will obviously vary based on what your company has in mind, and what specific needs have to be met, but the pathways are still the same.

Incorporating OSS from the outset can offer a more flexible baseline and access to the latest features that have been integrated into it, while replacing components can be a more cost-effective way to make big changes to the product. One thing to keep in mind, regardless of the route you take, is how and what the software license will require you to share with other users of the same OSS. It would be a pretty serious misstep to put in the work, only to find out you can’t distribute it in certain countries or that it will violate a privacy policy, for example.

Wrapping up

Given the advantages to using open source software (cost savings, flexibility, access to innovation, improved security, and more), it’s easy to see why incorporating it into your product makes sense. Just make sure you’re doing your due diligence when it comes to sussing out the licenses so you don’t wind up wasting valuable development time or, worse still, landing yourself in legal hot water.