background image
A
NDREW
M
C
H
UGH
of the Humanities Advanced Technology &
Information Institute at the University of
Glasgow examines some alternatives to
commercial applications and how they can
benefit the cultural heritage sector.
DigiCULT
.
Info
36
and leaves the user at the mercy of the
developers and any strategic decisions that
they may take.
T
he Open Source Initiative (OSI,
http://www.opensource.org/) and
the Free Software Foundation (FSF,
http://www.fsf.org/) eschew such closed
practices in favour of greater transparency,
collaboration and mutual progress.
S
everal attempts have been made to
offer a definition of free or open
source software, with a variety of success.
The clearest issue is that free is used in the
sense of `unrestrictive', like free speech, and
is not taken to mean gratis, or without
charge, a common misconception.
Frequently, distributors of these products
will make them available for little or no
monetary cost, but this is not implicit in
the terms of their licences. Prominent cri-
teria of the Open Source Definition
include free distribution, availability of
source code and provisions to ensure that
modifications and derived works are per-
mitted and should be distributable under
the same terms as the licence of the origi-
nal software. Further clarification is offered
by the FSF definition, granting to users
four central freedoms: to run the program
for any purpose, to study how the program
works and adapt it (implying source code
availability), to redistribute copies to help
your neighbour, and to improve the pro-
I
t was such issues that
led to the evolution of
a movement that would
press for seismic changes
in the culture of software
production and distribu-
tion. Since the late 1970s
the Free Software move-
ment has campaigned and
lobbied for a re-evaluation
of the models upon which
software is created and
sold, and of the legal sys-
tem governing its licens-
ing, redistribution and
reuse. On 3 February 1998 in Palo Alto,
California, the Open Source label was
conceived, to characterise and push to the
commercial fore this philosophy that had
begun some twenty years before.
T
he state of proprietary software devel-
opment and distribution has evolved
into a fairly widely accepted model. A cen-
tralised and compact team of developers
will design and implement a program to
provide a solution, usually in keeping with
the overarching commercial goal of the
umbrella company.The strictly concealed
raw source code that forms the compre-
hensible essence of a program is compiled
down to a single binary executable pro-
gram, which can then be distributed to
users.Typically such products are accompa-
nied by strict non-disclosure licensing
agreements that prohibit their sharing,
copying, reproduction or customisation.
This relationship puts the software produc-
er in a powerful position. It becomes possi-
ble to exploit customers with the
introduction of costly `essential' upgrades,
M
any brochures,
Websites, cata-
logues and magazines
are quick to highlight
that there is a propri-
etary commercial soft-
ware solution for every
IT problem faced by
today's users, businesses
and institutions.The
user is left in little
doubt as to the revolu-
tionary potential of
commercial tools, of the
wrongs they can right,
and of the time that will be saved in doing
so.Whilst many commercial applications
are certainly very effective, the inevitable
maelstrom of marketing spin and rhetoric
may convince an unwary user that these
kinds of heavy-weight proprietary applica-
tions offer everything that one could possi-
bly ever need and are the only choices that
can meet the productivity requirements of
the modern company or institution.
H
owever, for as long as the computer
world has been developing, accom-
panying the many advancements and inno-
vations is a decline in terms of user choice.
Commercial applications, often with pro-
prietary file formats and restrictive
licences, can entrap users in a course of
operation that cannot deviate from the
strategic path determined by one particular
software vendor. Bugs must be tolerated,
functionality cannot be customised, and if
software should become obsolete or pro-
ducers cease trading then picking up the
pieces can be an expensive process.
O
PEN
S
OURCE AND
F
REE
S
OFTWARE
S
OLUTIONS
: R
ELIABLE
,
STANDARDISED
,
FREE
"With Open Source software, the obvious
winner is the consumer, as overall functionali-
ty is prioritised ahead of corporate practices
and intellectual property issues."
Andrew McHugh