Monday, April 18, 2011

The difference between Open Source and Free Software

I have heard a lot of talk from the Android folks over on Reddit about how Google has locked down Android, mostly from people hailing the glorious fall of Android's "openness".  People are complaining that although Android is still released with source under an open source license, still allows people to install whatever software, whenever they want, and anybody who wants to use their OS on their device is free to do so, it was somehow closed down.  I think that what people are stumbling over is the distinction the FSF has always made between Free Software and Open Source software, but with an interesting twist.

To quickly paraphrase the FSF's position, Open Source describes a method of developing, distributing, and supporting software, whereas Free Software deals with the rights people should be granted when receiving software.  These are two very different things.  Looking at this, I would say that what people are coming to realize is that Android is certainly Free Software, but it is not Open Source.  It is Free Software because it is released under a Free Software license; your rights are protected, period.  However, Android is not developed in the same way most Open Source software is.  It is not so much open to community patches and development.  It is developed behind closed doors by a team that may choose to listen to outside opinion but is in no way obligated to.

RMS remarks that by and large Open Source projects are Free Software projects.  He poses it as an extension of Open Source, a step further, a statement of commitment to protecting user and developer rights.  If we all remember correctly, the term Open Source was first coined to act as a synonym for Free Software that didn't have the same anti-corporate stigma and later evolved into something with its own foundation.  People introduced the term FOSS or FLOSS (Free (Libre) Open Source Software) to lump the two together.  I find it interesting to see how we really shouldn't lump them together at all; they truly are independent.  Projects can be Open Source, projects can be Free Software, and they can be both.

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