What Does "Open Source" Mean? An In-Depth Explanation

What Does Open Source Mean

The term open source refers to a type of software that, under an open-source license, lets anyone use, change, and distribute the software. The developer of the software releases it to the community to achieve a collaborative development environment. Therefore, someone from across the globe could contribute to the software’s coding, design, or troubleshooting efforts.

The developer of the open-source software also shares its source code for everyone to improve. That doesn’t necessarily mean all changes submitted actually get implemented. Most open-source software has a team of maintainers to approve suitable changes.

Open-source software is crucial to innovation in the technology world. It drives developers to create software based on transparency and freedom, and it encourages a collaborative effort behind the software that would otherwise be blocked behind a paywall or subscription plan. Furthermore, open-source software improves the flow of ideas; tools get built faster with more people working on them, and it leads to stronger, more robust products than what you may get from a privatized tool.

Understanding Open Source

To best understand open-source software, it helps to know how it compares to private, proprietary software. Open-source software has its code published for anyone to use, edit, and distribute. Proprietary software (or closed-source software) is owned by a company or individual. Its code is protected from unauthorized use and sold for monetary gain.

That doesn’t mean one is better than the other; it’s just that they’re different. Proprietary software has its benefits, too, like how private companies may offer more human-backed customer support or focus on product uniqueness (like for specific industries).

The History of Open-Source Code

The history of open-source code reveals its humble beginnings and how it often had to do with developers simply sharing their work with others in the industry.

Open source history timeline
Source: Codemotion

Origins and Early Developments

In the early days of software development, open-source code was more of a concept than a form of product development. Programmers and developers regularly shared information and code with peers.

This worked as a communal way to process new ideas and build upon the work of others. Formally, the Netscape Browser open-source project started the official open-source movement. That led to the formation of an organization called the OSI (Open Source Initiative), which strived to standardize open-source projects and spread the word about them.

Evolution of the Open-Source Movement

After the late 1990s, when the formal open-source movement began, open-source software evolved rapidly and became something new altogether. Major corporations started to adopt open-source tools, while tech companies and developers saw the benefits of rapid development and crowdsourced debugging.

Notable open-source projects included the Apache HTTP Server and the Linux operating system, both of which have grown and are still in use today. The idea also shifted into other forms of technology and other industries, like how you can now find open-source research in the scientific community and open-source hardware.

Key Characteristics of Open-Source Projects

Open-source software has a general definition, but every project varies. Below, you’ll find the key characteristics that make up most open-source software projects.

Transparency and Accessibility of Source Code

Open-source projects commit to transparency. You can often find websites with development schedules, release dates, common issues, and forums where developers talk about what’s next with the project. Those websites provide easy access to the software, along with the source code that goes with it. Developers also share source code on collaboration and version control sites like GitHub.

Licensing Models and Community Collaboration

Open-source projects typically use unique licensing models to ensure community collaboration while protecting the project and developer from blatant infringement. In short, the licensing models try to encourage software improvement through collaboration while giving credit to creators and navigating intellectual property elements. Below, you’ll find some of the most common licensing models for open-source software and what they cover.

Licensing models:

  • GNU General Public License: Often referred to as a GPL, this model requires that software derivatives get shared under the same license.
  • Apache License: This model lets users edit, develop, and distribute the source code however they want, but only with proper attribution. Users even get granted patent rights if they create something new from the original source code.
  • MIT License: This is a simpler version of the Apache License. People can use the software however they want as long as they provide proper attribution.
  • Creative Commons Licenses: These are open-source licensing models usually used for creative content like photos and digital art. Sometimes, they apply to software, too.
  • Eclipse Public License (EPL): An EPL is a unique licensing model that grants the ability to use open-source software for commercial purposes.
  • BSD Licenses: BSD licensing includes different licenses that let users tinker with software and redistribute it without many restrictions at all.

Each software developer has the opportunity to choose which type of license they’d like to attach to their project. The good news is that all licensing models — even though their terms vary — encourage collaboration and freedom of use on some level.

Advantages of Open-Source Software

As open-source software evolved throughout the 1990s, its many advantages became obvious. From cost-effectiveness to flexibility, open-source software offers many benefits.


A primary advantage of any open-source project is affordability. First off, open-source software usually costs nothing to download and use. There are typically other costs involved (like how WordPress, an open-source software, requires web hosting), but it still makes for a rather cost-effective situation.

This bodes well for startups and small businesses with tighter budgets, and it also prevents vendor lock-in, where businesses feel compelled or forced to stick with one vendor for all of their software.

Community-Driven Innovation

Open-source software has always provided the benefit of community and the fact that these communal efforts drive innovation. Collections of people with diverse perspectives and varying educational backgrounds get together to work on these projects — something that’s often limited in a proprietary project.

As a result, development cycles speed up, and original ideas flow freely. Innovation seems to go hand-in-hand with open-source software since contributors can work on unique aspects of the software simultaneously, so everything from testing to implementation goes quickly.

Flexibility and Customization

With that community-driven innovation comes two other advantages of open-source software: flexibility and customization. With proprietary software, businesses often get stuck using tools that aren’t quite suitable for their needs.

Open-source software is openly available, so anyone can customize it to fit a company for its specific needs or as it grows. And as new technologies emerge, the open-source software remains flexible and customizable. Users can adopt the latest technologies and integrate with the software. This helps keep the software up-to-date and capable of accomplishing new tasks.

Types of Open-Source Projects

A multitude of open-source projects exist, ranging from software to data and research projects. You can even find them in the creative world. Read about the most common types of open-source projects below, along with the initiatives and projects within each category.

Software Projects

Perhaps the most popular of all open-source projects, software projects happen when a developer or organization releases software under an open-source license, allowing people to use the software freely.

software projects illustration

Notable open-source software projects include the WordPress content management system, the MySQL database software, and the Linux operating system. These projects receive development contributions from companies and individuals.

The individuals often do this to gain experience or give back to the tech community, while companies strive to keep the software moving in the right direction (usually because the company relies on the software significantly).

Hardware Projects

Although it seems harder to find examples of open-source hardware projects, they are all around us. In short, these projects focus on building physical open-source devices and pieces that go to that hardware.

hardware projects illustration

Arduino is one of the best examples of a hardware project. It’s an initiative to encourage users to create physical hardware for digital devices, home automation, and even robotics.

Advantages of the open-source model for hardware include rapid prototyping, consistent studying of the hardware, regular improvements, and sharing items like circuit diagrams and mechanical drawings. Open-source hardware projects bring together all walks of life, including engineers, researchers, and hobbyists.

Data and Research Projects

Open-source data and research projects compile datasets and research findings; then they make the results available to the public. Users can then adjust the research or data, use it for their own needs, or redistribute it for personal or commercial purposes.

data and research illustration

Popular code repositories like Kaggle and GitHub count as open-source data projects. Perhaps the most influential open-source data project is the Human Genome Project, which was a successful communal effort to share the human genetic code with the world.

These data and research projects bring together a myriad of individuals and companies in fields like medicine, social sciences, data research, and climate science.

How to Contribute and Participate

With all this free software and data, you may wonder how you can contribute to and participate in a project that’s important to you. Follow these steps to get started:

Ways to Contribute to Open-Source Projects

There are two main ways to contribute to open-source projects. One involves development, and the other involves more user-facing roles.

1. Code contributions and bug fixes: Code contributors develop new features for open-source software. They may also work on the design using languages like HTML, JavaScript, and CSS. Coders come into play for their bug-fixing capabilities, too. In fact, only open-source software can bring together the hundreds or thousands of people needed to comb through lines of code.

2. Documentation, testing, and community support: Like any tech organization, it’s not all about coding. To get the word out, an open-source project requires writers to compile support documentation. There are also testing roles to help with new features and interface changes. And although many open-source projects lack human customer support, some have it. Even if a project doesn’t, you can offer yourself as a customer support solution; these roles often answer questions through email, forums, and live chat.

Overall, there’s a role for everyone in an open-source project. If you’re a people person, consider working in customer support. If you like tinkering or writing, look into testing or documentation roles. And all coders should have no problem finding a place in the open-source world.

Tools and Platforms for Open-Source Collaboration

As one of the key benefits of open-source projects, collaborative efforts require online places for people to interact. These sites come in two forms: version control systems and project hosting platforms.

Version control systems:

  • Git: A popular version control system that lets users contribute to the same project at the same time without overwriting each other’s work.
  • Mercurial: Another version control platform but for much larger projects without making the interface too complicated.
  • Subversion: A version control system with a centralized database for developers to keep better tabs on project changes.

Version control helps make sense of all the development submissions and stages involved in developing software. On the other hand, project hosting platforms serve as the hub for all the saved project files.

Project hosting platforms:

  • GitHub: A widely used hosting solution for open-source projects. It offers version control with Git along with bug tracking tools and collaboration elements.
  • GitLab: The GitLab platform is similar to GitHub. The host caters to lifecycle management and tracking for DevOps. It has version control with a Git repository manager and tools for issue tracking.
  • Bitbucket: Owned by Atlassian, Bitbucket supports Git and Mercurial for flexibility in version control. It’s mainly for open-source development, source code hosting, and collaboration.

As you can see, contributors to open-source software can access these communities by going to project hosting platforms that use version control systems. That’s one way to get a feel for the environment, after which you can begin making submissions.

Benefits of Contributing to Open Source

Not everyone who uses open-source projects takes the time to contribute. But if you feel passionate about a project and want to see its continued success, you should consider providing your services. Here are the benefits of contributing to open-source software:

1. Building skills and professional networks: If you need something to add to a resume, contributing to a well-known open-source project is an excellent idea. Your time on an open-source project helps you develop essential skills for getting a job in development, customer support, or any technical role. You’ll also find like-minded people on the project that may assist in advancing your career in the future.

2. Making a positive impact on the global community: Open-source projects deliver flexibility, affordability, freedom of choice in software, and transparency in the technology world. If you believe any of that can help make the world a better place, think about contributing to an open-source project — especially if the project is near to your heart. For instance, many developers enjoy working on projects that assist in making scientific discoveries or those that improve the medical field.

The benefits of working on an open-source project make it a compelling option for any developer, web designer, or anyone interested in a career in technology.

Key Players in the Community

The key players in the open-source community include initiatives and foundations designed to further the public’s knowledge of open-source software. These organizations have a vested interest in the innovations that come from open-source development and often serve as management boards to provide some sort of centralization to the community.

The Open-Source Initiative (OSI)

The Open-Source Initiative, established in 1998, became one of the first non-profits committed to marketing open-source software and protecting its mission as a way to provide flexible and cost-effective software solutions to the world.

open source intiative logo

Its primary mission revolves around creating a collection of documentation to educate people about open-source technology. It also strives to strengthen the bonds between open-source community members.

The OSI championed what’s known as the Open Source Definition, a benchmark for identifying and approving open-source licenses.

The Free Software Foundation

Known as the FSF, the Free Software Foundation protects software freedom through its nonprofit work. The organization advocates for software that puts freedom and community first, along with software that is free for the user.

free software foundation logo

A notable contribution is called the GNU Project, which helped roll out the GNU General Public License and established an operating system similar to Unix but without a price tag.

The Apache Software Foundation

The Apache Software Foundation dates all the way back to 1999. The nonprofit has a strong commitment to developing the Apache HTTP Server, an open-source web server project.

apache software foundation logo

It also supports hundreds of open-source operations financially and by instilling its values of meritocracy within open-source communities.

The Linux Foundation

The Linux Foundation began in 2000 when a group of like-minded developers worked to grow the open-source Linux project. Over the years, its members have worked hard to ensure the Linux operating system remains free and open to all users.

linux foundation logo

It also provides a forum for the neutral and collaborative discussion of all things open source. In the forum, you can find educational documentation, training programs, and even events revolving around open-source software and Linux.

Business Models and Sustainability

Considering much of the open-source software you can find today is free for the user, it makes one wonder if and how the developers make any money. There are some business models that help support open-source software, and many times, you see sponsorships, donations, and investments come into play. Below, learn about the various business models and sustainability efforts within the open-source community.

Commercial Open Source

Even with free software and open communities, open-source projects can still have a commercial side. This business model provides a free base model, which often provides all the necessary features for most users. But there’s also a premium version or premium add-ons for those interested in more.

This involves a dual-licensing model, which offers both free and commercial licenses. The commercial side of the software often charges a subscription or one-time fee and comes with enhanced customer support.

Corporate Sponsorship and Investment

It’s common for corporations and investors to fuel open-source projects with capital. These sponsorships and investments come from sources with a vested interest in the software’s success, or they see it as a way to give back to a community that promotes software for all.

Examples include Google giving money to Kubernetes, Microsoft funding Visual Code, and IBM investing heavily in multiple open-source projects, like how it provides resources and code to the Docker open-source platform.

Challenges and Solutions for Sustainability

Sustaining open-source technology with corporate interests presents many challenges. Who’s to say that a corporation isn’t trying to affect how software gets developed (for the betterment of their own company) when they commit a large sum of money to the project?

The community has taken several measures to maintain separation and overall balance of commercial interests and open-source development, like focusing more on community donations or selling premium features. There are also efforts to educate as many people as possible to ensure the communities surrounding open-source technology stay motivated and vibrant for years to come.

Common Myths About Open-Source Projects

Several myths exist about the quality of open-source projects, along with some features and services that come with open-source software. Here are the reasons those myths are untrue:

Myth 1: Open-Source Projects Lack of Support and Reliability

Customer support isn’t inferior with open-source projects. It’s just different. Open-source developers usually focus more on extensive documentation and forums, creating more of a self-help and communal assistance environment.

It’s definitely not for users who need to speak with someone on the phone every time a problem arises, but most users can find a solution to any issue with a quick search on a knowledge base or forum.

It’s also becoming common for open-source projects to implement community-driven support models, where contributors volunteer their time to reply to user emails, moderate forums, and write documentation.

Myth 2: Open-Source Projects Are Not Secure

There is a strong misconception that many open-source projects lack the security you’d receive with proprietary software.

However, open-source software actually provides more transparency, stronger privacy measures, and increased security when compared to proprietary software. For these projects, the source code gets posted for everyone to see.

This develops a culture of collective scrutiny. Combined with a large collection of people finding bugs and security issues, most security problems get solved rather quickly.

Myth 3: Open-Source Projects are Complex and Not User-Friendly

Many people argue that open-source software has cluttered or outdated interfaces or that the software is too complex for the average user.

Although this is sometimes the case, most modern open-source projects prioritize user-friendliness over anything else.

That comes with robust collections of documentation and added customer support through volunteer workers and forums. These projects also tend to invest in making features accessible for every type of user.

The future looks bright for open-source software thanks to continued growth, collaboration, and the evolution of licensing and governance.

Continued Growth and Adoption

Open-source software projects have expanded into new industries like government, education, and healthcare. That makes open-source projects more important for the greater good, and it gets the software into the hands of more people. Its continued growth looks promising thanks to innovative new technologies like the Internet of Things, blockchain, and artificial intelligence, all of which can support or integrate into open-source software.

Collaboration Across Boundaries

The future of open-source software is fueled by a strong community. And that community consistently expands across borders, into new countries, and across areas that may have never used open-source software. This worldwide growth connects cross-disciplinary collaborators and pushes all those people to share knowledge about their projects.

Evolution of Open-Source Governance and Licensing

Updates to open-source licenses and legal frameworks help drive the evolution of open-source software, particularly for governance. The open-source community welcomes these updates to protect open-source licenses and instill a sense of organization behind an often chaotic open-source environment. New governance and licensing should also address ethical and social implications of open-source technologies, whether that’s how they affect the environment or how open-source software could compete with growing tech businesses.

The Endless Possibilities of Open-Source Collaboration

With no end in sight for the progress behind open-source projects, it’s important to remember the benefits of open-source software in providing freedom and flexibility. Open-source projects continue to drive innovation and collaboration in the tech space. You can expect to see more open-source technology in important fields like medicine and scientific research.

All of this lowers the costs for those operations and provides fewer restrictions for organizations that shouldn’t get bogged down with the downsides of proprietary software (downsides like high pricing and the inability to move to other software).

Businesses need open-source software, and the world needs open-source software. The development process works more smoothly when hundreds or thousands of developers from around the globe come together to build technology that’s accessible and made for everyone.