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What is Open Source Software? A Beginner’s Guide


If you have been in the tech industry for a while you may have heard about open source or open source software. When we talk about open source, you should think of open collaboration, open exchange, participation transparency and community-oriented development.

In this article, you will learn more about open source software including the difference between open source and other forms of software, key features of OSS, pros and cons of open source, how to start contributing to open source and some examples of OSS.

What is Open Source?

Open source designed any program whose source code can be modified and shared by anyone because it’s openly accessible. 

What is Source Code?

A source code is a set of instructions written in the form of functions, descriptions, methods, calls or any other operational statement by a programmer using a computer programming language. A source code can be open that is available to anyone to edit and redistribute or closed. Source code is the part that most software or computer users cannot see.

Example of a Source code taken from Medusa's GitHub Repository
Example of a Source code taken from Medusa's GitHub Repository

What Does Open Source Software(OSS) Mean?

The term Open source software is a non-proprietary software in which code is publicly available to anyone to inspect, comment on, modify, improve and redistribute it. Open source software is created and maintained by a group of developers so if you are new to computer programming, you can begin your journey as an open source contributor.

I have known open source since 2017 and started with my first contribution in 2020. I made my first contributions to the Apache Software Foundation Gihhub and Mozilla mobile Github

What is the Difference between Open source Software and other Types of Software?

Do not get confused with open source, free, closed software and freeware. This section highlights the differences between these types of Software.

Open Source vs Free Software

Open source software is software available for anyone to edit, improve and redistribute. The source code is accessible to anyone. Open source promotes collaboration and sharing of source code. It’s an effective way for organizations, developers and individuals to collaborate. Freedom to use the software is not absolute or imposed but it’s allowed. Every open source software is not free. However, some open source licenses are restrictive. WordPress is an example of open source software

Free Software describes software in which source code is free to use, edit and redistribute without any restrictions. With free software, Freedom is a value that is more important than any other thing. All free software is open source software. Ares is an example

Open source and free software have distinguished features. Some open source software is restrictive and all free software are open source software but not all open source software is free software. 

Open Source Software vs Freeware

Freeware is any software that is free to use and available to the general public. If you are a, it can be frustrating to use freeware because its source code is not open or rather, it’s closed so you can edit the software to fit your needs. You can only use the features it offers even if it it is limited. Google Chrome is an example of freeware

While with open source software, you have the possibility to edit, improve, and add different features to fit your needs. An example is Chromium.

Freeware source code is closed, only the developer or organization who created the software can view its source code while open source one can edit and redistribute. Freeware is copyrighted while Open source is not.

Open Source vs Proprietary Software

You do not need an authenticated license to use open source software. They function with GNU Public License. They can be installed freely on any computer system. Open source software is developed and maintained through open collaboration.

Proprietary Software is software with protected source code(closed). They cannot be installed on a computer without a valid license. So users need a valid and authenticated license to use it. They are also copyrighted like freeware but the difference is that you do not need to pay to use freeware. An example is Windows

Key features of Open Source Software

In this section, I will elaborate on the various key features and values that cover Open source Software.

  1. Transparency: Open source allows you to track and understand any changes made to software without relying on the software manufacturer. 
  2. Collaboration: The main goal of the open source initiative is to allow anyone to freely participate and improve the software. By working together, we can easily identify and solve problems
  3. Meritocracy: Including diverse perspectives from different brains can help identify the best ideas by decision-makers and could equally determine the success of a project.
  4. Community: When many people gather to help and share ideas, it creates a community where each other can get support.
  5. Review: Since source code is freely available to the public, different experimented community members can check, propose ideas and improve the software.
  6. Reliability: Many collaborators can update and test the code to check if there is any bug and fix it. Open sources do not depend on one, two or three people to maintain but rather have a large community that supports them.
  7. Flexibility: Flexibility refers to the fact that you can use open source code to address problems that are unique to your business. Plus you can rely on community help to improve an existing solution or implement a new one.
  8. Lower cost: Most of the time, open source is free to use and download. Sometimes you may need to pay for only reinforcing security and interoperability.

What are the Benefits of Open Source?

Choosing to use or contribute to open source software offers many benefits. Some of them include:

  • Open source is free
  • You have more control over the software. Compare to Closed software you can edit open source software to fit your needs.
  • It's good for anyone beginning computer programming. As a beginner, you can become a better programmer by sharing your work and contributing to other works
  • Open source is good because it can help to enhance software security as anyone can spot and fix a security issue quickly that the original programmer may have missed
  • Open source projects tend to be more stable than other types of software since there is a great community behind ready-to-deploy means to improve it.
  • It promotes collaboration through the creation of communities.
  • Open source is flexible
  • They have Good Documentation

What are the Disadvantages of Open Source Software?

Not everyone embraces the open source philosophy. Some organizations still debate the fact that open source software is more vulnerable since their source code is open to anyone.

I have been in the software community for 3 to 4 years now and I have noticed that they tend to be more secure since issues linked to security or not can easily be identified and fixed by community members. However, I equally notice some drawbacks of open source.

  • Open source software can be difficult to set up, especially for beginners. Some of them may lack user-friendly interfaces imposing you to use a Terminal
  • Liability problems. Open source rarely contains warrant or liability protections
  • Compatibility issues. 
  • Initially, there is no cost but it can be costly in the long term especially if you need immediate support. There is also training cost in case you incorporate the software into your team.
  • Not all open source possesses a user manual although you can seek help from the community it won't always be available immediately like commercial software where support is available 24h/7

How can you Start Contributing to Open Source?

how to contribute to OSS

It’s quite simple to contribute to open source software. You could do that by identifying and fixing bugs, adding features, improving documentation and writing content in the form of blog posts, technical tutorials or creating Videos. You also create your own open source project to promote open source.

To contribute to existing open source software, you should head to GitHub:

  • Find a project and Fork
  • Clone the Project to your Local machine
  • Create a new branch
  • Make changes
  • Commit your changes
  • Push your changes to your remote repository
  • Finally, Create a pull request

If you don’t have any project ideas, then open source projects to contribute to include

Open Source License

An Open source License governs how other individuals besides the initial developer can use, modify and redistribute the software. It allows the software to be transparent and changed by members of a community or third party. According to the Open Source Initiative include

Example of Open Source Software

You might have used an open source software without realising. There are many of them out there. Some popular and most-used open source software is

  1. WordPress, an open source CMS for Content Management
  2. Flutter for web, desktop and mobile development
  3. CSS Frameworks Like Bootstrap for website layout
  4. VLC Media Player for video and sound player
  5. Libre Office for word processing
  6. Open source Linux Operating System
  7. Python is open source too.
  8. Open source reporting tools include Metabase, BIRT
  9. Open source PDF viewer include Qoppa PDF Studio, pdfFiller, and Soda PDF
  10. Some Java open source projects are Arduino, Mindustry, and Signal Android
  11. We equally have open source development tools like Eclipse IDE, and Apache Cordova


Is Open Source Software Free?

Most open source software is free but there are some exceptions. Some open source licenses are restrictive and do not allow the creation of a modified version. An example is Open Source Watcom

Where can I find OSS?

You can find and download open source projects on SourceForge, OSDN, FossHub, GitHub, and F-Droid

Why Should you Contribute to OSS?

The most important advantage of contributing to open source is that you can find and collaborate with other developers hence improving your developer network.

Why is Open Source Important?

Open source improves innovations through collaboration with other organizations and developer

What are Some Open Source Competitions?

Open Source Competitions are contests where you can learn to participate in open source projects, demonstrate your coding skills, and get feedback. Examples of Open source competitions include Open Source Contest, Google Summer of Code (GSoC), Outreachy, Open Summer of Code, Free Software Foundation (FSF) Internship Program, GirlScript Summer of Code (GSSoC)

What is Closed Source Software?

Closed Software is software whose source code is only available to the author. So only the author can modify and copy it.

What is the Open Source Initiative?

The Open Source Initiative is a non-profit organisation with the main aim to educate about, form, and inform the benefit of open source


Open source is available for anyone to edit, use and redistribute. Some key features of open source include transparency, reliability, available community and flexibility. However, OSS can be costly in a long run. So if you are planning to incorporate OSS into your business you need to include additional or urgent costs in your project plan including the cost of training staff members to use the software. Some popular Open source projects include Apache, WordPress, and Mozilla Firefox.

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