What is FLOSS?

As a way of kicking off this blog, it seems like a good to talk about what FLOSS is and go over some of the various pros and cons. In the realm of technology, FLOSS means Free/Libre Open Source Software. FLOSS projects are alternatives proprietary software which often comes with price tags and restrictions on use.

Back in the 1970s and 1980s, computer scientists started using the term free software to differentiate it from proprietary software. Proprietary software came with restrictions, and they weren’t allowed to look at the source code to see how it worked. They felt offended by these restrictions and developed the concept of free software. However, some people found this confusing because the word free has more than one meaning.

The computer scientists who developed the term meant free as in freedom, but when other people saw the term free software they thought it meant free as in beer, which wasn’t necessarily the case. It was possible for free software to be free as in freedom, but still have a price tag. It was also possible for software to be free as in beer (i.e. gratis), but have restrictions on its use. To help clear up some of the confusion, in the 1990s, some other computer scientists came up with the term open source.

Open source software may or may not come with a price tag, though normally it doesn’t. The main criteria for being considered open source is for the source code to be open and available for people to look at without any restrictions or costs. This allows people to figure out how it works. Companies that make proprietary software often have a problem with this, because they feel it allows people to take their ideas. Open source projects feel innovations should be shared, so they don’t have problems with others taking a look at their code.

The distinction between free software and open source may seem negligible, but some people find it important. Richard Stallman (also known as RMS) summarizes it thus,

The two political camps in the free software community are the free software movement and open source. The free software movement is a campaign for computer users’ freedom; we say that a nonfree program is an injustice to its users. The open source camp declines to see the issue as a matter of justice to the users, and bases its arguments on practical benefits only.

Free/Libre Open Source Software (FLOSS) is a handy acronym that serves as a compromise between the two camps without favoring one or the other. On this blog, I may use the terms interchangeably, but felt it it was important to note the distinctions.

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