November / December 2003  Volume 29, Issue 8
ABA Law Pracice Management Magazine, November/December 2003 Issue
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How and Why to Try Open Source Software
Erik J. Heels
Tired of end-user license restrictions? Paying big sums for applications that bring corruption and compatibility problems? Want to be part of a collaborative environment that works to bring out improved programs at a faster rate? You have an alternative to propriety software.

There’s a not-so-quiet software revolution underway. It’s spurred by users’ desire to have more useful, more affordable cross-platform, standards-based software and data. The movement, known as open source software, is a direct counterassault to the restrictions that corporate developers place on their proprietary software.

Let’s look at the whats and hows of open source, as well as why lawyers should consider moving to it and how to go about making the switch.

What Is Open Source Software?

To understand what open source software is, it is helpful to understand some computer terminology. “Source code” refers to computer programs written in programming languages such as C, C++, Pascal and Java. When programmers want to test a program, they use a special-purpose application called a “compiler,” which translates the human-readable text files into computer-readable binary files called “object code.” In short, the applications that run on your computer are object code.

In Microsoft Windows, for example, the file “iexplore.exe” is the object code file for Internet Explorer. But if you try to open that file with a text editor, you won’t see anything remotely resembling the source code. You would have to decompile that file to produce any source code—and most software End-User Licensing Agreements (EULAs) specifically prohibit decompiling or any other so-called reverse-engineering. The upshot is that any efforts to improve the software, say, by eliminating bugs, rest solely in the software corporation’s hands—hands that can move slowly indeed, to the detriment of the end-user community.

Proprietary software, then, is software such as Internet Explorer that is distributed as object code and whose EULA prohibits reverse engineering. Open source software, on the other hand, is software that is distributed with source code and whose EULA typically allows users to modify and distribute the software. So if a programmer wanted to improve an open source program, he or she would be allowed to do so under the terms of a typical open source EULA.

Note that even though many open source programs are distributed at no cost, they can be sold by their developers or by those who make improvements to them. The key difference between proprietary software and open source software relates to the legal rights granted to end-users by the creators of the software, not the price charged for the software.

Building a Less-Restrictive Universe (for a Larger Share of Tasks)

Complicating matters is the fact that there are many flavors of open source software licenses. (Various versions of the licenses are indexed by the Open Source Initiative at www.opensource.org/licenses.)

Arguably the most popular is the GNU General Public License (GPL), which allows users to run, study, redistribute and improve software licensed under its terms ( www.gnu.org/licenses). The catch is that if you modify GPL software, you have agreed to license the modified software under terms no less restrictive than the GPL. In other words, you have to grant others the right to run, study, redistribute and improve your improvements. In this way, GPL software begets GPL software. For example, Linux, the UNIX-like operating system for PCs, is developed, and therefore distributed, under the GPL.

Other open source software licenses, such as the original Berkeley Software Distribution (BSD) license, do not include restrictions on how modifications must be licensed. As a result, many flavors of UNIX have been developed based on the original BSD license, including NetBSD ( www.netbsd.org), OpenBSD ( www.openbsd.org) and FreeBSD ( www.freebsd.org). Apple’s OS X operating system is based primarily on FreeBSD.

As I learned when I looked into making the transition, open source is becoming a viable option to propriety software for a larger share of the software tasks on client computers (the desktops and laptops in the hands of individual users).

A Road Map to Source Code Freedom

What prompted the transition for me? Frankly, I’d become increasingly frustrated by proprietary software with restrictive EULAs, lack of compatibility with my older data and irreparable corruption and program-failure problems. A new series of problems that I encountered with propriety software in the past year simply brought things to a head: I resolved to be more open-minded and to put in place a plan to convert to open source.

My three-step plan involves converting my data, applications and operating systems to open source:

Step 1.

Stop using Microsoft Office, start using OpenOffice.org ( www.openoffice.org) and convert existing MS Office data formats (e.g., “.doc,” “.xls,” “.ppt”) into something more portable (e.g., “.txt,” “.csv,” XML).

Step 2.
Determine replacements for Office applications (such as QuickBooks, Eudora and FileMaker).

Step 3.
Keep my PCs and install Linux, or sell the PCs and switch (back to) Macintosh.

Converting from MS Office to OpenOffice.org

I started by replacing MS Office with OpenOffice.org. OpenOffice.org is the open source version of Sun’s StarOffice suite (just like Mozilla is the open source version of Netscape). Like MS Office, OpenOffice.org includes word processing, spreadsheet and presentation applications. The current version is 1.1, but don’t let that number fool you. OpenOffice.org is a nearly 20-year-old software project and the product is very mature. OpenOffice can read and write MS Office file formats (such as “.doc,” “.xls” and “.ppt”), but I suggest using the native file formats for storing your data. OpenOffice writes in XML format, so your data will always be available, even after Microsoft goes out of business.

I’ve been using OpenOffice.org since January 2003 and am now totally comfortable with it. I used the Document Converter feature (select Autopilot from the File menu) to automatically convert MS Office files to OpenOffice format. I then deleted the MS Office files to make sure that I would not get trapped into switching back. If clients ask me to send them word processing documents, I offer to send PDF files or native OpenOffice.org files. Several of my clients have since converted to OpenOffice.org.

By the way, OpenOffice is free. If you want to pay for support, you can purchase it from Sun ( www.staroffice.com) for about $35 per year.

Determining Replacement Applications
Other proprietary software can be replaced with viable open source alternatives, including applications for billing, e-mail, Web browsing and multimedia.

I rely pretty heavily on QuickBooks for my accounting and billing. Open source alternatives to QuickBooks include software such as GNU Cash ( www.gnucash.org), SQL-Ledger ( http://sql-ledger.com) or NOLA ( http://nola.noguska.com).

If you’re an MS Outlook user, you can consider replacing it with Ximian Evolution ( www.ximian.com/products/evolution), which integrates e-mail, calendaring, meeting scheduling, contact management and task lists in one application.

There is a range of other applications out there. Here are good sites for information about open source applications available for numerous operating systems:

Selecting an Operating System

The final step will be replacing my operating system software. I haven’t yet decided whether I will choose Linux or Apple’s Mac OS X. If I keep my PCs, I can preserve my investment in existing hardware. But if I sell my existing hardware, I might recover some of the money that I’ve paid to Microsoft lo these many years. (Although if I choose OS X, some will argue that Microsoft still wins, since Microsoft owns Apple stock.)

Whatever I choose, it will take time to tinker with my new operating system to get it to work like I want it to. But I’m accustomed to using up time getting proprietary software, like Office XP, to do what I want it to do. At least with open source applications, there’s a worldwide collaborative effort among non-corporate programmers who want to help me, and everyone else, work out the bugs.

The Two-Week Challenge

Open source software and proprietary software can coexist. However, it appears that proprietary software manufacturers need to think differently about how to make money from their software. Many open source manufacturers give away their products and make money by charging for support, a model that proprietary manufacturers should adopt.

The good news is that open source, which is already popular in the server market, is now a viable option for the client market as well, whether your preferred operating system is Windows, Linux, Mac OS X or something else. And support for open source software is readily available on the Internet, usually for free. Try OpenOffice.org for two weeks, then decide. It will free your data from proprietary formats and then free you to choose any operating system you like. Where do you want to go today? It is, and should be, your choice.

Erik J. Heels

( info@heels.com) is a patent attorney in Maynard, MA, and nothing.but.net columnist for Law Practice Management.


IT’S CLOSER THAN YOU MIGHT THINK

One reason to delve deeper into open source software is that you are probably already using some of it—say, for example, to run your Web site. You can use Netcraft’s Web Server Query Form ( http://uptime.netcraft.com/up/graph) to figure out what operating system and Web server software your site is using. My Web site, for example, uses lots of open source software, including the FreeBSD operating system and the Apache HTTP (Web) server. In fact, according to Netcraft ( http://news.netcraft.com), Apache has about 65 percent of the Web server market (and rising) and Microsoft has about 24 percent of the Web server market (and falling).

—Erik Heels