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What is open source?

Source code from the open source music player AmarokFrom web browsers to robots, open source software is everywhere. But what exactly is it?

When a piece of software is written, its source code has to be “compiled” to allow the computer to run it. This means that the programmer has the program in two forms: the source code, which can be read and edited by people, and the compiled program (“binary”) which can be run.

Often, only the binary will be available to the public: for example, when you buy a computer game you don’t normally get the source code for it. Keeping the source code to themselves allows businesses to stop their work from being stolen, and can make it harder for people to remove features like copy protection.

Open source software takes a different approach: the source code is released to the public, so that users can look at it and, if they want to, change it. This means that there are more people to look for and fix bugs, and to create new features.

Open source software is closely related to free software. Like open source, free software allows anyone to look at, change and distribute the source code. The main difference is the reason behind doing so: open source is designed to create better software by letting anyone contribute to it, whereas free software is based on the idea that users should be free to use software however they like. The “free” in “free software” means “freedom”, rather than “without cost” – although one advantage for users is that it’s usually both!

Lots of free and open source software is used in the world today, such as the web browser Firefox. There might even be open source software in your pocket: most of the Android smartphone operating system is open source.

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