Published on 5.7.2019

Open source is not scary

To many “open source” seems quite alien and abstract – what “open source” really even means?

First let’s take a look at the term “source”. Every single software consists of code which contains the appearance and the different functionalities of the software. This is called the software’s source code – it is the source where the software originates from. Pekka Sarkola once said that source code is like a cake recipe that is used to bake a certain kind of cake (software). I will hold on to this parable.

Now let’s zoom into the term “open”. If the “source” is referring to the recipe of the cake (software), open means that you can freely get the recipe to yourself, spread it and edit it to fit your own needs. To sum up, “open source” means that you get the software’s source code and the software itself, you can freely use it, spread it and edit the source code as you like. Not scary at all right? Sounds even kind of neat.

Next I will answer some frequently asked questions about open source and confront some prejudice towards open source software.

If I use open source software, do I have to know how to code?

Absolutely not – you don’t have to know how to code even one bit to use open source software. If you’re not interested in messing with the source code, you just use the software with its original source code. You can also utilize the other benefits of open source: the software is free to use and you can freely spread it to those who need it. The openness of the source code and its editing possibilities are just one perk among others. And if you later decide that you want to mess with the source code and develop it, you can do so. You have it.

Is open source software TRULY reliable?

Open and especially free software often raise some suspicions – which is justifiable. One of the most notable worries is the reliability of the software. Can you trust to a software which you have paid nothing for and therefore have no rights to demand basically anything from the software? First you should remember that when you download a free open source software, you get the recipe: the source code with the software. Therefore you will always have the recipe for the cake and no one will take that away from you. If the baker, who has developed the recipe, quits or gets bankrupt, you have your copy of the recipe. You can use the recipe as it is, develop it yourself or you can take the recipe to another baker to be developed. This is the silverlining you will always have, even if the developers disappeared into thin air.

The dystopian scenario described above can be evaluated beforehand by zooming into the software community. Open source software’s community consist of users, developers, contributors, organisations and so on – basically the people that have something to do with the software. The community can be regarded as one of the key “reliability indicators”: if the software has strong and vast community, it enhances the reliability of the software and the future of the software looks bright. Sanna Jokela also reminded that you can examine GitHub repository and the software’s own homepage for the community attributes, such as the amount of developers and recent contributions. It is at least as likely that a proprietary software with a sealed source code stop developing their software as it is for open source software with strong community. Here you should also remember the previously mentioned silverlining: open source community will always have the recipe for the cake – proprietary software are left with nothing.

The open source software that Gispo supports (QGIS, PostGIS, GeoServer…) have strong communities and these software are very reliable all in all.

Free software = free labour?

Open source software are also called free software (FOSS: Free and Open Source Software) – that is what they are, but as a term “free” can be a little misleading. Free software for the user doesn’t mean that the developers of the software aren’t getting paid for their work. The previously mentioned community (like users, organisations…) support the software development financially – for example the development can be supported through crowd funding or buying the development work straight from the competent developers. In many cases the developers are employed by the organisations giving the funding. And of course there are users, developers and anything in between who are motivated to develop the software for free and for their own enjoyment.

Remember that many open source software have also support services!

Indulge yourself further:


Gispo Oy

Gispo – a leading open source GIS house in Northern Europe – was founded at 2012 in Finland. Our GIS forges are situated in Helsinki, Turku, Joensuu and Stockholm. We solve spatial problems with open source solutions.