Free & open source software: introduction

What is free & open source software?

It’s software (actually, it can be a lot more than software, but that’s what we’re focusing on here) that is free as in no cost, but also free to do what you like with, so you can change it and pass it on to others. Open source software is the opposite of ‘closed source’, or proprietary software such as that produced by Microsoft or Apple, the code of which is not available for you to look at.

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Richard Stallman & the GNU logo.

Because it’s free, if someone writes a code that does a specific job for them, it can be given to someone else who can add some code to do something different for them, and so on. The original software might have done something very basic and useful to just one person, but it can evolve into something very powerful and useful to a lot of people. It can benefit the original writer too, as it can still do the job it was first written for, but because of collaboration it has been improved – faults removed and functionality added.

Around 2% of the world’s computers have an open source operating system (the equivalent of MS Windows or Mac OS), but you can also run open source software on a closed source operating system. Examples of open source software include GNU Linux (operating system), Firefox (web browser), Thunderbird (email client), Libre Office (word processing, spreadsheets etc.), GIMP (image manipulation), MySQL (database) and VLC (media player).

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From the top: Mozilla Firefox; GIMP; MySQL.


In 1983, Richard Stallman launched the GNU free software project, on which many people could collaborate, and in 1985 he founded the Free Software Foundation, to promote and assist the development of free software.

In 1991, Linus Torvalds created the ‘engine’ for the first open source operating system called the Linux kernel. A kernel is the fundamental base of the code, like the engine of a car – you need a lot more than an engine to have a useful car, but it doesn’t work without the engine. Also in the 90s, Richard Stallman was developing a free operating system that needed a kernel. He used the Linux kernel and the GNU Linux operating system was born. It’s now often referred to as just the Linux system.

What are the benefits of free & open source software?

  • it’s free, as in gratis
  • it doesn’t cost anything to upgrade either, whereas old proprietary software often won’t run on new operating systems, and so you have to buy newer versions, when the old ones work perfectly well
  • commercial software companies often make their products deliberately incompatible with other companies’ products (vendor lock-in); open source software helps you avoid this
  • because so many people get to see open source code, it is checked more, and therefore tends to have fewer bugs and to be more secure; open source bugs tend to be fixed more quickly too – again because of strength in numbers
  • security: proprietary software can and often does have ‘back doors’ that allow government or corporate surveillance of people’s data; open source software is much less likely to have them, for the reasons outlined above
  • Linux will run on just about any hardware, and so can be used on old computers, helping to extend the life of computers and reduce waste
  • using free software means that you don’t have to support multinational corporations
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Fedora (Linux) user interface.

What can I do?


You can do pretty much anything with open source that you can do with purchased software. With some software you will hardly notice the difference – others will present you with a bit of a learning curve. VLC, Libre Office, GIMP, Firefox are all very simple and effective. Just search for them, download, install and play with them to see how simple they are – and they will all run on a proprietary operating system. You won’t want to pay for software again.

Keep up to speed with latest developments with technical websites like Ars Technica, Slashdot and others.

Here are more details on how to start to change to open source software. You can do it.


You can get support for open source software via online forums for that particular software. Just search and you’ll get most of your questions answered – the forums are community-based and free. You can also purchase support if you’d like a bit more peace of mind.

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Mozilla Thunderbird; Libre Office; VLC Media Player.

Operating system

When it comes to changing your operating system, if you’re at all technical, you can just search, find GNU Linux and install it on your computer. There are lots of distributor websites from which to download it. This next bit may or may not be obvious to you, but after you’ve downloaded it, you’ll have it on your computer, but you will still have a proprietary operating system – so it will have to be transferred to a CD or pen drive for example, to be installed. Then (and here’s another benefit) you can try it before you decide to go for it. You can run Linux directly from an external drive and ‘try before you (don’t) buy’.

Here’s a series of articles explaining in detail how to switch from Windows to a Linux operating system. It’s written in a way that should be completely accessible for a non-technical person (we know non-technical people who’ve done it); and if you have problems, you can drop queries in the box below.

Read those articles, do some research – go on to online forums or talk to someone who’s done it already; or just get a techie to do it all for you. Ubuntu is the most popular Linux operating system, followed by Linux Mint. It’s unusual to get problems – they just work. If there are any minor problems, they’re usually easily solved.

With an open source operating system you can customise the desktop / user interface much more than you can with a proprietary system.

It’s possible (but difficult) to get a computer store to remove Windows from a new computer, and to reduce the price accordingly. It would be good if vendors at least asked you which operating system you’d like – but corporations collaborate and support each other. The current situation is like buying a bookshelf, only to find that it’s already full of books you don’t want, but have to pay for. Linux Emporium sells computers with Linux installed, and Linux Pre-loaded lists vendors who do the same world-wide.

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Linus Torvalds & the Linux logo.


If you want to contribute to open source software, go to any open source software site and there will be information on how to join in the fun.

But one very important thing you can do is to learn how to use it properly and then teach others, and also to promote it, blog about it, spread it via social media etc. 


Other things can be developed using open source – Wikipedia is the famous example of an open source, free encyclopedia. The approach can be used for problem-solving too – it’s sometimes used in medical research. And who knows, maybe one day we’ll have open source government.

Thanks to Peter Green for information.


The specialist(s) below will respond to queries on this topic. Please comment in the box at the bottom of the page.

Simon Lennane is an NHS GP in Herefordshire. Simon has an interest in wellbeing and social prescribing, which uses non-medical sources of support in the community to address issues like loneliness and de-medicalise health conditions. In his spare time he grows fruit and makes cider organically, and is also an advocate for Linux and open source / free software.

We'd love to hear your comments, tips and advice on this topic, and if you post a query, we'll try to get a specialist in our network to answer it for you.