It’s hip and trendy to declare a project “open source” – it means something about sharing, freely available, can be used by anyone, right? Well most of the time that’s the case – but I’ve seen a definite uptick in false declarations. I’m asked questions about selecting open source software quite a bit – so here’s a guide suitable even for the non-technical folks.
1. Find the code
This isn’t as scary as it sounds. Open source projects have to post the software source code online; otherwise the label “open source” is being used fraudulently. Look around the site for words like “Community“, or “Open Source“. There should be a link for the source code itself – this could be called “Github” (a community site commonly used for this purpose), Git or SVN (systems commonly used to manage code) or just “Source Code“. You should find something like this:
|What the open source link looks like on UstadMobile||The open source link on odoo.com|
You should then find something that looks like a bunch of files (the source code) – like this:
If you can’t find that – then someone either has a very badly designed site; or more likely is lying to try and get people to adopt their software. Also check when it was last modified – that is better when it’s recent and frequently updated; but some software which just meets all it’s requirements can hang around for a while without modifications. In this case are normally signs that it’s used by a lot of people – e.g. high download counters, active forums, something like that.
2. Try using it
It should be possible to try the software out. You should not have to compile source code to use open source software; it should be easy to use and install through an online demo or by installing on your computer/phone etc. If they say something like ’email us’ etc. then it’s obviously not so free and open to be used. Look for a Demo or Download link. No link that you can use – perhaps the software is technically open source but it’s authors obviously don’t really want people to freely use it.
3. Check who else is using it
Perhaps the website explicitly tells you about who is using it, or perhaps there are active forums. Some new projects might not have that many users. If you’re not sure then post your own question about the state of the community on an email list or forum and see if you get a reply. Some new projects might not have that many users and they might be looking for people to join in; there’s always a risk there though it can be a much lower risk than making something of your own from scratch.
Now you have a report card
Now you should be able to see if the project is really open source; and if you can actually use it. A project that fails the first two tests should be avoided just like a second hand car you’re told works great and has a perfect history and you then find out it’s been almost written off in accidents twice. It’s definitely better to see a wide community of users. If you’re depending on a piece of software you might want to get someone qualified to check into the quality of the project by looking for the testing procedures used etc.