What is open source software?

Software is a set of codes and instructions behind the scenes that make up an application or program on a computer or smartphone device. The software tells the hardware what to do and how to do it. This is half of the user experience while interacting with any device. When comparing the best Android phones on the market, each manufacturer offers a different and unique software experience catered to its specific users. This guide covers what makes open source software sought after and how it compares to other available options, such as closed source software and freeware.

Open source softwate: The basics

Open source software refers to any application or program on the public web that is free to use, modify, and distribute online with other users. Typically maintained by a group of dedicated developers, they work together to keep the project going with new features and bug fixes. Open source software is generally seen and accepted as trustworthy because the code is made public and readily available for anyone to look through. One of the main goals behind open source software is user transparency. You want to ensure that your data won’t be at risk or misused by others.

One popular code-sharing platform, GitHub, allows users to create an open source software project in minutes. This means anyone with some coding knowledge can log in and contribute to a project by turning it into a collaborative team environment. GitHub also offers social media features where other developers can pitch ideas and interact with the community on their projects. You can even follow your favorite developers to view their latest contributions. And since much of the community does this as a free hobby, you can donate to any developer.

The Android operating system is one of the best examples of open source software. Google hosts the Android Open Source Project (AOSP) repository, which allows anyone to build a custom version of Android. Google provides the base source code for Android free of charge, and it can be modified to meet the needs of all users and customers equally. Some well-known Android smartphone manufacturers that use AOSP include Samsung with One UI 5 and OnePlus with OxygenOS 13. AOSP is also popular in the modding community, enabling users to install newer versions of Android on older devices.

What is closed source software?

When talking about closed source software, it’s the opposite of open source in every regard of the definition. While open source allows for greater transparency, closed source software consists of proprietary code that isn’t made public to the general user. That source code is maintained by a company or private group of individuals, allowing them to lock down their software secrets so that no one can exploit or gain access to it. Often, a company will use closed source software to have tighter control over the user experience without allowing anyone to mess with that.

The best example of closed source software in the modern era of smartphones is how Apple manages iOS on its iPhone line of devices. In this specific case, Apple controls both the hardware and software while keeping the user from messing with the iOS source code. Because iOS is locked down, many consider it more secure than open source alternatives, which can be partially true in some cases. However, iOS is still vulnerable to various security risks, such as operating system or firmware exploits, malware, and viruses, which are typically downloaded from malicious websites or questionable third-party app stores.

Where does freeware and shareware fit into open source vs. closed source software?

Freeware describes software that is free to download. However, there is a considerable difference compared to open source offerings. Freeware offers unrestricted access to the software, but you can’t modify the code. Like closed source software, the source code on freeware is locked down and not made available to the public. Much of the software we use and interact with on smartphones falls into this category. If you check the Google Play Store or Apple App Store, you’ll find a lot of free apps with unique features but no access to their source code.

When talking about shareware, the software is free to use to an extent, but there’s a slightly different catch here. Shareware often enforces a free trial period. Once that expires, you must purchase the software to continue using it. Some developers might keep premium features locked behind a paywall. Like freeware, many of the apps on our smartphones may fall into the shareware category, especially ones that offer extra paid features. Shareware can’t be modified or redistributed without proper permission. The source code is also not made available to the public.

Why are more users starting to look towards open source software?

Open source software is becoming more appealing for users who wish to enhance the privacy and security of their devices. We live in an always-connected online world where our personal lives are often associated with smartphones. Everything we do and save on these devices is unique to us as individuals, and intrusive data harvesting from third-party companies is on the rise. Thus, more are turning to open source apps and programs to prevent big corporations from snooping on their devices as much as possible. As technology advances, users demand even higher levels of security and privacy than previous generations.

Being open source doesn’t automatically mean the software is safe and secure. However, because the source code is widely available to the public, the community constantly inspects it to ensure everything checks out. If something nefarious were to sneak in, someone should catch and remove it before it causes harm to other users. Because open source software is generally a community effort led by privacy-minded individuals, the results often favor the users. These open source software projects are typically designed by the people for the people – an excellent motto to uphold.

Regarding Android, we mentioned earlier that AOSP is a popular tool with the modding community for a few reasons. AOSP allows anyone to make their own version of Android, which is perfect for those who like to tinker and customize. Privacy-focused users may go the route of unlocking their device’s bootloader and installing an AOSP custom ROM, stripping away the background Google services. And rather than relying on the Google Play Store for apps, various third-party open source alternatives exist as a replacement. Some do this to keep personal data tracking to a minimum to combat privacy concerns.

Open source software has plenty of advantages that make it useful

Using open source software has multiple advantages that make it worthwhile, such as the transparency of the underlying code. Knowing how it works and its intentions help you trust the software you’re using, especially regarding how your personal data is handled. On top of that, open source software often allows you to tweak and customize your device beyond what other options might provide, including stock. You choose what to do and how to do it, giving you more freedom and control over your experience. Open source software puts you in charge, not the other way around.

If you’ve always wanted to use Android without all the Google services snooping in the background, installing GrapheneOS can help you regain your privacy. We cover everything you need to know about the process and why you might want to try it on your device.

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