Open does not always mean Open Source


Open Source vs Open standards

In the technology world today, the term Open is most commonly associated with Open Source.

Open Source refers to software released under a license that gives other software developers access to modify the original Source code that was used to create the software. This, in turn allows other software developers worldwide to quickly identify and fix bugs and security loopholes, as well as make feature improvements to the software. Consequently, Open Source software evolves more rapidly than other (Closed Source) software, and is considered the gold standard for software today.

The Linux operating system that rules the cloud as well as powers your Android phone and nearly all network, IoT and security devices is Open Source - as are many of the best software products on the market, including:

  • Web browsers and Web servers (e.g. Firefox, Chrome, Apache, Nginx)
  • Graphics and media software (e.g. OpenGL, Blender, Krita, VLC)
  • Nearly all Cybersecurity tools
  • Most core networking, virtualization and security technologies (e.g. OpenSSH, VNC, VirtualBox, pfSense, Wireshark)
  • Most programming languages and frameworks (e.g. C, C++, C#, Go, Python, PHP, Java, JavaScript)

But the word Open doesn’t always mean Open Source.

For example, when Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) renamed their Closed Source VMS operating system to OpenVMS in 1991, it wasn’t because they made it Open Source. OpenVMS was (and still is) Closed Source. It was because they wanted to procure more customers.

The 1980s saw a rise in technology companies that wanted to build products that didn’t play well with competitor’s technologies. This practice was designed to lock clients into a single vendor and discourage them from buying competing products (much like what Apple does today with their product ecosystem).

Of course, backlash ensued in the business computing market, and these vendors started making their products work with (often a select few) other companies or standards. To let potential customers know that their products worked with other technologies or used certain standards, they added the word Open to their product names. Hence VMS became OpenVMS.

There were many examples of this around that same time, including the OpenWindows desktop from Sun Microsystems, the OpenServer UNIX line from SCO, the OpenSTEP operating system and frameworks from NeXT, and OSF/1 UNIX from the Open Software Foundation (a collaboration between several technology companies at the time). These software products were all Closed Source, and as long as one other company worked together on them or had products that integrated with them, they could get away with using the word Open in their names, and customers were more likely to adopt them.

Most of these products used the word Open before the term Open Source was popularized in 1998. Luckily, most software products today that use the word Open are actually Open Source, but not all of them. As a result, you should always Google the name first (or check out the associated Wikipedia page) to find out whether Open actually refers to Open Source and not just the adherence to standards or interoperability with other systems.