How to Open Source Software

Open source is a term that is thrown around frequently, but usually in reference to open source software. While this book focuses on the internal workings of how to open source a software product, it also gives you insight into the process itself, as well as ideas of how to bring your software idea to market.

Learning how to open source software is a great way to learn how code works behind the scenes. Whether you’re interested in a career change or want to share your code with others without having to worry about full ownership of it, open sourcing can be a great creative outlet and allow you to help others while helping yourself.   

Determine the goals

Every open source project solves a specific problem. Talk with colleagues, chats, forums, and share your idea. It all helps you on the first steps to understand important things, like which solutions already exist, and to hear criticism. Talk with people who already have open source projects. They can give you very valuable advice, so don’t be afraid to ask and take the initiative.

One important bit of advice which I got at that stage is to pay attention in the first place on the documentation of the project. You can have a very good project, but no one will spend the time to understand how it works.

The most important aspect, without which further steps are impossible, is motivation. The idea of the project should inspire you primarily. Most often people get used to the tools with which they work and fall into a comfort zone, so external opinions may be ambiguous.

Create your own open source project

Every project should start with an identified need. If you feel that existing projects on GitHub or Bitbucket don’t offer the functionality you would like to build, then create your own open source solution. Besides an initial project draft, you should consider the following set of questions:

  1. What skills do you need for your project?
  2. How much time are you willing to spend on your project?
  3. What problem(s) does your software solve?
  4. How many potential users are there for your product?

Planning

The choice of a certain task manager is a matter of taste. It should have a clear picture of the tasks and stages of your project.

Divide tasks into sub-tasks. Ideally, if one task does not take more than 3–4 hours, it is important to enjoy the implementation of small tasks. This will help to avoid burnout and loss of motivation.

I use pivotal tracker. The main advantage is a free version for open source projects where you can sort tasks by type (feature, bug, chore, release), and group them into releases and determined deadlines.

Create open source alternatives to commercial software

Today’s commercial projects actively engage open source solutions. Many companies base their projects on free tools. When there’s a huge selection of software, you don’t need to reinvent the wheel. This is why it’s useful to play around with free software that can replace similar proprietary software, or that fixes an issue you’ve recently faced.

Another reason for replacing commercial solutions with open source software is eagerness for real innovation and growth. Commercial software claims to be innovative, but its final goal is turning a profit. Open source software unites best practices, great quality of code and passionate developers willing to code just because they like to.

Free Software

Although the terms are often used interchangeably, OSS is slightly different from free software. Both deal with the ability to download and modify software without restriction or charge. However, free software—a concept developed in the 1980s by an MIT computer science researcher, Richard Stallman—is defined by four conditions, as outlined by the nonprofit Free Software Foundation. These “four freedoms” emphasize the ability of users to use and enjoy software as they see fit.https://efc7ff81a88c980ee33fffda67181ccd.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html

In contrast, the OSS criteria, which the Open Source Initiative developed a decade later, place more emphasis on the modification of software, and the consequences of altering source code, licensing, and distribution.

The two overlap; some would say the differences between OSS and free software are more philosophical than practical. However, neither should be confused with freeware. Freeware usually refers to proprietary software that users can download at no cost, but whose source code cannot be changed.

Advantages

While its lack of cost is a key advantage, OSS has several additional benefits:

  • Its quality can be easily and greatly improved when its source code is passed around, tested, and fixed.
  • It offers a valuable learning opportunity for programmers. They can apply skills to the most popular programs available today.
  • It can be more secure than proprietary software because bugs are identified and fixed quickly.
  • Since it is in the public domain, and constantly subject to updates, there is little chance it can become unavailable or quickly outmoded—an important plus for long-term projects.

Documentation

Every open source project should contain these things:

  • README
  • Open Source license
  • Contributing guidelines
  • Changelog

The README file not only explains how to use your project, but also the purpose of your project. If you do not know how to properly write a README file, you can look at other known open source projects or use a template.

The license guarantees that others can use, copy and modify the source code of the project. You need to add this file to each repository with your open source project. MIT and Apache 2.0 GPLv3 are the most popular licenses for open source projects. If you are not sure what to choose, you can use this convenient service.

The CONTRIBUTING file will help other developers contribute to the project. At the first steps of the project, it is not necessary to pay close attention to this file. You can use the already prepared template from another project.

Changelog contains a supported, chronologically-ordered list of significant changes for each version. As with the CONTRIBUTING file, I do not advise paying special attention to this at an early stage.

Contribute to existing open source projects

You can find many projects you are free to participate in on GitHub – a developer-oriented platform with a simple but essential set of functionality. GitHub attracts developers with public APIs, a sleek and frequently updated UI, gists (Git repositories) that allow you to share pieces of code or even whole applications, and much more. You can contribute to free software in many ways. Developers can fork projects, make changes to code, and send pull requests. And quality assurance is always appreciated. Sometimes developers are too busy or too lazy to check the quality of their code. So go ahead and report a bug or try to fix it – your help is appreciated.

You can reach the hottest GitHub projects by following the “Trending” link. And in order to make your search more relevant, use advanced search: select the language you would like to code in and choose “best match” criteria. Best match ranks projects according to relevance, taking into account the number of forks (which represents how actively the project is updated) and stars (“likes”, in the language of Facebook). Most projects have known issues (however, some don’t) with labels like “bug”, “discussion”, “security”, or “refactor”, or other labels according to the level of difficulty: “easy”, “medium”, “hard.”

Conclusion

This is for the tinkerers and do-it-yourself crowd out there. If you’re wondering how to introduce a friend or co-worker to open source software, this guide may be of some help. We dove into the community with an open mind, and we’ll share our experience both good (and bad) with you.

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