One of the main goals of the Open Translation Tools conference was to get a strong sense of the state of open tools to facilitate the translation of both open source software and open content. As you can tell, this community really likes the word open. But first it’s important get a better sense of just what it is that defines open source software and open content, and why we need open tools to translate both into many different languages. This post, the first in a series of four, will provide a brief overview of what defines ‘open source software.’ It’s not meant to be authoritative (for that, go to Wikipedia). Rather, it’s for my mostly non-technical friends – the majority of whom are interested and intrigued by the idea of ‘open source’, but who get frustrated and annoyed by the language (or lack thereof) of geek-speak.

For most of you, open source software is Firefox and WordPress. Back when Internet Explorer used to be even uglier, you wanted a better browser, one with tabs and different themes and plugins that let you interact with your blog and delicious account. So when Microsoft wouldn’t give you those features, you chose a browser that would. You’re not alone. Just a couple years ago Internet Explorer was used by about 90% of all people who visited this website. Now, there are consistently more visitors who use Firefox than IE.

Not only does Firefox give you many more features than Internet Explorer, but if you know a little bit of programming, then you can adapt the tool for any of your customized needs. Not so for Internet Explorer. This is the real importance of open source software – it puts you in complete control of what the software is able to do and how it manages your information. If you’re not happy with it, you’re able to go into the source code and do what you want with it to suit your needs.

Which is why so many bloggers eventually switch from the proprietary service Blogger.com to the free and open source tool, WordPress. (WordPress.org has since started a commercial service, WordPress.com, in addition to the open source version of the software which complicates things.) Blogger.com is great and easy to use. Two of our Rising Voices projects use it because it’s so easy to get started with. But when you want more features on your weblog and more control over how it deals with your content, it’s best to use WordPress. And if WordPress, as it is, doesn’t do everything you need it to, you can go into the source code and make any adjustments necessary to suit your needs. (This is what Boris and Jeremy have done in order for the Global Voices site to do everything we need it to.

And then there is the issue of language. Internet Explorer is currently available in 24 different languages. Firefox, on the other hand, is available in over 40 different languages. But the real important distinction is that if you want to take the time to translate the software yourself so that it’s available in your own language, with Firefox you can, with Internet Explorer you can’t. This is also true with Blogger.com and WordPress. Blogger is available in 36 different languages. WordPress is available in more than 50. And, again, if it isn’t available in your language, you’re able to do the work so that it is.

Still, most of us use commercially licensed software on a daily basis. We do this because it is easier to use, more prevalent, and better documented. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t piss us off. I’m sure you’re all familiar with the disappointment of buying songs from iTunes and not being able to burn yourself a CD so that you can listen to them in your car. Or, here’s another example: last week I was helping Mari take a screenshot of a DVD from one of the Oakland city hall meetings. Neither Windows Media Player nor Mac OS X’s DVD player let you take a screenshot while a DVD is playing. Absurd! You could be the creator of that DVD and yet you’re still not allowed to take a screenshot of it. So, instead we used the excellent VLC media player, which not only allows you to watch video in many more formats than Mac’s bundled applications, but also let’s you take a screenshot. And if it didn’t, since it’s open source, you could change the code yourself. Once again, if VLC isn’t already available in your language than you can translate it yourself so that it is.

Hopefully this gives you an overview of what open source software is and what some of its advantages are, especially for those who speak non-colonial languages. Personally, I’m not ready to say goodbye to my Mac yet, but I do have Ubuntu installed on here and slowly but surely I’ll start playing around with all of the apps listed on Mark Pilgrim’s essential Mac > Ubuntu migration list.

Next post in the series: what defines ‘open content’, how it differs from traditional content, and why it is important.

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