What do churches have in common with some of biggest technology companies in the world? They too can have access to the core technology systems that help those companies to offer the services that they do.
How many churches have the money to spend on some of the best technology the technology world has to offer? The answer: Every single church.
How is this possible? Open Source software.
Open source software is computer software that has been produced and is licensed in such a way that the software is allowed to be downloaded and accessed by anybody, free of charge.
Open source in many cases is built by people that care about software as something they love to produce and something that they want to build. The developers care about how things are done, and the quality of the end result rather than the money that they can get from selling the software itself.
There are many many examples of software that have been released under an open source license. Perhaps the biggest open source project in the world is an operating system known as Linux. Linux is the core of an operating system that was originally written by a student named Linus Tovalds when he was at university in 1991.
Since that time Linux has grown from a university project into a system that has thousands of people worldwide working on it, turning into a highly reliable and large scale operating system that has been sponsored and further contributed to by some of the biggest technology companies in the world such as IBM and Google. Indeed it is Linux that runs the the core systems of the companies mentioned at the beginning of this article. It is Linux that allows these companies to operate at the size and scale that they operate at.
There are many variations of the core Linux systems known as distributions. Some distributions of Linux are designed for high performance network servers, and some for educational systems, and some are for end users to use every day on their desktop or laptop. If you would like to try the Linux operating system on a spare computer, perhaps the best introduction to the world of Linux is a distribution known as Ubuntu. Ubuntu is a system that packages many pieces of software that is released under open source licenses, and bundles them together on a single CD, in a manner that makes it much easier for novices to approach.
In talking about Linux, it is hard not to mention one of the latest Linux distributions, one that is not for computers, but is for mobile phones, It is called Android, and has been developed by Google and it is currently the fastest growing mobile phone system in the world at the moment.
What other types of software have been released as open source? Pretty much every type of software. One you may have heard of is Firefox. Firefox is a web browser that lets you see all of the web content and has many useful features that for a long time were not offered in the closed commercial systems such as Internet Explorer. Indeed it was competition from open source browsers such as Firefox that forced Microsoft to resume work on Internet Explorer that had stopped for over 5 years.
There are office suites such as LibreOffice which provides a comparable level of features to much more well known commercial systems like Microsoft Office. There is presentation software for displaying video and song lyrics on projectors in church. There is recording software that allows churches to record sermons easily, and even produce albums using open source software. There is blogging tools that help church blogs be developed and designed. There is 3D modelling software and video editing suites that allow creative teams to develop great promotions for the church events. There is tools that turn a spare computer into a full featured file server with more features than most people will ever need. Perhaps most importantly there is great bible study tools that help you to dig deeper into Gods Word.
Why should churches care about these things? Churches run on money that is tithed by people faithful to seeing the church grow and reach out into the community. Instead of spending money on software that needs to be endlessly paid for, churches have the opportunity to use that money for reaching out into the community more effectively.
There are criticisms of open source software in that it is more difficult to use or more difficult to configure than the commercial alternatives. In some cases this can be true, however for the most part it is the learning curve that is different. People that are familiar with commercial software tend to want to stick to the systems that they know, not necessarily that it provides the best system,or the most cost effective system but because it is the most familiar.
For most things there will be a learning curve, but this is true for every system, commercial software or open source software. The saying that "Open source is only free if your time is worth nothing" does hold some truth, but I personally am yet to find a church that is money rich and volunteer time poor. Volunteers do have limited time, but I'm willing to bet that if you try, you will find someone who has an interest in technology and wants to see what an open source system can do for the church.
What is there to loose? There is no money at stake. The worst case is that a free option is discarded because it doesn't have a specific feature that your church needs. If that is the case, and the software really is missing something, try sending an email to the person that developed the software. There is a possibility that the person will respond and give you an updated version to try out. How many commercial companies will do that without paying them first?
List of Open source software mentioned in the article. All of these systems can be downloaded and used free of charge.
Malcolm Sharman has been fascinated by technology for as long as he can remember, and is currently a software engineer at a large technology company. He lives on the Gold Coast with his wife and son.