While the term “free software” seems self-explanatory, there’s a lot of confusion surrounding the actual definition and usage of “free.” Before we define it, it’s important to know that free software is usually used interchangeably with open source software. Free software is exactly what it says on the tin; you can download it and run it without having to pay the owner a dime. Although the software is free to use, it may contain restrictions that make it difficult to modify, distribute, or resell. Open source software eliminates these restrictions by not only allowing the user the download the software, but also to study and change the source code and redistribute the modified program. The Latin words “gratis” and “libre” are often used in place of “free” and “open source” to prevent ambiguity.
Sweet, Free Stuff!
Well, sort of. Developing and maintaining free software is a significant time and energy investment. Some open source projects are large enough to have dedicated employees, but most projects are created, managed and distributed by volunteers. People are free to use the software as they like and, in return, contribute ideas or even code to make the project better. Through the open contribution of thoughts and ideas, developers work to improve the quality of open source software through collaboration and open involvement. Anyone who is interested in donating to an open source project is not only asked to do so, they’re encouraged.
How is Free Software Sustainable?
A project’s ability to thrive depends on the amount of effort put into it. Generally speaking, successful projects are those who are well planned, well-organized, and has members who are dedicated to the project itself rather than to a paycheck. Open source projects that are created haphazardly, shun community involvement, or are built for recognition tend to quickly fade out.
On the other hand, engaging projects that encourage community involvement have a much higher chance of gaining the momentum necessary to encourage future growth. Like a community garden, shared projects allow their members to learn and grow together by exchanging ideas and experience. Conflicts will always occur in collaborative environments, but in the free software world conflicts can be resolved in one of two ways: by coming to a consensus on the right course of action, or by creating a derivative of the original software (known as a fork). There are few reasons for the original software to suffer, since it’s driven by the motivation of its contributors.
How Does Free Software Compare to Commercial Software?
Commercial software refers to software developed for the purpose of monetization. Microsoft Windows, Adobe Photoshop, and Norton AntiVirus are common examples of commercial software. Here are just a few of the differences between both kinds of software:
- Is free
- Is maintained mostly (but not entirely) by volunteers
- Can be copied, modified, and redistributed
- Generally encourages interoperability with other software
- Costs money
- Is maintained by hired developers
- Can’t be shared or, depending on the license, copied
- Generally discourages interoperability, or does so in a way that encourages vendor lock-in
How Can I Get Involved in Free Software?
The easiest way to get involved in free software is to, simply enough, start using free software. The following list shows some of the most popular alternatives to common applications:
- Office suite – LibreOffice
- Web browser – Firefox
- Email client – Thunderbird
- Chat client – Pidgin
- Financial planning – GnuCash
- Music player – Amarok, Clementine
- Video player – VLC
- Image editor – GNU Image Manipulation Program
- Antivirus – ClamWin
- Operating system – Ubuntu
Most open source applications are always in need of volunteers. You might consider reporting bugs, creating documentation, or even submitting code.
I Already Have a Good Workflow. Why Should I Switch to Free Software?
If you’re comfortable with your existing setup, then making the leap might not be worth it. A significant time and energy investment goes into just learning new software, let alone converting over your entire workflow. As a recommendation, try using a free alternative to one of your most frequently used programs for a short time. You may find that you hate it, but you may also find that it suits your needs better.
No type of software is inherently better than another type. Hopefully this primer has helped you discover a bit more about free software and how it may affect your computing experience.