Jerry Peek's Free Software Notes

One of my passions is freely-available software. You might be wondering "how can Jerry get passionate about something so nerdy?". Let me explain.

Why Free Software?

Computers need software to run, and people use software to make computers do whatever they need to do. There are basically two places to get software: from a company (like Micro$oft) or freely-available. You can get good software from both places. What makes free software better than software from, say, Microsoft?

It's easier to start with why you might not want commercial software. When a company makes software for profit, that's their main goal: profit. The company needs to make money, which means they need to cut costs and drive out competition. So:

  1. If the company's software has bugs, they need to make a new release to fix it. That costs money and staff time. Therefore, bugs tend not to get fixed quickly unless they're really serious.
  2. Because the company pays its employees and (some of its) testers, testing costs money. So testing happens only when it's needed and stops sooner than it could.
  3. The company wants less competition. One natural way to do this is to persuade or force users to use the company's software. So, a company like Microsoft that sells many different kinds of software will make its software packages work together -- and also may make them not work with other software, or may patent the software or the format.
  4. If there are standards for open software that any company can build, a company like Microsoft which is big enough to persuade lots of users also has the leverage to try to subvert open standards by making their own proprietary standards. If the standards are secret, and lots of users use the proprietary product, then almost everyone will eventually need that same proprietary software -- so they can work with other people who have the same software. Eventually this can turn into a monopoly -- when we all lose, and innovation suffers.

What is Free Software?

There are lots of terms for freely-available software and various flavors of it. The basic idea is that anyone who wants the software can get it -- for free. Much free software also follows open standards. (The Internet grew this way, for example: by public standards that anyone can use and implement.)

One common misconception about free software is "you get what you pay for" -- in other words, something that's free can't be much good. True, some free software has lots of bugs or a lousy design (but then, so does a lot of software from big companies!). What makes a lot of free software so good is because the source code -- that is, the original program that was used to build the software -- is also free. So any programmer who wants to modify that software and fix bugs probably can.

In fact, programmers who fix bugs usually can contribute the fixes to the original developer. This makes life easy for the developer; the fix can be added in a hurry, with little work. This "parallel development" can have hundreds or even thousands of programmers using software, fixing its bugs, and adding new features. So, potentially, free software can have many times more programmers working on it than even software from the largest companies.

Programmers get passionate about free software because they want good software without bugs. There's also the old truism that if a person does good things, good things will come back to them. With free software, that really works! The cycle feeds on itself.

Some companies promote free software, develop it to higher standards, and still find ways to make a profit. For instance, companies maintain freely-available software (working together with its users, worldwide); they also sell support (training, consulting) and value-added products that build on that free software. Companies doing free software include vendors of the popular Linux operating system -- and almost anything on the Internet that uses open standards for, say, electronic mail. (There are links below to more information.)

I'm not saying that free software is right for every situation. Companies need to make profit, and programmers need steady jobs that pay them. Still, free software is too big, and too good, for you to ignore. I hope you'll try some. If you're a programmer, I hope you'll get involved in using and developing it.

Where to Get Free Software and Information

Here are some links to information about free software and to the software itself:

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Last change: 10 June 2010

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