Free VS Non-Free Software

The never ending argument. Whether everyone should use free or non-free software. First, let me explain in what context the term ‘free software’ is used.

Free doesn’t mean free of charge

That’s right. When I say free software, most people think I’m talking about software that you can get without paying anything. This isn’t always the case. When I say free software I mean open-source software. This means that everyone can look into the source code of the program, look into what makes the software tick. Often this also means that people can improve on the code and change it to whatever they want, but it is not always the case. Darwin, the Mac OS kernel, is also open-source. We can look into it, but we can’t make any modifications to it.

Why is free software awesome?

  • You can trust the software to have no hidden back doors, or malicious content, since everyone can look into the code.
  • Free software generally spreads faster.
  • Many people can work on expanding the software at the same time. Multiple hands make light work.
  • If someone is using a program built on open source code and notices that there’s a bug, he can try and fix it.
  • You can modify the software to your liking.
  • Because of the nature of free software, it gets updated faster than non-free software.
  • It’s not dependent on a company

Why is free software not so awesome?

  • It is quite hard to make money off free software. The only way people can really make money off free software is if they sell it as a service, not as just the software. A great example is Red Hat Enterprise Linux. What Red Hat sells is not their software, but their great support.
  • Some people might argue that free software is less secure, since anyone can look into the source code. This way it’s easier for hackers to find security flaws.
  • Because of the large amount of people working on one project things tend to break all the time.

Okay, now we know some of the advantages and disadvantages of free software. What about non-free software?

Advantages of non-free software:

I can’t really think of any advantages for the user. There are some for the authors of the software though.

  • The authors have full control over their software.
  • It’s quite easy to make money off non-free software. There’s no fear that a third party will copy their source code and release it themselves.
  • If the users depend on their software, the authors can make changes and limit the users’ freedom as much as they want. Take Microsoft Office for example. They don’t release Office for operating systems like Linux, because this forces users to use their operating system.

Disadvantages of non-free software:

  • Authors of non-free software tend to limit the users’ customization and freedom in order to make more money.
  • Some argue that non-free software cannot be trusted.
  • The development is slower than free software.
  • Bugs tend to be left unfixed.
  • If the author stops development on the software, there’s no way for the software to live on.
  • The control over the software is in the hands of the authors, not in the users’
“Hoarders can get piles of money,
That is true, hackers, that is true.
But they cannot help their neighbors;
That’s not good, hackers, that’s not good.”
Free Software Song by Richard Stallman

As you can see, free software has many advantages, especially for users. Even though that is true, I am not a free software extremist. Personally I think both free and non-free software have their place. I think it’s not so bad for things like GPU drivers to be non-free. Even software like the Adobe Suite should be closed-source. Otherwise there’s no money to be made. But my Operating System? I think I’d prefer it to be free.

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