Wondering why on earth so many people are proclaiming the benefits of Free Software? Need a cheat sheet for when you go and shout from the
rooftops? Here’s a brief run-down of the top reasons for Free Software being a ‘good thing’ For more detailed arguments then Richard Stallman’s
eloquent writings are at the Free Software Foundation’s Site (http://www.fsf.org).
So in alphabetical order:
With software source-code being unavailable to study it is becoming increasing difficult for academics to learn about
each others’ works and to share or reference these works. Furthermore it’s harder for students to learn when they can’t dig into a system’s logical
underpinnings – Free Software let’s people learn.
We live in a world of individuals where the ideas of helping your neighbour are less and less common if for no other
reason that we don’t know our neighbours. It may be a small gesture but if computer users across the globe can see the power of communities in
building and improving Free Software, maybe it will encourage the first steps of rebuilding community fabric off-line.
While the emphasis in the Free Software movement is on Free as in “Free Speech” and not as in “Free Beer”, the terms of a
Free Software license mean that you don’t need to pay for a program – it’s compilable source will be always available at little or no cost.
Free Software developers have freedoms that commercial developers don’t normally have. The result is often more
creative software that caters to a broader church of users. Furthermore with the source available artists, pranksters and others can modify Free
Software to help them in their work – they don’t need to build from scratch – further helping the creative world.
It’s truly nefarious that organisations like the Business Software Alliance paint un-authorised copying as “piracy” – the PR
cunning of equalling sharing with armed conquer on the high seas is despicable. Software didn’t used to be seen as property like gold or bananas, it
was only with the advent of new business models as advocated by Microsoft, Lotus etc that copying became “a bad thing” as it was “dangerous” to
their modus operandi. But software should be shared, by giving a copy of a program to you I’m not taking from someone else – software isn’t
physical and yet they try and force physical concepts of ownership onto it. Sharing and helping others is the right thing to do, and you shouldn’t
need to be Robin Hood to do it.
- Network Effects
Metcalf’s Law states that the value of a network goes up by the square of the number of people on that network.
However this doesn’t explicitly mention the power of standards – open ones which no single entity controls being particularly important. Free
Software is easy to distribute helping to ensure that our networks are built on non-proprietary protocols that nobody can control to their personal
gain and the detriment of others.
Why keep re-inventing the wheel? With Free Software developers can take portions of Free programs and re-use them
to create a solution that meets their needs – without having to write new ways of doing the same old thing or negotiate arcane licensing deals.
The Free Software maxim is that “many eyes make bugs shallow”. Lots of people use Free Software and a significant
proportion of them fix bugs themselves or are keen to give back to the community by reporting them in enough detail to get them fixed. With non-
Free Software you are reliant on whoever does have access to the source to fix the bug properly (if they see it as a bug) and then effectively distribute
the bug. Furthermore binary-only fixes are often harder to implement than just distributing new source.
Developers of non-Free Software make assumptions that nobody will fully find out how their software works. The result:
Security through obscurity – the worst kind of “security”. Free Software developers know that everyone can see how their systems work and so are
forced into better security practices. Anyone can audit their code for backdoors and other holes and security flaws that are found are generally
quickly fixed by the developers responsible. If not, you have access to fix it yourself!
- Your Future
If you buy commercial software you generally choose it because the features provided meet with your organisation’s
objectives for now and the near-term future. Furthermore the supplier’s own strategy and support meet your projected needs. But with mergers,
market re-alignments, corporate shakeouts and so on there is no guarantee that the supplier will keep providing the features you need, keep
developing the software or even keep supporting it. And with no access to the source code you won’t have control over your destiny – you’ll be
forced to write off your investment and commit to a new supplier.
With Free Software that needn’t be the case, if the supplier of your
support contract changes direction you can keep developing the software the way you want it to be because you have full access. Why be held
ransom to others?