Tech & Work

Why free software really isn't (and shouldn't be) free

In this guest post, DarkDuck says both Free Open Source Software (FOSS) and proprietary software require some financial investment, but there are definite advantages of choosing FOSS. Do you agree?

[Editor's note: This guest post, written by DarkDuck - the author and owner of the blog Linux notes from DarkDuck - is part of the "open mic" segment of the TechRepublic Out Loud blog. Other members are welcome to submit their posts as well.]

If you've looked into buying software licenses, you know that they can be expensive. Big Guns from Big Corporations charge a lot for their work - the work of their programmers, the marketing department, and so on.

Of course, there's plenty of free software available. Here are three types of free software you may consider:

  1. Shareware / Adware. I combine these two types into one, because basically, they're not truly "free." You pay for its use by having limited functionality, looking at ads, etc. The author of this software gets the money.
  2. Freeware. This is software written by somebody who does not want to open the source code. Despite the closed source code, the author doesn't forbid the free distribution and usage of the software.
  3. Open Source Software (OSS). Generally speaking, OSS is not necessary free. You can find examples in Red Hat Enterprise Linux. This operating system is Open Source, but you still should buy licenses. If you don't want to pay, you may find CentOS as an alternative, which is compiled from the same source code but is distributed for free.

The general difference between OSS and Freeware is that OSS is usually distributed under the GPL license, which binds everyone by obligation to pass all the rights to the community and distribute the source code free of charge with the software itself. Having the software code, you can check, verify, and make changes to it.

In this article, I will refer to free software as Free Open Source Software (FOSS). So, if you decide that you're fed up with license fees and want to switch to FOSS, does that mean you'll never have to pay for your IT costs? For individual usage, you're probably right. After all, you can usually find help online if you run across any problems or issues. The internet is full of FOSS-oriented resources, including blogs and forums.

However, the situation is different if you're seeking FOSS for a company. Time is often better spent doing business than digging through the Internet for the answers you need. So, in this case, you may require proper support operations. Depending on the size of the company or complexity of tasks, you may wish to hire your own specialist, outsource it, or find a combination of the two.

Besides everyday support, you'll also need help with the actual implementation of FOSS. If you're just starting up your business, you'll need to work out a concept of your software usage. For people already in business, it might be necessary to add a migration strategy to the scope, especially if preexisting software is in place. Even if software is free, you still need to implement, configure, run, and maintain it.

Ultimately, both FOSS and proprietary software require some financial investment. But remember, proprietary software is not yours, even after you initially shell out a lot of money for it. When a Big Company says you need an update because they no longer support your version, the only choice you have is to update the software. However, updated versions inevitably have higher system requirements, which often equate to additional investments in hardware.

On the other hand, FOSS is yours. Sure, it has its own life-cycle and some older versions are no longer supported - but generally speaking, there are still versions of FOSS on the market that can work on x486 PCs. Since they're (un)officially supported, they get fresh security updates and so on.

Do you have any x486 in your attic? How about a desire to put new soul in your ex-scrap? FOSS software is predominantly more efficient in resource usage, simply because it's open. If someone sees a place that can be improved, it will happen. You don't need to seek help from Big Company to make changes in the code.

Are you convinced? If you haven't already, when will you start your migration to FOSS?

About

Sonja Thompson has worked for TechRepublic since October of 1999. She is currently a Senior Editor and the host of the several blogs.

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