Understanding Free Software

The world of Free Software is filled with commonly used, but often unfamiliar, terms due to subtle differences in the way the software is created.  It isn’t necessary to understand these things in order to benefit from using free software…but it can help, and may even put other things in perspective.  The purpose of this post is to explain in the simplest possible way how free software differs – and to offer a reminder that free software can be extremely high quality.  Most of all, it truly and genuinely doesn’t cost a dime.  Why?  Because it turns out quite a few people in this world are both talented and generous.  Seriously.  It’s true.  Here we go.

Freeware – Probably the most commonly used term for free software.  Also probably the most common type.  The underlying code is private (or “closed”).  Only the original author can modify it.  But this doesn’t matter to most users, who don’t care about the underlying code.  They are still free to download and use it and, in most cases, share it with others.  If you enjoy the software, and appreciate the hard work put into creating it, there is usually an option somewhere to offer a small donation to the author.

Open Source – Another popular term; a type of free software; also an entire movement within the software development community.  Unlike Freeware (and Commercial Software) the underlying code is completely “open.”  Users who are so inclined, and endowed with the proper coding skills, can open up the source code and tinker around with it, perhaps making improvements and changes along the way.  Almost by definition this kind of software is community driven.  That is, usually many talented people contribute to the project, constantly improving the software  and keeping it up to date.   There are many small nuances in the way all this works but that’s the gist of it.  Ultimately, the only thing that matters to the rest of us is that this software is free to use.  If we appreciate the hard work that goes into keeping it alive, a small donation is an excellent way to show our thanks.

Portable – This is just a quick way of saying that the software can run directly off a USB drive.  Some free software has two versions, a regular and a “portable” version.  Other software is natively portable (meaning that it will run from your hard drive or a USB drive).  Sometimes the software has to be installed to the USB drive in order to work properly.  Other times it’s as simple as dragging the software file (the executable) from your hard drive to the USB drive.  In every case the end result is that you can take the software with you.  It’s portable.  I use a handful of “portable apps” right here on my main computer.  Not because they’re portable, but simply because they work well.  The fact that they also happen to be portable is just a bonus.

Cross Platform – As you probably know there are but a few major Operating Systems that, pretty much, rule the world.  They are Windows, Mac OS, and Linux.  (Ubuntu is one flavor of Linux geared toward average users, and also happens to be 100% free).  These are “platforms.”  Software has to be written to run on a given platform.  In many cases the author of a piece of software will code it to run on multiple platforms, or all the major platforms.  The end result is a piece of software that is “cross platform.”  Otherwise, you would need to see which Operating System the software was written for.

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On the other side of things we have a sort of hybrid between traditional Commercial Software and Freeware.  This is called…

Shareware – The software is usually free to try for a limited time, after which the user must pay to continue using it.  Or, another approach is to offer a feature limited version of the software with no expiration.  But in order to take advantage of all the features users can (optionally) pay to upgrade to a “Premium” or “Pro” version.  Some might argue that the latter of these two still qualifies as “Freeware” since, technically, the user never has to pay if they don’t want to.  There’s no need to settle that debate here and now other than to agree that it’s a debatable matter.

Then of course there is what most people are used to, Commercial Software.  The underlying code is proprietary and closed, and probably protected by one form of copyright or another.  Users can purchase the software; but in reality you really only purchase a “license” to use the software.  In fact, it has even become difficult to define what it means to own a piece of software.  But that’s another topic for another day.  The defining characteristics of Commercial Software are that it’s purpose is to generate profit (for a corporation or individual), and is usually accompanied by some sort of customer support.  Although, it is not uncommon for even that to cost extra nowadays.

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I’m an advocate of Free Software because I’ve had the fortune of using some truly excellent Free Software to greatly enhance my productivity.  When you stick to those with a proven reputation one can almost be guaranteed to enjoy a game or application that’s both high quality and stable, and often comes with free support through the use of support forums (or message boards).  In this day and age of prolific, high quality free software, there’s no reason to believe we are ever stuck paying for and using costly, proprietary Commercial Software.  If you find something that works, works well, and you’re willing to pay for it…great.  Alternatively, there may be something else that works, works equally well (or better) and also happens to be completely free.

…just don’t forget to support these folks from time to time if you have the means.

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Published in: on March 14, 2010 at 11:07 am  Comments (1)  
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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. Quite an informative post, Fessic. I’m also a fan of open source software. I’ve been using Linux, Open Office and open source tools for some time now, and I rarely go back to Windows these days. The spirit behind open source gives me hope, because it proves that people are willing to work for a common cause, without expecting any kind of retribution.


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