Thursday, August 27, 2015

Why free software matters - even if you don't use it.

By “Free” software here I mean as in the FOSS (Free and Open Source Software) sense – software that truly does not impede on your rights.

In fact the $0 price tag of free the software is the least of its benefits. While you may download and install it to use for both private and business purposes, the real benefit is the freedom that comes with open-Source software.  Open-source software puts you under no obligations.  I won't go into the definition of free software any further here, but the Four Freedoms of Open Source software is canonically defined here : 

Note that I did not say ‘no obligation to pay’.  No obligation whatsoever.  Not even to keep on using it, which may raise an eyebrow here and there.

One of the ways in which commercially licensed software (and some free software that isn't actually Open) catches you is by preventing you from switching.  Software cost-of-ownership calculations, when done properly, include not only the entry and running cost, but also the exit cost.  When the software makes it difficult or very expensive to switch to another product, you are basically locked in.  If for example your word processor produces documents in a format that cannot be used by other, competing products, then you are caught unless you can find a way to convert your documents to a portable format, a process which may be difficult and costly.  Once you are so caught, the vendor can do some nasty things, like force you to store your documents on their servers, to pay a subscription, and very importantly, force you to upgrade.

Another important consideration is your assurance that the software will not compromise your privacy or security.  When you cannot examine the code of your programs (who of us really can – even when you have the skill, commercial software vendors will not give you the source code, and even when you have the code, for a single program like a word processor this is a task that can keep a single person occupied for a lifetime, for an operating system it is a task that can occupy teams of people forever) you fall back upon trust.  When you buy a program you implicitly trust it, and by extension, the vendor who created it.

Should you trust this vendor?  Can you trust them?  You cannot read the minds of every employee at the company, but you can rest assured that some of them do not have your best interests at heart, and that the company itself is in it to get as much of your money as possible.  Competition is a good thing though - it keeps software creators on their toes.

Upgrades are not always a good thing, especially when forced down your throat.  The new version may include features that compromise your privacy or security, and the vendor may change their license agreement wording and even their licensing model!

The one thing you can use as a guide to judging whether you can trust a software vendor is its reputation.  Of course this is far from foolproof, but it is an important aspect none the less.  I will come back to this.

Truly open software guarantees that your freedom will never be compromised.  This is because Open-source software is based in a community, not in a company.  Even if you don't actively read through the source code, millions of other people (in the community) will, changing it, and submitting enhancements and fixes.  Some examples:

It is easy to see that a lot of people are working hard to maintain and improve free software.

Software makers still need to guard their reputation - if they compromise their users, these users will start to look elsewhere to spend their money.  But when there is no competition they can do as they please.  Free software provides a real alternative to commercial software and so gives us options.  Therefore even if you don't use the free, open-source alternatives available, the mere existence of these options helps to protect your rights.

There are a few things you can do to help maintain the status quo.  Use open- source software, maybe even contribute on an open-source project.  Or simply donate to an open-source software project, such as the upcoming 2015 Randa KDE sprint -

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