Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Debunking Free Software Myths

I fancy myself to be what some would call a "Free Software Advocate" and as such when I am making recommendations of free software to people I hear many of the same common misconceptions day in and day out. Lets separate some of the fact from the fiction shall we?

#1 Free software is Illegal

This is easily the most common phrase I hear when recommending free software to new people. (Not just the un-educated make this mistake either, one of my college professors made this assumption when I brought up the topic in class) Let me assure you that free software is 100% legal, you are not breaking any laws by downloading and using it. Most free software is typically released under the GNU license or some similar license.

#2 You get what you pay for

This idea is simply not always true in the case of software. Don't believe me? Go give OpenOffice a download or maybe play around with image editing in Gimp for a short while. These are by no means "low quality" or "cheap" software simply because they are free of charge. Now, I am by no means saying that all FOSS programs are of this same quality - but then not all software that you have pay for is all that fantastic either.

#3 Free Software is harder to Use

Nine times out of ten someone who is telling you this simply is not familiar with what ever piece of free software they are complaining about. What they mean to say is "this program has a different user interface I have to adjust too", which they in turn interpret as the software being difficult to use. This is a fact of life though, all GUIs take some getting used to - you didn't know where all the functions were in Microsoft Office the first time you sat down to use it either.

#4 Free Software is Insecure or Buggy

No piece of software is perfect, free or otherwise. That being said, a piece of matured free software (version > 1.0) is typically more stable and secure than a piece of closed source software. Why is this? Think of it this way, a piece of closed source software has a team (often times a small one) that works on it - no one else. This means there are a limited number of people that can search for errors and correct them in the code, meaning when there are bugs discovered it also typically takes slightly longer to get them resolved. A piece of open source software on the other hand has the code available for anyone who wants to improve and edit it. This means there can be hundreds (or in some cases thousands) of programmers pouring over the code, searching for (and fixing) bugs and security holes.

#5 No One uses Free Software

Well that is just wrong. Beyond just Linux however there are countless (Really, we cannot count them. With free software a single download can account for hundreds of installations.) businesses and individuals who have been moving over to using free software both for economic and stability reasons.

#6 "Free" Software simply means Free of Charge

Yes, free software is free of charge. However there is more to it than that. Truly free software means that it is "open source". I touched on this briefly in the third point, "open source" means the code that allows the program to run is available for anyone to take, edit, and learn from as they please. While freeware is nice, it is nowhere near as powerful as FOSS and the two should not be confused.

Is free software the right choice for you? That is your decision! Interested in finding out what kind of free software is out there and what it can do? Then check out - it is one of the best sources on the web for finding free software alternatives to commercial software.

Any other free software promoters out there know of other common mistakes people assume when they hear about free software? Let me know by dropping a comment below.

~Jeff Hoogland


  1. The more 'hands' involved in any project, the greater the chance that the product will suck. The more 'eyes' that look at a project, the greater the chance that the original concept will get corrupted. So-called "free" software puts more 'hands' on the project, and more 'eyes' into the software, and produces crap.

    Be honest now, which would you rather use if price were no object, Open Office or Microsoft Office?

  2. The company I work for provides me with Windows and MS Office at no cost to myself. I use Linux and Open Office and encourage others to do the same. So no, money is not the reason I use free software.

  3. I bought a netbook which was preloaded with windows vista starter edition and ms office, i just went to home and cleaned up all that garbage from the hdd.

    (i had no chance to buy that netbook without os or with an open source os.)

  4. Have you ever considered SSuite Office as a free alternative to MS Office?

    They have some great free software for download. :D

    Their software also doesn't need to run on Java or .NET, like MS Office and so many open source office suites, so it makes their software very small, efficient, and easy to use. :)

  5. anonymous said:

    "Be honest now, which would you rather use if price were no object, Open Office or Microsoft Office?"

    I use both Windows and Linux, because I'm a programmer. I run Windows in a Virtual Machine on my Linux powered laptop. I have both Microsoft Office and Open on the Windows install, and of course, Open on the host OS (Linux).

    Obviously as I have both cost is not an object. My preference is to use Open on Linux.

    Windows gets booted only when it is necessary that I use Windows, in other words I use Windows when I must, to meet some client requirement for example. If it were not for that I would never use Windows or any Microsoft software at all, as I have no other use for it.

  6. The thousands of people reading the code of each and every free program don't exist.

    The real reason code quality of proprietary software often is lower is that proprietary programmers can write poor code and know that nobody will ever find out.

    Also, a lot of free code isn't written in a hurry like most proprietary code is.

    Finally, free programs tend to have WAY more testers than proprietary ones. Not many people would accept the "release early, release often" strategy from software they have to pay for, but many do want to try out new features that are still buggy in software they don't have to pay for.

  7. From the other Anonymous --> "So-called 'free' software ...
    Be honest now, which would you rather use if price were no object, Open Office or Microsoft Office?"

    Why is it "so-called" free??? Are you insinuating that it is somehow not?!?!? The GPL license permits free (cost) distribution and free(dom) to look over & change the code... If you are insinuating IP patent infringements,... well, there is a REASON why M$ settled with TomTom rather than take the FAT32 patent to court,... namely, that patent (and I suspect nearly every one of the 200+ patents they claim Linux infringes on) is bogus... Prior art, fails the Bilski test,... etc.

    The only MS Office App that has an edge on OpenOffice is Excel, and that is because of a better pivot table implementation... Other than that, OO meets & exceeds all (my) needs for an office suite... And the Pivot table function is not worth the $300+ cost or the fact that I would have to run it on a piece of %#@# "So-called" Operating System...

  8. Personally I use abiword for word document processing often, or google docs...

    I really have no other use for office

    It may not be the most powerful word document editor, but its the one I like. :)

  9. most of microsoft's customers HAVE to use their products. Everyone else uses what the prefer.

  10. As a software developer, I know that the notion that many eyes and many hands can just as quickly lead to poor code as not. It depends on the hands and eyes involved. The "many eyes" argument is a fallacy and isn't even generally true of most open source projects. (Many of which struggle to even have one primary maintainer.)

    The point is, I love good free software and I love good proprietary software as well. There is a wealth of amazing open source software in the world and I appreciate the time and effort that produced it. However, let's not lie and make claims that are not true simply to make ourselves sound better.

  11. """As a software developer, I know that the notion that many eyes and many hands can just as quickly lead to poor code as not. It depends on the hands and eyes involved. The "many eyes" argument is a fallacy and isn't even generally true of most open source projects. (Many of which struggle to even have one primary maintainer.)"""

    Let's compare apples to apples here. Many FOSS projects struggle to find a lead developer; but the equivalent proprietary project would just be dead if the lead dev dropped out.

    Open Source does not necessarily mean a project is open development, and doesn't dictate an authority structure for who works on the code. Different projects are run differently.

    Open Source doesn't guarantee good code, good design, or that anyone will actually put work into the project. What it DOES do is clear a major obstacle for anyone who wants to improve the project.

    No, the hands and eyes don't always exist; no licensing or development model could guarantee that. But what FOSS guarantees is that IF they exist, they can be put to good use. No closed or proprietary project can lay claim to that.

  12. I don't have the link handy, but I believe Coverity was applied to representative open and closed software, and found that the open source software had about 100 times fewer bugs per line of code. Nothing like a little data to put an end to anecdotal tales and other blather.

  13. Moft Word vs. OpenOffice


    I use LaTeX!!!!!

  14. 1st poster, don't go confusing your opinions with facts.

  15. I would have agreed with the first poster a few months ago. Microsoft Office being the word processor I'm most comfortable with, I'm often amazed at the capabilities of Word in regards to dictionaries, drawing tools, and nifty features which make my documents sparkle. But after being forced to use OpenOffice on Ubuntu, I realized that OpenOffice has most of those same capabilities-- the difference is that OpenOffice doesn't have a flashy interface like Word. Those who prefer Word after trying OpenOffice are often those same people who have racing stripes on their car, blue toilet paper, and refuse to buy their jeans from anywhere but Express.

  16. Being a Free Software Advocate can be hard. The best way to do it is not to go the "Yes dump Windows (or MacOS) and try Linux, it is great!". It won't work. Start with small steps: Inkscape, Gimp. You can only use these two as "advocate tools" if you are talking with a non-expert user of its paid counterparts, but if you show its power to casual users of Photoshop or Illustrator, they may make the switch.

    Then go on with something harder. Bear in mind that people used to Word will 'hate' OpenOffice (also holds for Photoshop vs GIMP: I'm still trying to love it a little more!), the transition has to be as smooth as possible. If you can make someone ditch a non-free version for an open-source one, you will be doing a good advocate work.

    I also like the ability to tinker with the code, although I have done it very sparingly.... And a lot of people also don't do it. It's not like 1000 persons are looking at each line and saying Aha! This could lead to a segmentation fault if you wrote "42" in the Address field!

  17. I'm surprised nobody noticed it before but NO, "free software" DOESN'T mean free of charge !

    "Free software is a matter of liberty, not price. To understand the concept, you should think of 'free' as in 'free speech', not as in 'free beer'"

    You can sell free software, but you must respect the 4 freedoms (which don't include zero price), that's all.