Free Software – Free as in Freedom

Richard Stallman, one of the world’s leading activists in the field of free software, was recently here in Oman to speak about this subject. Stallman’s free software is not software that does not cost you anything to get, but one that gives you the freedom to copy, redistribute, modify, and examine the source code of the software. To the supporters of free software, these freedoms are as important as human rights in the digital age, as one should have the right to take control over any software that runs on his computer whether it was at home, school, or business. I understand the philosophy behind this position, but I can’t say that I fully agree with it.

To those who are capable of reading computer source code, debugging system issues, and customizing software on their computer, these rights campaign for by Stallman would be of great importance to the way they use technology, but to the majority of people on this planet, software source code is just as unreadable as software object code, people do not care how their software runs – they just want it to do what it is supposed to do. If what we are after is the best experience for consumers, then less access might be the most effective way of delivering such an experience. The iPhone is one of the most restrictive computing environment and while it is a very powerful device, Apple does not allow anyone to install any application before it examines and approves that software. To the supporters of free software, this is an extreme violation of their right to customize software they use as they see fit, but to the majority of the casual users of the iPhone, this ensures that their phones will not crash because of badly written code.

The issue of who should have control over software has several aspects, while it might make sense for the end user to have control over the software he installs on his computer, if you think of software like any other type of intellectual property, then the author of the software has more right over that control. If I create something I should have the right to reasonably control the distribution and use of my property. It is true that the law of copyright worldwide has not proved to effectively address the needs of the age of the internet, the basic concepts of copyright are still necessary as a tool to provide an incentive for individuals and companies to create more works and to provide them with a framework for making a living off their works. The solution to the failures of the copyright system should not be to trash it completely but to modify it to address the new reality of the web.

Of course, there are a lot of examples of successful free or open source projects all over the internet now, but that cannot reasonably be made the only way for creating all sorts of digital or any creative works. Different industries have different needs and it should be the market that will determine which business model to prevail.

This post was originally published as a column on Muscat Daily.

The Open Source Option

Open source software is a computer program that is distributed free of charge with the source code used to create it, this is done with the hope that the transparency of the process would encourage other experts in the community to use their skills to further improve the software. Open source software and free software are not necessarily the same: an open source program would let the end user modify and examine the inner workings of the program, such an example of this would be the Firefox browser, while a free closed source program, such as Internet Explorer, would not let the end user modify or view the inner workings of the program.

Open source software has grown popular over the years due to the transparency of the application and the opportunity it gives to the public to modify the program according to their own needs. The fact that the source code is open to the public also helps discover and fix bugs and glitches quicker than traditional software due to the contribution of its users. Individual and corporate users of open source software also save money as open source software is given free of charge because (its developers usually make their money off advertising, offering support services, or via alternative financing methods).

Many countries have some strategies for using and supporting open source initiative, not only to avoid paying licensing fees, but also to spur innovation and encourage the public participation in the IT industry.

I personally rely on many open source applications both at work and at home. Firefox had been my browser of choice for a number years – until Google Chrome came out and became my favourite open source browser. I am almost forced to use Microsoft Office at work, but at home, I use OpenOffice.org to work with Word documents. OpenOffice.org is fully compatible with Microsoft Office, lightweight, less cluttered and easier to use than Microsoft Word, It also lets you export to PDF out of the box, too. I also use WordPress on my blog, FreeMind for brainstorming, and FileZilla for uploading files. There is almost always a well respected open source alternative to any software you can think of: Ubuntu instead of Windows, GIMP instead of Photoshop, Thunderbird instead of Outlook, and even Android instead of the iPhone OS.

I think that it is such as a shame that not a lot of people around here give open source software a chance. You don’t need to buy, or illegally download, an expensive software without considering the open source alternative to it. I have written this article on a legally free open source office suite which I have been using as my primary word processing tool for more than four years now. The next time you need to install an application you should do a simple search to see if there is an open source application that does your task, you might just save yourself some money or avoid the headache of cleaning your computer from viruses after downloading a bunch of illegal applications.