Free software

The term "free software" means different things to different people. To a lot of people, it might describe the software that comes on the one or more CDs that accompany their digital camera, their printer or their computer.

In reality, this is not free software at all, it comes bundled with your latest toy and its cost in included in the price of that toy. You have paid for it.

Others might say that the software one can download free of charge from uncountable websites, including those of Microsoft, IBM, Google, Canon is free software. While it is free of charge, one should anticipate a catch. Sometimes, the software might include spyware. Information collected by this spyware might be harmless (but if so, why collect it?), but it could equally well be used to supply you with ads more likely to cause you to make unintended purchases of stuff you don't really want, or even worse, to obtain information needed to access and drain your bank accounts.

Sometimes, free of charge software is offered as a bait, trying to lure you into buying a more expensive version, or to support their commercial software (Adobe Reader fits into this category).

It might also be offered to head off the opposition - Microsoft's Virtual PC and Virtual Server are no-cost products offered to try to keep people from using VMWare., or as a bandaid to cover up weaknesses in other software. I would include Microsoft's Malicious Software Removal Tool here.

There is another meaning of the term "Free Software." If you can say, "I am a free man," or "I am a free woman," then you are using free with a similar sense. The Free Software Foundation uses the term to refer to software that you are free to study, alter and redistribute pretty much as you wish. In support of this idea, the FSF published the GNU Public Licence and the GNU Library Public Licence. If I give (or sell) you some computer software using one of these licences, then you are entitled to a copy of the source code &C and you are entitled to redistribute the software, changed or not, provided that

  • Change the program as you wish
  • Use parts of the program in your programs, provided you use the same licence
  • On request, you provide the source code corresponding to the version you distribute

There are other conditions, you need to read the entire licence for the full details.
There is no prohibition on charging whatever fee you choose (and your client agrees to) for supplying the software, and you can bundle the software with a support package if that is what you wish.

If you're reading this, probably you have heard of Red Hat. This is basically Red Hat's business model.

With this kind of free software, which I use extensively, I have heard of no incidence of spyware or any other kind of malware. I have heard of bad binaries being distributed two or three times, but those have been detected and corrected in hours. There was an an incident iwith some commercial software that was released to the open source (not quite the same thing) community that had a back door. It was detected by the new support folk and the problem corrected.

Free software is generally seen as having some important advantages over other classes of computer software:

Improved security
Anyone who cares can inspect the code, or pay a trusted person to do so, or build the software themselves to ensure the program they execute matches the source code they have. if the program does any bad things, willfully or otherwise, the prospects of those bad things being found out are good.
Easier to fix problems
Since users have the source code, they are free to identify and fix problems themselves. They don't have to wait for a big, unresponsive vendor to get around to it.

Also, in my experience, authors are willing to talk to end users.

Better support
Almost all suppliers of free software have established good procedures to help users resolve problems - documentation of common problems, a bug tracking system, and open mailing lists, often publicly archived. Even better, there's no charge.

I have been using Linux as my primary operating system for over ten years. I have been active in the Linux computer, reading and replying to thousands of emails. I have not yet heard of anyone catching a Linux virus. I exercise some care with the software I download, and so far haven't encountered a trojan