Free Software: Why Does it Exist?

Category: Software

A reader asks: I've used Libre Office and other freeware programs for a long time, and I think they're brilliant. But I'm still not sure why they even exist! Can you tell me why all of this this good software is free, and what is the motivation for those who create free software? Read on for my answer to this interesting question...

Free Software: Where Does It Come From?

You've asked a good question, which for me brings to mind an old cliche: "There ain't no such thing as a free lunch." But when it comes to free software, it does seem to defy this maxim, at least in many cases. If you've already read my articles Seven Free Software Downloads and Seven MORE Free Software Downloads, you've learned that there are some excellent free programs that rival the quality and features found in expensive commercial alternatives.

So why do people spend their time creating free software, and making it available to the world, via the Internet? Presumably, they could create this software, sell it, and have a few extra dollars in their pocket. But it turns out there are some very good reasons to "give away the store" when it comes to software.

Some freeware is created by passionate people who just love computer programming, and believe that software should be free. Richard Stallman, Linus Torvalds, and a small army of volunteer programmers have spent the past twenty years creating the GNU/Linux operating system, and tons of applications to go along with it. The Free Software Foundation promotes the notion that not only should software be free of charge, but the source code should also be freely available ("open source") so others can study it, learn from it, and improve upon it.

Free Software

Linux in its many forms is a now bonafide alternative to running Microsoft Windows, and those who choose this route can save many hundreds of dollars. Ubuntu is one of the most popular Linux distributions, if you're interested in trying it out.

A related point is that some people love to hate Microsoft, Apple, and other big software companies who create mass-market software solutions and make lots of money selling it. They have computer skills, so they develop free software to create an alternative. Maybe they feel like this is their way of "sticking it to the man" or helping to level an uneven playing field. Many of these folks would also identify themselves with the Linux and open source crowds, and would rather eat dirt than allow their computers to be "defiled" by commercial software.

For some, creating software is an enjoyable hobby, other freeware programmers may be retired, bored or altruistic. Others do it because they needed a tool to solve a particular problem, and they decided to create it themselves. For these people, sharing their work freely on the Internet, and interacting with users who appreciate their software, is all the reward they need. Others create free software in order to build credibility, perhaps for future job opportunities.

Back in the mid 1980s, Jim Knopf (aka Jim Button) and a few others pioneered the shareware concept. He developed a database program called PC-File, and distributed it by mail on floppy disks, asking for a voluntary payment of $25 if users liked the program. Within a few years, he had built a multi-million dollar company, before the Internet was widely used.

No Strings Attached...

The principle of reciprocity is a strong motivator in humans. Some software developers hope you'll like what you see, and buy their paid version with extra bells and whistles. Or maybe it's a "loss leader" which gives them the opportunity to introduce you to other commercial products. If you've used a free program, and found it to be very useful, you are understandably more likely to purchase a related product from the same vendor, or perhaps make a small donation to support the work of the author.

A good example of this is IrfanView, the popular graphics editor. It was created by Irfan Skiljan, an unassuming programmer from Austria, and the program is free for personal non-commercial use. The author asks that commercial users register and make a donation of 10 EURO (about US$11), and he also accepts donations from grateful users who wish to support the project.

There are also many excellent free antivirus programs, such as Avast and AVG, that are used by millions of people worldwide. Each of these software vendors offers a paid version that offers extra features and support options. But there is no requirement to upgrade, like you see with some "30-day free trial" software packages. I applaud this model, because it allows people to get software they need, and pay only if they decide to upgrade.

Are you a user or developer of free software? Feel free to post your comment or question below...

 
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This article was posted by on 31 Jan 2020


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Most recent comments on "Free Software: Why Does it Exist?"

(See all 24 comments for this article.)

Posted by:

Ernie
31 Jan 2020

I have used Open Source Software since about 1992. In my experience, this software model has provided 'free' software that works well, is stable, and does not infringe on my privacy. The reason for this is that many people look at the source code to find issues such as bugs, or nefarious intent. Because the software is Open Sourced, the author implicitly invites as much scrutiny as possible to help in making the application work correctly.

I also use MS Windows 10, and several 'free' versions of commercial software. The only downside to this category of freeware is that most is supported my in-app advertising, with which I have no problem. Your opinion may differ.

My2Cents,

Ernie


Posted by:

Mike
31 Jan 2020

REMOVE Advanced SystemCare from your list of 7 best!!! I have downloaded it following your recommendation - and now I am stuck with the Bing browser (ugh!) and probably lots of other garbage, although I took care when downloading that stuff. Bob, you disapoint me...


Posted by:

Luc
31 Jan 2020

Another incentive is student project. When creating free software, the mind is not distracted by the money aspects of it.


Posted by:

Louie O.
31 Jan 2020

"how to do stop Avast from collection your data on a PC:"
Uninstall it! The only way to let these companies know we won't tolerate data theft is to not use their products.


Posted by:

Len
31 Jan 2020

Another great free piece of kit is Paragon Partition Manager. Better than EaseUS Todo.

Also GIMP for photo editing and Shot Cut for movie editing.


Posted by:

MikieB
31 Jan 2020

I too read about Avast selling data. I used Avast for quite a long time, but just recently switched to AVG. Avast wanted to know why I dropped them. I simply told them that they could no longer be trusted.


Posted by:

Charles
31 Jan 2020

Many of the more important 'free-libre" packages are supported by major computer companies for their own internal use. Google provides many full time programmers to Linux for example, as they use 1000s of Linux servers to run their own data centers. (and Linux is the base of the Android smart phone operating system.)
Having a base of reliable software is quite important to many hardware vendors, particularly in the Big Computer space.
Real Free software will not have a Higher level Paid version.


Posted by:

bb
31 Jan 2020

MikieB: You should know that AVG is now the same company as Avast. Avast bought AVG in 2016 for $1.3B. In 2017 they bought Piraform, the authors of Ccleaner.


Posted by:

Ken H
31 Jan 2020

I have made use of freeware and shareware for many years now.
I appreciate it and in the early days I would sometimes be so glad to solve a particular problem that I would send in a "donation." Perhaps it was my imagination, but it seemed that nearly every time I did so the program would sooner or later either crash my system or the developer would go on to another project and never complete the upgrades to the program I bought in hopes to encourage them to develop the idea further.
One that comes to mind was a pretty good music library program (I forget the name) that helped catalog one's collection by supplying pages to enter data and even tying into the CDDB so one could put a CD in the player and have the forms filled in automatically. I was able to print out a list and take it with me to used music stores to preclude buying the same album again. It has been several years and I don't remember the exact features promised, but as I said he went on to other projects and left my hopes unfulfilled. Now I have so many CDs the project would probably take me years to complete.
Bottom line, I no longer contribute unless it is to get rid of ads on a program I particularly like with no good substitute that doesn't inundate one with ads.


Posted by:

Ken Cavin
31 Jan 2020

I've used Open Office for years with no problems. A nice alternative to MS Office.


Posted by:

Jay Gerard
31 Jan 2020

I have been using free software (and shareware) for years. I spend my time at the computer playing with graphics, and Fast Stone Image Viewer is one of the programs I use most -- every day. I send a voluntary contribution from time to time. And this program is not just a "viewer." There are several features that allow you to change or add something to your image. I also use IrfanView often. I don't use many of its editing features, but when it comes to printing one of my graphic images, IrfanView is VERY easy to set up and use. Then there's the Thunderbird email program. A+ to this one too.


Posted by:

Bob K
01 Feb 2020

Why is "Ask Bob" free?

PS: I am not complaining:-)


Posted by:

johnnie be good
01 Feb 2020

I have used Advanced System Care on several computers, downloaded, installed, uninstalled as needed. I have never ended up with Bing on anything. Mike, you have something else going on.


Posted by:

Doug Allston
01 Feb 2020

I run Malwarebytes as you recommend. It will not allow me to install Advanced System Care.


Posted by:

David Wade
02 Feb 2020

I haven't checked lately, but the last time I did Microsoft Software could not do "Real Time" Software. But Linux could. All the "Real Time" stuff we did to work on Laser Fusion Research COULD NOT BE RUN ON Microsoft Windoze of any type.


Posted by:

David Wade
02 Feb 2020

What I remember about AVAST was that it was a co-operative of UniX Programmers that were part of The USENIX anti-Virus BOF. (i.e. Birds of a Feather Group) That was when I was installing it on a network of Sun Microsystem Workstations. They expanded when PCs started to get attacked.

https://investors.avast.com/our-story/history/


Posted by:

David Baker
02 Feb 2020

I have a older netbook that I run Puppy Linux, Bionic Pup 8.0. I had Windows 7 then Windows 10. It ran like crap. Puppy is free and a lightweight O/S for older laptops and computers.
I also use the free versions of Malwarebytes on my Windows 10 desktop and CCleaner on desktop, phone and tablets. Good stuff man...


Posted by:

Michtrixie
02 Feb 2020

Doug Allston, uninstall Malwarebytes, install Advanced SystemCare (ASC), reinstall Malwarebytes and run scan. Click to ignore anything re ASC (there will be quite a few). Malwarebytes will then ignore ASC. I’ve done this on all my laptops with no problem.


Posted by:

Monty
03 Feb 2020

I tried using Linux to avoid having to eventually move from Win 7 to Win 10. I was able to set up Cinnamon Mint Tara on an old laptop (for practice). But I am not computer tech savvy and realized it would take hundreds of man hours to actually get it working. Eg. just getting the wi-fi to work was daunting. The free Linux help people sent answers that were filled with acronyms I didn't know and references that meant nothing to me. I could hire a pro and spend $$$$$ teaching me the fine points. It just was not worth it. Any future glitch and I would be on my own. Instead of 1000 'distros', why doesn't one of the geeks who write Linux programs, just make one that mimics Windows so average users like me could use it?


Posted by:

Renaud Olgiati
03 Feb 2020

Another motivation for free software is the desire to see others benefit from what one has coded.
Many years back when I was into Flight Simulator, I wrote for myself a prog to help me zero the settings of joystick, rudder and throttle before "flying".
Mentioned it on a FS mailing list, and the code ended up published in a list posting, for other listers to copy and paste, and use for themselves.
Quite satisfying, especially the Thank You emails...


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