What's The Reason For Free Software?

Category: Software

An AskBob reader wonders: “I've used the free Libre Office suite 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 good software is free, and what is the motivation for those who create it?” 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 been an AskBob subscriber for a while, you've learned that there are some excellent free programs that rival the quality and features found in expensive commercial software. My article Still Using Microsoft Office… Why? talks about Libre Office, and some others.

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. Linus Torvalds, and a small army of volunteer programmers have spent the past thirty years creating the 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 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$11.65), and he also accepts donations from grateful users who wish to support the project. If you're into audio editing, check out the free Audacity software, which is available for Windows, macOS, and Linux.

There are also many excellent free antivirus programs, such as Avast, 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 19 Oct 2021

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Most recent comments on "What's The Reason For Free Software?"

(See all 21 comments for this article.)

Posted by:

Fred B
19 Oct 2021

Chrome is free. Ccleaner is free. Malwarebytes is free. Many of us use free software, everyday. I am greatful to free software and the writers of it.

Posted by:

19 Oct 2021

My thanks go out to the altruistic folks who design these wonderful programs and provide them free to folks like me.

When I use a program, like Office Libre or play good free games like Elvenar or Forge of Empires, I usually donate an amount to them that I consider reasonable. I do this just because I like to feel good about myself. "Myself" I say, "You are not a mooch."

Thanks to you, too, Bob. I follow you because sometime back my computer was doing something screwy (I don't remember what) that was beyond the casual reboot and required several steps. Your instructions were clear, concise, and covered the problem with all the side info I needed to do it right. (In other words, I didn't need a degree to understand you.) At 76, I do not want to become a computer guru; I'm happy to leave that to you.

Posted by:

19 Oct 2021

Not exactly on topic, but since you mentioned Ubuntu, I'll add my suggestion to the discussion.

If you've ever wanted to try Linux, especially if you want to dual boot alongside Windows, you should checkout Q4OS. https://q4os.org/index.html

For sheer simplicity, they offer a Windows Setup that you run from within Windows. All you need to do during the setup is decide how much space to allocate on your hard drive and how much free software you want to install during the installation. It took me, as I recall, about 20-minutes to install the "complete" option. There's also a software finder/installer built-in so you can add more later, as well as an update manager that can notify you when there are updates available and will install them if you so choose.

One very nice thing the setup handles is peripheral hardware. It detected everything I have and set them up for me.

Also, you can customize the look and operation a lot! My Q4OS desktop looks and acts very much like Windows.

When booting your computer, it pauses to let you decide whether to start Windows or Q4OS. If you don't choose, it automatically starts Windows after about 10 seconds.

And, if you decide it's not for you, you can uninstall it just like any Windows program.

... and, it's free!

Posted by:

19 Oct 2021

In any new field there is a lot of sharing. I remember the days of fixing lamp radios, then the early days of electronics. All sharing the enthusiasm for new ways of expressing productive and interesting creativity.
These domains of activity have become impossibly for profit and took away the fun by having industrial production eclipse the amateur.
With software creation there are no such limits. Any one can program anywhere with little investment.
So freeware will be for a long while yet, not taking into consideration academic projects.
Thanks Bob for bringing this nice human subject.

Posted by:

19 Oct 2021

Any replacement for Photocopier Expert?

Posted by:

Eric Jones
19 Oct 2021

I tried LibreOffice and didn't care for it. I guess I have become so used to how Word and Excel do things that I had a hard time adapting to the way Libre did them. I'm back to using Office, although I am using an outdated version, 2010.

Posted by:

19 Oct 2021

While some people enjoy creating software and distributing it for free, others make some money by embedded ads. Or by having ads on their website where you go to get the free software.

One of you comments was that Chrome is free. Not exactly. Google does do some tracking and other things so that they get some benefits from your Chrome use.

Posted by:

20 Oct 2021

Just note:

Avast has been recently bought by Norton. (Which used to be Symantec, but who are now calling themselves 'NortonLifeLock.')

Audacity was bought by the Muse Group, which promptly changed the terms of service which some took as allowing spyware (tracking cookies anyone?) in the product.

The jury is still out whether these great products will remain accessible and free. Get 'em while they're hot!


Posted by:

20 Oct 2021

Retail software developers are obligated to ensure the program works as intended (without additional configuration or bugs) in a standard environment and provide updates or upgrades for functionality.

Free software projects may end up being abandoned by the developer.

Posted by:

20 Oct 2021

Here is one of the best altruisms:
OpenSource password-manager program called KeePass had the following at their masthead (2006/10/16): "Is it really free? >> Yes, KeePass is really free, and more than that: it is open-source (OSI certified). You can have a look at its full source and for example check if the encryption algorithms are implemented correctly."
"Perhaps you wonder why I decided to make it open-source. The answer is relatively simple: in my opinion all software that has something to do with security should be open-source. Here's a quote of Bruce Schneier that sums it up pretty good: “As a cryptography and computer security expert, I have never understood the current fuss about the open source software movement. In the cryptography world, we consider open source necessary for good security; we have for decades. Public security is always more secure than proprietary security. It's true for cryptographic algorithms, security protocols, and security source code. For us, open source isn't just a business model; it's smart engineering practice.”
Bruce Schneier, Crypto-Gram 1999/09/15 (http://www.schneier.com/crypto-gram-9909.html)

Posted by:

Sarah L
20 Oct 2021

Google offers software and then stops supporting it, like Google gadgets and Picasa. Spend all that time on Picasa, and poof! It is gone. I bought an HP flat bed scanner and an HP multi use printer, including scanning a few years later. Poof! HP will not support either scanner with the needed software connection to Windows. The hardware of the devices still work, the printer still prints and photocopies, but no scanning. HP and Google are low on my list of trustworthy companies now. I have to shop flatbed scanner all over again, and if I buy a new computer, PC type, all that remains of Picasa albums and the Google gadget will fully disappear. Computers are more frustration with these failures of software being supported.

Posted by:

20 Oct 2021

Hi Bob. Thank you for the article. Have you ever considered allowing readers to post some of their favorite free software?

Posted by:

Steve H
20 Oct 2021

I have used free AVG antivirus safely for many years and the comment above by RandiO "In the cryptography world, we consider open source necessary for good security;" gets it exactly right, I have always thought that by being free AVG gets access to a much wider range of "bad" stuff. Thanks for all the free advice that Bob has given us over the years, he ought to tell us why he does it, we all learn so much and great comments above in response

Posted by:

20 Oct 2021

erfahren: True (about abandonment), but as Sarah L (above) points out so well, commercial products can be discontinued, too. If the product is open-source, another developer can take it up and continue it.

Posted by:

20 Oct 2021

Sarah L: no guarantees, but it might be worth a look at open-source alternatives for your printer/scanner drivers. I don't know if you'll find one for Windows, but you may be able to run them under Linux - they have a lot of generic drivers that run most major printer brands.

Posted by:

Dave P
20 Oct 2021

Speaking of free...Bob, I want to thank you for doing what you do. I don't have a need for every one of your posts, but I do appreciate that you are a trusted individual that I can count on when I am in need. I know you have advertisers, but what you do for me is free to me :-)

Posted by:

Jevon Ellis
20 Oct 2021

Black Magic Design's free video editing software "Da Vinci Resolve" is really impressive.


Posted by:

20 Oct 2021

It occurs to me that a lot of free software probably does quite well from donations. Irfan Skiljan, for example. (Which reminds me that it's time to support Irfanview again. I don't know what I would do without it!)

I am now using Libre Office spreadsheets and I'm grateful for it. However, I find it far more complicated than I need and I wish they would develop a simpler version for us small-time users.

Interesting article, Bob. Thank you.

Posted by:

Ernest N. Wilcox Jr.
20 Oct 2021

I choose Open Source Software for the very simple reason that it is very quickly fixed when a bug is found, unlike Commercial Software. I like using Windows 10 (and even 11), but I also enjoy working in KDE neon GNU/Linux. That distribution is the latest KDE software (from the KDE Desktop environment) running on top of an Ubuntu LTE base. With this distribution, I get the rock solid stability of the Ubuntu base combined with the very newest KDE components from KDE's stable tree. In other words, I get a cutting edge desktop running on a very solid and stable foundation, the best of both worlds.

As for Windows 11, I run it on my new laptop. It is very pretty, but beyond that, I do not see any compelling reason to switch from Windows 10. On the other hand, if a very pretty desktop is important to you, I see no compelling reason not to switch, although, if you choose to make the move, I strongly recommend that you wait until Microsoft offers the upgrade in Windows Update. From what I am hearing, there are a few issues with some hardware configurations that still need to be worked out, so Microsoft is holding back on offering the upgrade until they determine that your hardware is correctly supported.

I have used Microsoft products since MS-DOS 3.3. My first graphical desktop came from IBM. They offered a free (test) version of their OS2 desktop environment. It ran on top of the MS-DOS OS very nicely. Later I tried Windows 3.1. It was OK, but I soon returned to my OS2 desktop environment because it felt more like home. Then Microsoft released Windows 95. It also ran on top of a version of MS-DOS (one specifically designed for Win95). I liked it. It wasn't as klunky as Windows 3.1, and it felt a lot like OS2 to me. I have used most versions of Windows since then. There were a few stand-out bad versions that I wish Microsoft would have had the wisdom to bypass, but that was not to be.

I run Windows 10 on my production desktop PC, and I will continue to do so at least until Microsoft offers Windows 11, but I'm in no hurry. I'll deal with the upgrade decision when it is offered to me.

I have a laptop that will not meet the Windows 11 hardware requirements. It's CPU is too old, although it does have Secure Boot, and TPM2. I'm still working to fully understand the logic for that. On that laptop I run Windows 10 dual-booted with a Linux Distribution that mimics Windows 11, called fx-windows-11-preview. This is yet another distribution built on an Ubuntu base (very much like KDE neon) with a custom desktop environment that very accurately mimics Windows 11. This distribution is on it's second release preview, so I will hold any judgement for the final release, but from what I see so far, it is very interesting. Imagine a Windows 11 user interface built on top of a solid and stable Linux base. This is a very cool concept, and I like what I see so far.

Now back to my original comment. Open Source Software is inherently more secure than commercial software because millions of eyes look at the code daily to seek out any bugs or weaknesses, unlike commercial software (aka closed source software). With so many people looking at the code every day, bugs are found and fixed, usually in a period measured in days, not weeks or months. It is true that a few issues have been recently found in foundational Linux components, but once they have been found, they have been patched. The only thing users (either home users like me, or commercial users like websites) must do is keep their systems up to date.

The advantages of Open Source Software may be one very good reason that Microsoft has been open sourcing some of their software, in particular the .NET framework and .NET core. It makes sense to me that they would want these two foundational components to be as secure and bug-free as possible, and it cannot hurt that open-sourcing these components gives Microsoft a foothold in the Linux world, between .NET and wsl2. These efforts also may be targeted at keeping Microsoft relevant.

I do not believe that Microsoft is altruistic in any way, shape, or form. I think that what they are interested in is cutting their operational costs, increasing their overall profit, and generating a good public image. The combination of their open source initiatives, their Insiders Programs, and their offering of a largely free desktop environment speak to these efforts. I have no problem with Corporations (or companies) making a profit, and I applaud Microsoft's efforts, regardless of their motivation, because in the end, they do contribute to the common good.



Posted by:

06 Nov 2021

Thanks for keeping me up to date on some of the best software out there.
KEEP up the 'GOOD" work. This keeps me going when I think it is about time to jump!!

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