Why Does Free Software Exist?

Category: Software

I've used Open 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?

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.

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 $12, and he also accepts donations from grateful users who wish to support the project.

There are also many excellent free antivirus programs, such as AVG and Avira, that are used by millions of people worldwide. (See my related article Should I Buy Anti-Spyware or Anti-Virus Software? for more examples of free security software.) 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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Most recent comments on "Why Does Free Software Exist?"

Posted by:

P D Sterling
05 Dec 2011

Hello Bob - I really enjoy your articles, and use some of the free software alternatives. I am dying to find a free alternative to Adobe Acrobat.

I'm not smart enough to use PhotoShop, but I do have pdf documents which I would like to edit.

any advice would be gratefully appreciated.

Posted by:

05 Dec 2011

You often recommend IrfanView. I have used it but now prefer FastStone Image Viewer which is also available as freeware and wonder why you don't also recommend it.

Posted by:

05 Dec 2011

I've contributed code to several freeware programs and itt is a great source of pride. But the largest benefit when applying and getting a programming job. Particularly when the interviewer asks, "what is the largest system you've worked on?" then you show her/him your name in print or in Web pages. It also gives you the appearance of being a team player.

On the use side, I can't tell you how much I've learned from checking other people's code. I also pay for the software if the originator provides a means. Some developers preffer a thank you note. I don't hate Microsoft nor Apple, they are busineses and they need to make a profit so that they can continue to make newer better products. That is their livelihood. I no longer program, and do not need to use my programming skills to make my livelihood, but I know this that do.

Posted by:

06 Dec 2011

P D Sterling - Try CutePDF.com. There are actually quite a bit of freeware for PDF. There are also low cost shareware around as well.

Posted by:

06 Dec 2011

A good alternative to Adobe Acrobat is Foxit. We have used it for several years, works fine, loads faster and it's free.

Posted by:

06 Dec 2011

At first I had a number of javascript pages to enhance my resume (COBOL programmer wanting to get back in), but since I'm getting too close to retirement age, it's just a hobby.

I had discovered how round robin tables (Berger tables) were put together while in college and my rrpair.htm has over 6000 hits from all over the world.

Also, I have a suite of pages that create or manipulate the text part of a music notation package, like creating guitar chords with fret diagrams. Just like your article said, I enjoy feedback from other users of that program.

Posted by:

06 Dec 2011

I have used Linux, Firefox, and Open Office for several years and love it. When I was using Windows, I was bombarded with viruses warnings and other crap. It got so bad I started calling around and was told about Linux. I got it and haven't looked back once. I sometimes pass around new distributions like some cyber-Moonie.

Posted by:

Bob Pegram
06 Dec 2011

Open Office has the built in ability top create PDFs. SumatraPDF is a free alternative to Acrobat Reader.

Posted by:

06 Dec 2011

This topic is reasonably interesting. Several reasons as you mentioned are acceptable but we have to listen actually from the programmers who created them (free softwares. I hope people (programmers) who give away their software to communities may have unexpected reasons behide. "Test it (them) before new version(s) come out" then quality improved provided that feedback is included in package.

Posted by:

06 Dec 2011


Some do offer free software, so it becomes popular and being bought by some big companies. I remember using Blogger, before it was bought by Google, and happy that it is still free and much improved. I think Google bought some sort of word document program, and offered it free too.
Thanks for your informative articles and tons of good stuff to learn and use.
Happy Holidays !

Posted by:

06 Dec 2011

"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."

That's not quite true. According to the page you linked to above:

"You may have paid money to get copies of free software, or you may have obtained copies at no charge. But regardless of how you got your copies, you always have the freedom to copy and change the software, even to sell copies."

And later:

"When talking about free software, it is best to avoid using terms like “give away” or “for free,” because those terms imply that the issue is about price, not freedom. Some common terms such as “piracy” embody opinions we hope you won't endorse. See Confusing Words and Phrases that are Worth Avoiding for a discussion of these terms. We also have a list of proper translations of “free software” into various languages."

The "Free" used in "Free Software" by the Free Software Foundation has nothing to do with price.

It's unfortunate that Richard Stalmann used the term free when he actually is referring to freedoms not price. Hence the expression, "Free as in speech, not free as in beer."

Posted by:

07 Dec 2011

I happily took my free copy of Irfanview. And many upgrades. It finally occurred to me that anything this good and constantly upgraded was worth continuing so I sent a contribution. Given the program's popularity Irfan must be a millionaire by now, as he deserves. Bill P. of Win Patrol is going down the same route - I found his freebie so helpful for many years I just couldn't resist the paid upgrade. Wonder how many more I'll find it essential to bribe to keep them at it?

Posted by:

Wynema Morris
08 Dec 2011

Great article! And thanks for all the information on freeware. Those of us on limited incomes can enjoy using our computers knowing we have the same protections, flexibility, and creativity of some of the costly programs put out by those requiring that theirs be purchased for hundreds of dollars or monthly payments. Thanks to all your faithful followers for giving their thoughts and recommedations on other free software! I, too, was on the bus and am glad you're now on my email!! Really apprediate your work!!

Posted by:

John Sullivan
12 Dec 2011

Jason is right -- the Free Software Foundation does not object to charging money for software. Rather, it says that everyone running software on their computer should have the freedom to share and modify that software. Many products currently for sale -- such as the Kindle -- contain free software components that are obviously being sold. The freedom to copy does mean that trying to sell the same free software program over and over again to many people is probably not a very good business model, since as soon as the first person buys it they could copy it for the others for no charge; but other models such as writing custom free software modules for people and selling them are still very feasible, and allowed.

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