5 Reasons Why Software Should Be Free and Open Source

Bertel King 17-08-2016

Not long ago I explained why I prefer to use Fedora 5 Reasons to Use Pure Open Source Distro, Fedora Fedora isn't as well known as Ubuntu, and has a reputation for being hard to use. But if this is true, why do so many people continue using Fedora? Read More , where I listed the focus on free and open source software as primary a reason. A commenter then asked why some people care so strongly about this.


Everyone has their own motivations. The Free Software Foundation’s is an ethical one — that non-free software infringes on a user’s freedoms. But what does that actually mean?

I have my own reasons, which I imagine are straightforward enough for any computer user to grasp. Let’s get to them.

1. Free Software Sticks Around

Software isn’t static. An app can work today and disappear tomorrow. Or it can fundamentally take a different shape, inject ads, or change in some other way. The only real guarantee that an app will be available years from now is if it’s open source. If the source code is available, someone can keep the program alive after it eventually gets abandoned Picasa Is Going Away: 5 Reasons You Should Be Disappointed Picasa will be discontinued on 15th March, and there are good reasons to be disappointed that its long run is ending. Here are five reasons why you should be upset. Read More or undergoes drastic changes 3 Ways To Make Office 2013 More Like Office 2010 A few months ago, I had a great opportunity to get a drastically discounted copy of Microsoft Office. When I went to purchase the product, I assumed it would be Office 2010, but I was... Read More .

Holding on to an old binary (such as an .exe on Windows) only guarantees that software continues to work on the version of the OS that it’s currently compatible with. It may not function on future versions.

The situation is worse on mobile devices, where companies can pull software from app stores overnight. And don’t get me started on cloud services, which are no longer accessible once the servers shut down Springpad Shutting Down June 25th - Back Up To Evernote Now The information capturing service, is shutting down on June 25th. The Springpad blog says that because of a lack of funding, the site, which was free to members, is no longer self-sustaining. Read More .

Much of the software in the Linux repos doesn’t have an active developer, but it’s still available, and that’s a wonderful thing.

2. You Can Truly Own Your Software

On a similar note, I only feel that I own software when it’s free and open source.

For example, I buy proprietary baby bottles, and if the company goes out of business five years from now, those bottles will still work (though getting replacement nipples might be a problem). With software, a company going out of business often means an application goes away.

In such an instance, there isn’t much you can do. Commercial software developers often sell you a license to use software. You may think you’re buying a program, but you’re really purchasing permission 8 Ridiculous EULA Clauses You May Have Already Agreed To Here are some of the most ridiculous terms and conditions in the EULAs of popular services. You may have already agreed to them! Read More .

I don’t want to spend years using an app to perform a task (such as map my family tree) only to have to start over when the software disappears. Even having the option to export my data doesn’t always mean another program exists that can import it properly, if at all.

I rather have the peace of mind that comes from owning the app, even if I have to accept it as-is without having a company to turn to for support. Someone with the technical know-how can keep the program running and make it available to others. And each person is largely Open Source Software Licenses: Which Should You Use? Did you know that not all open source licenses are the same? Read More free to do whatever they want with their copy.

3. You Extend the Life of Hardware

I used to find new hardware exciting. I read magazines to keep up with the latest consoles and games. Via blogs, I read about new computers and software. I was excited to get my hands on my first e-reader, tablet, smartphone, and smartwatch. I planned out purchases months in advance and spent days or weeks obsessed with my new devices.

But it was only a matter of time before the cycle repeated itself. Laptops wore down. Tablets became outdated. Phones reached end of life. Each new form factor meant another piece of hardware to continuously replace.

Free software offers a way to break this cycle of planned obsolescence Defeat Planned Obsolescence with Linux and Open Source Software Unlike a 5-year-old PC, a 5-year-old smartphone can barely run any modern apps. But there is a way to enjoy the benefits of technology without buying new hardware: embrace Linux and free software! Read More . Linux developers don’t care if you replace your current PC with a new one. If anything, it’s the opposite. Linux often works better on older hardware than newer technology.

Microsoft may make another version of Windows that requires expensive PC upgrades. Apple will decide not to support old MacBooks with the latest OS. Phone makers want you to replace your device rather than update it.

But Linux will continue to run on your ten-year-old machine 14 Lightweight Linux Distributions to Give Your Old PC New Life Need a lightweight operating system? These special Linux distros can run on older PCs, some with as little as 100MB of RAM. Read More , and it will probably work for ten years more. This lets you replace your computer when you want to, if you want to, not because you don’t have a choice.

4. Income Isn’t a Factor

My parents gave me my first computer when I was in the eighth grade, a used laptop with a dead battery and a dial up modem. I had the freedom to do what I wanted on the machine, but without a job or a credit card (and my parents weren’t comfortable with me using theirs), I couldn’t buy software.

Even if I could, many common commercial programs were too expensive. We used Microsoft Office in school, but I found out buying a copy for home would cost nearly as much as my computer had. I heard of PhotoShop as a great way to edit images, but that wasn’t budget-friendly either.

It was during this time that I discovered free and open source software. I used AbiWord and LibreOffice to write a novel-length story in high school. GIMP was my tool of choice for creating covers and other art. Free software empowered me to express my creativity and develop skills that would benefit me in my adult life.

Knowing how to use a computer has become a necessary skill in today’s world. The opportunity to gain that experience shouldn’t be limited only to the people whose families can afford to pay for expensive commercial software.

5. You Can Trust What’s Going On

Using software requires more trust than most other “products.” When I write with pen and paper, I know there’s only one copy of what I create. The pen and the paper don’t have a connection to the Internet that sends data (identifiable or otherwise) to a company’s server. A paper planner isn’t using my calendar entries to learn about me. My clothes aren’t monitoring my weight and health to sell me ads.

With physical products, I have to trust that the manufacturer didn’t use dangerous materials or unethical business practices, but that’s usually where the risks end. Using proprietary, closed source software requires I trust that the developer isn’t doing anything with my data that I don’t approve. There’s no way to find out for myself.

A deficit of trust keeps some people from upgrading to Windows 10 Many People Refuse the Free Windows 10 Upgrade, Here's Why People like free stuff. Yet many refuse to upgrade to Windows 10. We have asked them why. Read More . Rather than let the OS sell itself, Microsoft has resorted to nagging, sneaking, and other forceful tactics 5 Unintended Consequences of Windows 10 Upgradegate Microsoft is ruining everything with Windows 10. The upgrade disaster has unintended consequences for Microsoft and its customers. We talk about how Microsoft's tactics violate user trust and decreases security, among other issues. Read More . The upgrade then brings in other apps and settings that monitor your usage by default Windows 10 Is Watching: Should You Be Worried? Since its release, Windows 10 has been dogged by rumors concerning user privacy. Some of these are accurate, whereas others are myths. But where does Windows 10 stand on privacy, really? Read More . It’s all about money for Microsoft, but this has resulted in users feeling like they have to protect themselves from their own computers.

Releasing an application’s source code involves an inherent degree of trust. You’re taking code you’ve written and sharing it with others. You’re putting your work out there for other people to inspect and criticize. But given what’s at stake, releasing the source code is also a big sign of respect. Thank you, free software developers, for treating your users with this kindness.

So, Should Software Be Free and Open Source?

The world is increasingly connected, and more of our data lives online.

This brings questions of control, privacy, ownership, and trust that we need to create answers for as we trust more of our lives to devices and remote servers. To me, free and open source software already offer a solution. What about you?

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  1. Anonymous
    August 18, 2016 at 3:59 am

    As a consumer, I believe I should have choices in the software I want to use. If I see adequate open source apps, great. If there are commercial apps that offer much more, I should be able to buy them to support continued development and product support. An example is Gimp vs. Photoshop/Lightroom. Is Gimp sufficient? Great; use it.

    As a developer, I feel I should have the choice to focus on the full-time (or nearly so) development of my app. Oh wait! I need to feed my family; I need an income. Or, I could team up with a lot of others to develop a "free" app (open source) and let the road lead to wherever it goes.

    The bottom line is that there needs to be both options available. Which, I think, is where we are today.

    • Anonymous
      August 19, 2016 at 8:21 am


    • Bertel King
      August 20, 2016 at 1:56 pm

      I agree, which is why I didn't title this "5 Reasons Why *All* Software Should Be Free and Open Source". Ultimately freedom means being able to make and use whichever software you want.

      I would like to see the software ecosystem change in such a way that most default software is open source, and people who want a premium commercial app make the conscious decision to do so, rather than the other way around.

  2. HildyJ
    August 17, 2016 at 11:19 pm

    While the article was written from a Linux perspective, FOSS is also available on Windows and (sometimes) Android. My browser is Firefox (Windows & Android), my password manager is Keepass (Windows & Android), my Office Suite is LibreOffice (Windows), and my time devouring suite of games is Simon Tatham's Puzzle Collection (Android). I also have GIMP and Audacity but I rarely use them.

    • Bertel King
      August 20, 2016 at 2:01 pm

      Yup, and I'm glad. That's the reason I was able to first try free software. I didn't make this explicit in the post, but my first computer ran Windows XP. I used free software on Windows for years before switching to Linux, and I was able to continue using many of my favorite apps (Firefox, AbiWord, OpenOffice, Pidgin, GIMP, etc.).

    • Tech Man
      March 11, 2018 at 2:27 pm

      I wish Firefox worked on my Kindle Fire. I installed the Google Play store to get Firefox, but it crashes constantly.

      I love Firefox, but it keeps crashing on my Kindle Fire. I often can't even open it.

      Does anyone have any suggestions on how to fix this?

  3. Vladimir
    August 17, 2016 at 5:47 pm

    I agree with you on all points (especially on the 4th reason), but it's clearly written from a consumer perspective (to which I belong as well). Try producing a modern track (/song, whatever you call it) with Audacity only. Can be done. But it's a lot harder than with a paid software (Logic, FL, Ableton, Cubase, ProTools etc) and all other plug-ins and packs.

    Who'd put countless hours of work on software development if they KNEW they weren't going to benefit financially? In my opinion, paid software fuels progress of software itself. And it's only because of the competition - everybody wants to make the best one so that they can earn money.

    I know a lot of open-source apps (was a Fedora user for some time) work very well. But are they on the same level as paid ones are? Other point, would we see as many games?

    You can go open source all you want. I know what it's like not having money to buy every single one you need, having to shop for new devices every 2 years because the old ones are obsolete... But it's progress.

    • Bertel King
      August 17, 2016 at 7:03 pm

      Thanks for the feedback, and I'm glad to see you like the points I've put forward. Here's my response to some of the issues you've raised.

      Have I approached this as a consumer? Yes and no. I'm a writer, and I find Linux to be an ideal tool for producing the kind of content I need. It has great apps for creating documents, formatting ebooks, drafting content for the web, and so on (// I make my living working from a Linux computer.

      Many people put countless hours of work into creating software that they know they won't benefit from financially. There are thousands of open source apps already in existence, after all.

      But I understand that's not the point you're getting at. I won't argue that competition among applications doesn't fuel innovation. It does. But it's not the only model out there. Say all software, for whatever reason, *had* to be open source. People would still want to produce music using their computers, and someone with the expertise would make it happen. More than likely, someone who wants to make a song would pay a developer to produce a tool for them, which is how much of the business world gets its software. Someone would likely open source one of these tools, or more work would go into a program like Audacity precisely because someone can't turn to a commercial alternative instead.

      As for the difference in quality between paid and open source apps, that's really an app by app basis. Many Windows users flood their PCs with open source apps because they're some of the best options available without even knowing or caring about the development model. This includes apps like Firefox, VLC, Atom, GIMP, and LibreOffice. I personally prefer the experience I get using a PDF viewer on Linux than Windows or Chrome OS. The same is true with the file manager, text editor, image viewer, etc. As a working professional with the money to buy commercial software, I still go open source instead partially because I find the experience to be better.

      To me, watching Windows 7 (which I liked) turn into 8 and 10 was not progress at all. Nor was having to replace my perfectly functional HTC One with a newer phone that was mostly the same, just to get updates. Having a smart watch become buggy in six months and need replacing when an old-fashioned watch can last years is a step back, not forward. In many ways, this is software and hardware designed to make money, not to improve the state of technology or our quality of life.

    • Anonymous
      August 17, 2016 at 10:23 pm

      Open source software does not have to mean free of charge. You have to pay for Red Hat Enterprise Linux even though it is open source.

      "paid software fuels progress of software itself."
      If you define 'progress' as adding esoteric features that very few people use and useless eye candy. I would disagree with you on paid software fueling innovation. Paid software developers write programs they are told to write. They do not experiment, The do not try to see if program can do something better, quicker or more efficiently. Open source software developers, on the other hand, do experiment, do play 'what if'. Just look at the browsers. Firefox, Opera, Chrome had features that Microsoft has only recently incorporated into their newest browser.

      "everybody wants to make the best one so that they can earn money."
      No. When it comes to paid software, everybody wants to be first to the market with new features and fancy glitz so they can make money.

  4. Anonymous
    August 17, 2016 at 5:36 pm

    " The only real guarantee that an app will be available years from now is if it’s open source. If the source code is available, someone can keep the program alive after it eventually gets abandoned or undergoes drastic changes."

    This is perhaps because many countries enforce the concept of intellectual property rights to information (like patents) suppressing competition. This monopolization of ideas occurs elsewhere too.

    "With physical products, I have to trust that the manufacturer didn’t use dangerous materials or unethical business practices, "

    This doesn't apply to software which may include malware and still have been produced unethically?

    Giving businesses intellectual property rights I think might be biggest suppressor of competition . Certainly true in the drug industry

    • Bertel King
      August 17, 2016 at 6:28 pm

      "With physical products, I have to trust that the manufacturer didn’t use dangerous materials or unethical business practices," definitely applies to software as well. I was making the point that with physical products, this is often where concerns end, whereas with software the concerns are just beginning.