I have used free and open source software on my computer for years. These days, I try to exclusively use free software. I’ve written a lengthy guide detailing my efforts and how you can go beyond what I have done.
But there remain corners of my computer that aren’t fully open. My laptop’s Wi-Fi card doesn’t work without a closed binary blob tucked away somewhere in the Linux kernel. For other people, it’s not about hardware. There are proprietary apps they rely on for tasks that free software does not yet do.
That’s not to say that there’s a problem with free software. That’s not what this is about at all. I still prefer for software to be free. But unless someone creates a free and open source app to scratch every itch, there remain itches that such software doesn’t scratch.
So if you plan on switching to Linux or have already embraced a free and open source operating system, you may find yourself still having to rely on closed source apps. When is free software not yet good enough?
When I first started using Linux, I was happy to see that there were many free and open source games available for download in what we would now consider a Linux app store.
Then I found out that there were only certain types of games floating around. Thanks to ID Software releasing the source code for the Quake engine, there were many online first-person shooters. All of them were similar to Quake, which wasn’t quite my preference. As for other genres, there was the occasional strategy game, platformer, or puzzler, but the quality of the experience was all over the place. For the kind of experience I was accustomed to on gaming consoles and Windows, I needed to download commercial games. Essentially all of them, it turns out, were closed source, and not that many supported Linux.
The situation has changed in the years since. Steam, a closed source game distribution program from Valve, now runs on Linux. Many AAA titles, all closed source, now provide a similar experience on Linux as what you get on Windows. The number of commercial titles have blossomed.
As for open source games? You can find updated versions of the same games that were around five years ago, but not much else. As for an open-source alternative to the Steam client, Desura is an option, but even when it works, you are still largely using it to download proprietary games.
2. Professional Multimedia Work
This section is laden with caveats. Linux has plenty of video editors, and you can make very high-quality videos using them. Blender is a great program for making 3D graphics. A few short animated movies such as Big Buck Bunny and Sintel have been made entirely using free software. Some Linux YouTubers have highlighted the programs they use to make their videos. Are these guys professionals? Sure. Are those short films top-notch? I’d say so.
But these free software tools aren’t what people use to make the kind of films that appear in your local movie theater. For that, editors turn to software like Lightworks. This program has been used in such well-known titles as Pulp Fiction, Mission Impossible, Bruce Almighty, and The Wolf of Wall Street.
Lightworks came to Linux a few years ago, and while developer EditShare has expressed plans to release the source code, that hasn’t happened yet.
Audacity and Ardour are great tools for people producing podcasts or music, but there are commercial alternatives that may provide an easier workflow. Mixbus is a digital audio workstation based on Ardour. Renoise is one that isn’t. Since I know very little about working with digital audio, I welcome comments from readers with experience using open-source and closed-source tools.
You don’t need to download closed-source software to video chat with someone. Jitsi is one open source tool you can try for video conferencing. You can also use a web browser to connect to Google Hangouts, though the service itself isn’t open source.
Yet video chatting requires people to use the same software on both ends, and in many cases, that means you’re stuck with Skype. You may have friends and family members that have all left Skype behind but still need to keep the app around for job or podcast interviews. Enough people use Skype that, despite the number of alternatives, the service is still treated as a standard.
Skype technically supports Linux, but the experience isn’t the best. For years, Linux users have been left with an outdated client while Windows and macOS saw regular updates. Linux does now have a version similar to that on commercial operating systems, but its release still lagged behind. While Microsoft may be showing broader acceptance of Linux these days, keeping the Skype client current has not been a big priority.
4. Cloud Storage
The ability to back up our data on someone else’s machines had made moving from one computer to another, or even one operating system to another, that much easier. There are plenty of downsides, but of particular relevance here is the closed nature of many of these services. To access Dropbox‘s servers, you need the Dropbox client. That client is available for Linux, but it’s also closed source.
Google does provide an API that lets open source clients access Drive. This is why you can syncronize your Google data when setting up a GNOME desktop for the first time.
On the positive side, there are ways to do that without relying on proprietary software. There are quite a few open-source ways to back up your computer, whether to another PC around the house or to a distant server. But is a non-technical computer user likely to do this?
On the Bright Side…
That these options exist means that more companies have started to support Linux. This makes it far easier to switch to Linux. I may only use open source apps these days, but that wasn’t the case when I started. Plenty of other people don’t care about transitioning at all, as long as their app continues to work.
Not only that, this list is much shorter than it used to be. Frankly, Linux and open source software have come a long way. But there are still gaps in the free software experience.
What proprietary apps do you install on your Linux desktop? What commercial software isn’t yet available for Linux that you would love to use? You can add to the list in the comments below!
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