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What Is Free Open-Source Software – Pros & Cons, Best Options

By David Gomez

free softwareTools are an important part of any job. But what if the tools you need are out of your price range?

When searching for industry-leading software, people often end up with their jaws on the floor due to sticker shock. Software programs that large organizations use may be ideal, but many small businesses and self-employed individuals cannot justify spending thousands of dollars to use a package of programs, no matter how useful.

Fortunately, in many instances you can find software tools that meet your specific business needs – all for free.

Free Software

The free software movement has been in existence since 1985, and according to the Free Software Foundation, it can be summed up thusly:

“Free software is a matter of liberty, not price. Think of ‘free’ as in ‘free speech,’ not as in ‘free beer.’ Free software is a matter of the users’ freedom to run, copy, distribute, study, change, and improve the software.”

This means that free software gives users the ability to have total access to a program’s source code, whereas conversely, proprietary software does not allow users access to a program’s source code, nor to make changes to it.

Advantages

Often, free software has the same features as its high-priced proprietary counterparts – and that is only one of the many advantages:

  • Free to Download. Would you rather pay upwards of a thousand dollars for the program you need, or nothing?
  • Many Choices. There are more than 6,500 pieces of free software available today.
  • Large Communities. Many free software programs have large and active communities online that offer support to users of free software via blogs and forums.
  • Supportive of Social Movement. The use of free software supports a movement that believes computer users should be free from technology that conducts surveillance and gathers information about what users do on their devices.
  • Shared Improvements. Users are allowed to have source code, study it, make functional changes to a program, and redistribute the modified software to others in any way they choose. A crafty entrepreneur can take advantage of this to save money by developing his or her own custom business software.

Disadvantages

Despite the upsides, there are also disadvantages to free software:

  • No Guaranteed Support. Some free software programs don’t have a large user base, and therefore the user support for certain programs can be lacking or nonexistent.
  • Inconsistent Updates. Since many members of the free software community develop the code in their spare time as unpaid volunteers, there is a chance that some of the programs in the free software directory haven’t been updated in a while, and may not function properly on newer operating systems.
  • Varying Interfaces. Some free software programs have a much different user interface than their commercial counterparts, and can have a steep learning curve.

free software

Open-Source Software

The philosophy that defines the open-source software community broke off from the free software community in the late ’90s. It is similar, but has its variations. For example, the open-source movement likes to highlight their member software’s practical benefits, but they don’t like to raise the issues of right and wrong that were the basis of developing alternatives to proprietary software in the first place. Simply put, open-source is a development methodology, while free software is a social movement. The open-source movement views proprietary software to be less desirable than unpaid programs, while the free software movement views all non-free software as a social problem.

The open-source movement has a community behind it that maintains its definition and guidelines, much like the free software movement. Open-source software also has somewhat of an adversarial view of proprietary software, and allows users to access a program’s source code.

Advantages

  • Powerful Networking Community. Many commonly used programs are open-source (such as Mozilla Firefox), and therefore have a large community when compared to free software.
  • Worldwide Usage. Because many open-source programs are heavily used all over the world, they have much more online support available than some free software programs.
  • No Cost. Open-source software can be downloaded for free.
  • Variety of Options. The use of open-source programs supports a movement that believes in software with higher reliability, more flexibility, lower cost, and no predatory vendor lock-in.
  • Accessible Source Code. Users are given access to a program’s source code, or are directed to where they can obtain it for studying.

Disadvantages

  • Semi-restrictive Licenses. The open-source software community is not as concerned as the free software community with developing software licenses that respect users’ personal freedoms.
  • Software Must Be Culled From Various Sources. There is no definitive directory of open-source programs like there is with free software.
  • Less Freedom to Change Things. Users are allowed less freedom to study and make functional changes to a program when compared to free software.

Usable Alternatives to Popular Programs

It doesn’t matter how big or small your organization is – there is a piece of free or open-source software that can perform the functions you need.

  • Quicken. Instead of using Quicken to do personal or business accounting, try GNU Cash.
  • Adobe InDesign. If you need a tool for professional page layout, creation of PDF documents, or any other publishing job, use Scribus instead of Adobe InDesign.
  • Adobe Photoshop. If you need to do photo editing or retouching, try GIMP instead of Adobe Photoshop.
  • Adobe Illustrator. If you need to edit or create your own graphics, Inkscape may be the perfect alternative to Adobe Illustrator.
  • Final Cut Pro/Studio or Adobe Premiere Pro. For video editing needs, forgo Final Cut or Adobe Premiere Pro, and instead check out Avidemux.
  • Microsoft Office. LibreOffice or OpenOffice are two great alternatives to the pricey Microsoft Office.
  • Adobe Dreamweaver. If you need to build and operate a website, try Drupal or WordPress. Both are used for many high-profile destinations on the Internet.

Where to Find Free and Open-Source Software

There are several places online where you can begin your search for free and open-source software, though this is by no means a complete list.

  • The Free Software Foundation offers a large software directory.
  • The World Wide Web Consortium’s W3C Open-Source software list is also thorough.
  • Osalt.com is useful for finding open-source software alternatives to well-known commercial software.
  • Windows users might want to look at Open-Source Windows for a list of the most well-known open-source programs for the popular operating system, while Mac users should check the Open-Source Mac.

Final Word

Technological innovation has made certain tasks much easier and much more affordable. Free and open-source software is an example of this. We have networks where communicating and sharing with people is easier than ever, and it can be used to benefit individuals and the economy. You don’t have to replace all of your commercial software tools with free or open-source software, but it never hurts to check your options. You may very well benefit and save your business a ton of money by checking out these alternatives to commercial software.

Which free and open-source programs do you recommend?

David Gomez
David likes to write about new media, technology, mass communication, politics, and personal finance. He feels that those topics are more interconnected than ever before. He prefers regular toned down culture to the outrageous nature of pop culture found on TV. He still watches the box and accesses mainstream media, but it’s mostly to find things to hate on for entertainment. When he's not writing or bashing pop culture he can be found attending graduate school.

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