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Free Software?

What is free software? Does free software help you in the idea of your business? This page will help to understand the basics of free software and how to benefit from it.

What is the meaning of "free software"?

The term of free software has been introduced an characterised by the Free Software Foundation. It describes software which is licensed to the user. This software licence declares to the users to receive it, to study the code, to manipulate it and to redistribute it under the same software licence. The free software licence does not imply that there would be no cost to obtain the product as it is assumed from time to time.

There are four thesis in the free software licence describing the rights to the user:

  • The software may be used for any purpose
  • The source code of the program can be obtained and studied
  • The software may be redistributed.
  • The software may be changed, improved and published to help other users of this software

Software released under a licence which determines all the stated rights is free software in the sense of the Free Software Foundation/FSF.

Based on this philosophy free software will contribute to an improved society.

To understand this it may be helpful to imagine why there are people writing free software and providing it to the users. Richard Stallman writes about his motivation in the essay Copyleft: Pragmatic Idealism. He is one of the most influential persons in the world of free software. Basically he wrote that he works on free software for idealism to achieve a world in peace and improve the cooperation of people. This would only be possible with free software but not with proprietary.

Cooperating people are beginning to talk to each other, to know each other and to learn to understand the goals, wishes and needs of people having been strangers. Beyond technical discussions acquaintances and friendships will evolve.

Free software will be published in the internet in most cases. The are no limitations and relevant distances to the internet therefore it is very easy to bridge differences in culture, education and differences in years in using that medium. No one can argue that seen from these aspects, there will be contributions to improve society.

What do these rights of freedom mean exactly?

Many software developers from all over the world are motivated to work on free software based on the essential rights they where given by the licence. The large number of software developers, the specific development process and the well organized structure of collaborative activities in large software projects, e.g. the KDE project, result in software programs which are of superior quality than commercial programs. Likewise this is given for development cycles and vitality of innovation.

Effect: Free software gives best quality

Usually there are many software developers working collaborative at a project. Every one does have his or her own background and view to the principles of programming. The process of repetitious reviews and the collaboration will give the best and optimal result. A very strange idea would be discussed and criticized with great emphasis.

As a result the free software product will be compatible with the standard definitions, in terms of data structures, protocols and technologies. Standards are agreements on the state of technology and principles in practice issued by committees. Standards should be free of particular interest. Well documented they provide safeness to the user and a system change can be done with more ease.

Effect: Independence given by standard compatibility

The source code is available to the user upon request or at time of delivery. The source code can be compiled by the users on his/her own machine. The users can study the source code, verify it and search for errors. The user may change the source code for his or her requirements or patch it in case of an error. No one pretends that this can be done without adequate knowledge, at last somebody with the appropriate skills may be found and do the changes.

At first glance there is the advantage of commercial software that nobody has to take care of such things as named above. All the time the commercial enterprise is in the market and the customers of the product follows the changes in versions and updates and is willing to pay the price for maintenance agreements during the software life cycle this may adequate. A forthcoming client should consider that there may be any of the following cases.

  • The market moves and smaller software sellers may disappear. When it happens the sources of the products and the resources which are vital to your enterprise are not reachable any longer. The telephone support line will cease and there will be no one to address for a solution of problems.
  • Progress is made to software products. The software seller charges a fee for new versions of the products. Participating in the market this is normal and justified. At the time of the release of a new version you may come to the conclusion that the current product is sufficient for your needs and you don't want to bear the additional costs. In most situations the software seller will stop supporting older versions of the product, for there is a current release and you could/should upgrade your software product.

These kind of problems usually do not appear with free software. Programmers join and they quit the group of developers in a free software project. Projects are developed continuously and bug tracking of critical errors is provided as an essential service. Project may be closed in cases that there is an analogue successor based on newer concepts and/or techniques.

Effect: Safeness by independence from the manufacturer

The main advantage of free software is safeness. The safeness composes of integrated levels:

  • System integrity: A "misconduct" by the user will not result in a computer system crash. Optimized code and input control as concepts in design avoids a complete system failure in almost all situations of operation.
  • Internet security: Currently there is only a very small number of viruses, trojans, worms and so for the Linux operating system. These codes are much harder to program for Linux compared to other OS's. Protecting software tools such as virus scanners are not necessary in Linux distributions. Effective filter tools to protect the mailservice are available. Firewalls are tools to control and restrict the internet traffic over the network hardware. Without a firewall a computer would be potentially open to the internet, anybody out there could see any chunk of data on the not protected computer. Firewall programs are delivered with every Linux distribution. The firewall program is installed at set up procedure and starts every time the computer begins to run. There is a well formed configuration file included.
  • System security: There are bugs and errors to free software also which have to be analysed and the problems solved. Hackers could exploit undetected errors to intrude the computer of the user and make illegal copies of data. Problems like these are discovered and reported quickly in the community of free software. Within a short period of time bug-fixes and patches are released by the project maintainers and Linux distributors.

Effect: Safeness in possessing the source code

Frequently it is said that the main benefit of free software is that there are no cost at all. This is some kind of misunderstanding. Free software is characterised by the four topics discussed above and the fact that it is royalty free. In normal situations it is not necessary to buy another software licence when enlarging the staff.

A current release of a complete, sophisticated and professional Linux distribution may be received from a server at no cost. However there will be some expense for literature, adapting the system and professional support running highly available computer systems in a business. Those costs are not a contradiction to goal of free software.

Effect: Reduction of costs

There is a variety of products driven by creative collaboration of people in the world of free software.

This may be boon and bane. The diversification may end in vast numbers of products. The main distributors choose the most perfect applications to be included into the distribution, Preconfigured and ready for use.

Effect: Choice of products through a variety of solutions

Who uses free software? A lot of people right now and still growing. Universities, trading groups, banking groups, tourism enterprises or insurance organistions running large scale IT-server infrastructure trust on free software. Free software is not mainstream yet. Realising the advantages of free software helps making the descision for a change towards "alternative" software products, taking into account that the most valuable commodity of an enterprise are data. Only a few middle-sized or small-sized enterprises can afford to employ an IT-professional. It is a great leap to alternate to free software showing a responsible posture and entrepreneurial courage.

Effect: Improving the image of the enterprise

People are volunteering on interesting software projects. The users of the software, their opinions, their cooperation and their satisfaction are success and motivation for the developers. Good productive collaboration between developers and users are the pleasing milieu to find the solution. Throughout the world communication is done by eMail, forum threads or IRC.

Free software: It's fun

No more problems?

The above parts of text may have given you the impression that there would be no more problems and every thing would be at it's best in using free software.

Regretfully this is not correct.

There are difficulties in using software so there are with free software also. Starting up is hard work to do. Kraft is embedded in the KDE project applications. The KDE project applications are running on UNIX-like operating systems. Linux is the most popular of free operating systems. Linux distinguishes from the competitive products of the windows class.

The Goal of the KDE project has been and will be to provided a modern user interface system to work with the computer without having to know a lot of technical details. The basic idea is to integrate office work flow and the necessary procedures to get the best from a computer. There are a lot of differences between Linux and Windows, and some solutions may be comparable.

Linux is not Windows. Linux not even tries to be. The article "Linux ist nicht Windows (in german)" may be of interest for further reading.

The openSUSE Projekt is one in a group of distributors of the operating Linux. In that project much work has been done to build of well defined installation and administration system. In the past there have been some problems with proprietary hardware drivers, most commonly available for an other operating system only.

A Linux system installed from the scratch on non-exotic hardware will give you a desktop computer system including a great number of programs and tools for productive use in office.

This article was translated from the German original to English language by Ralf Bertelsmann


Page: Main.FreeSoftware - Last Modified : Tue, 04 May 10

Copyright 2009, 2010 Klaas Freitag
and the Kraft Team