Saturday, January 10, 2009

Free Open Source Software

I am a firm believer that there is a high-quality (maybe even higher-quality), Free Open Source Software (FOSS) alternative for nearly every application that you've ever spent your hard-earned money on. Think back to how many programs you've purchased (or had to pirate) in order to do simple, everyday tasks on your computer such as write a letter, create a spreadsheet, listen to your MP3s, watch a DVD, edit an image or photo, etc. What fun and useful things could you buy if you had all of that money back. All of those $9.99, $19.99, an $29.99 programs that you've downloaded or purchased from your local department store generally have Open Source alternatives that you can download and use for no cost at all.

But can a free (as in beer) software package really match the quality of something that you pay money for?

Absolutely! As the saying goes, "You get what you pay for"... most of the time. However, in the case of FOSS, you get way more than that. The majority of open source applications available were created by someone as a tool to accomplish a task that they needed to get done.

Wouldn't you expect a recording studio to be able to develop a better studio software than Microsoft? I would.

Let's say I'm a newspaper journalist and no matter what software I try, I just can't find a good program that will let me build my page layouts the way that I want to build them. All the expensive software requires specific file formats or won't allow me to export my work in a format that is easily shared with my colleagues because they use a different software. Instead of wasting my time and money test driving every available program on the shelf at my local software store, I decide that I'm going to develop my own program to do exactly what I need it to do, without all the extra stuff that I'll never use. It will run faster, take up less disk space, and be free from those vendor-specific file formats that cause lock-in.

It stands to reason that a person in that situation would be able to create a better product than a group of professional software developers in an office somewhere that are just trying to increase their company's revenues. That's exactly what FOSS is. Software developed for a specific purpose by the same people that need the software for said purpose. And when they're done, they are generous enough to share their work with the rest of us at no cost, then, as they make improvements and enhancements to their software, they publish those updates too. Soon, there is a group of people that are using the software and submitting updates and enhancements. Before long, an entire community has formed around that software as user base grows. So, when you or I download and use that software, but run in to a question, we have an entire community of experienced users and developers available to us for help. We don't have to rely on a tech support person in another country, or wholey useless help files to find the answers we need. And we can get all of this without spending a penny.

Next time, I'll share my top 10 list of FOSS packages that everyone can use in place of their high-priced cousins.