Friday, 27 February 2009

Free and Open Software

Software is big business, we all use it. Recently though, there have been changes to how we think about it. In actual fact this shift has been slowly creeping for the last ten or so years. In the late 1990's we grew all too familiar with Outlook Express. It was the standard email client shipping with Internet Explorer. It was the light version to the far more functional Microsoft Outlook as part of the famous Office suite. However, after Microsoft's acquisition of Hotmail, things got a little more interesting. Some people argued that they no longer needed a email client. At least we did as teenagers. The more business minded wanted the greater functionality of Outlook. Linux usuage was definitely on the increase. During this time, Sun Microsystems acquired Star Division, the creator of the popular and acclaimed alternative office suite "Star Office". They then made this Open Source and available to download for Linux users under the name A small number of people started using this as their default office suite. In a time of piracy, people needed a way of doing their work easily without the need to steal the latest iteration of Microsoft's excellent, (although sometimes frustrating), software. There are many applications avaliable to us for free, which ever platform you use. But with the Internet age upon us...

Has the free desktop software movement missed the boat?

I think it might well have done. Although I'm not sure it's their fault. There is one saving grace in that as it stands, the large majority of the internet applications out there are usable for free. Currently there is still a need for desktop applications to be developed. Mostly for workstations that aren't connected to the world wide web. This, coupled with the fact that the internet apps just aren't good enough to be viable solutions. Google however might be changing this sooner rather than later. There are very few people I know that don't use gmail. Hell, I use one just to write this blog!

I could go on for hours about the free software movement and Open Source, I'm sure neither of us want that. There is a question that bugs me;

Is free software value for money?

As a Linux and OSS user I would say yes of course. The general computer users I've spoken to either don't care or think that it isn't. The former is completely understandable. The 'If it works... great' attitude, goes down very well with me. The latter though, grates somewhat. I'm aware that the basic applications that the average Joe user wants from their system; Office suite, DVD burner, email client... etc. aren't always up to their commercial counterparts. This however is besides the point. You have to pay for them. To get something anywhere near that quality and not have to pay, surely thats worth the effort to learn how to use a new word processor. If the alternative was piracy, you've also left yourself with a clear conscience.

I do however, believe that if people are going to embrace free software, two things need to happen. Firstly, it needs to be good. I would like to use software that has a version number of at least 1. Secondly and far more importantly, people need to feel that it is OK to download software for free. I switched my mum over to Linux about a year ago. It's taken me this long just to convice her that you can indeed get something for nothing.

I'm not entirely sure how well the OSS community can stave off this attack from the web app sect in computing. Only time will tell. I am however sure that Google will dictate how that will progress in the next few years at least.

- David


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