A case in point is Avast anti-virus. This popular anti-virus system has high-end versions for enterprises – which are where they make their money – down to a low-end free edition for home use only. It doesn’t cost a cent, and you get upgrades forever.
That’s pretty decent. Yet, you’re trusting Avast not to crash your computer, not to delete things which aren’t really viruses, to be sufficiently up-to-date to protect you from modern threats, and many other things.
Avast is a reputable company; I don’t mean to imply anything else. My point is merely that although a freeware app costs no money it isn’t yours to do with as you wish and its inner workings can’t be inspected or modified.
Here’s where FOSS comes in. A system like Linux, or even smaller applications like TuxPaint, are free in a different sense.
Sure, you can get them at no price too, but they’re also free from restriction.
If you don’t like the order of the menu items in TuxPaint you can change them. If you can improve the way a program works you’re free to implement a fix. If you don’t like the way Linux handles a piece of hardware you can improve it.
You can also give these changes away to others. You can submit them for inclusion in the core product, but you don’t have to.
You might have a totally different idea for a program but you need a facility that lets users draw pictures. You can embed TuxPaint into your program. Again, you can give this away to anyone else.
I don’t want to skew this towards programming ability. Not everyone is a programmer. In fact, most people in the world wouldn’t be. And those who are programmers don’t necessarily have the time to tweak every item they come across.
For non-programmers, FOSS still means a lot. The fact is you can trust TuxPaint won’t erase your hard drive because you know the source code can be heavily scrutinised by people who are programmers. You know if your computer crashes you can ask people if TuxPaint could likely be the cause and get an honest appraisal.
You don’t have this same certainty with any proprietary system. All of us – whether programmers or not – can relate tales of sucky software we’ve come across. Indeed, a lot of freeware is bad and that’s precisely why it’s free.
Nobody except the original author can fix sucky proprietary software. And nobody except the original author can figure out what the sucky software is doing to your computer and stop it from happening again.
Heck, let’s even consider getting access to all your old data and the risks proprietary software has.