In this page I'll explain what free software is and how it matters to you, no matter who you may be. FLOSS is an acronym for Free / Libre / Opensource Software

FLOSS

"If you have an apple and I have an apple and we exchange these apples then you and I will still each have one apple. But if you have an idea and I have an idea and we exchange these ideas, then each of us will have two ideas."
- George Bernard Shaw
What is Free Software ?

If you haven't spent the last couple of years in a place completely untouched by the information revolution, you have probably heard of Linux. As you may know, Linux is an operating system. Just like Microsoft Windows is. If you are already a GNU/Linux hacker, you may safely skip this article - you know all this already - though you are welcome to read through it and comment, should you wish.

Now, what sets apart Linux from other operating systems is the fact that its "free". The concept of software being free is probably the most misunderstood concept and its very important to grasp its significance before proceeding any further.

Free software is NOT the same as "freeware" commonly found on download.com or your favourite computer magazine. Here the word "free" refers to freedom. To quote the Free Software Foundation, free refers to freedom, not price - its free as in free speech, NOT as in free beer. However, most free software also happen to be free as is free beer.

This concept stems from the philosophy that information should be free to all those who want to access it. Richard Stallman often compares software to cooking recipes - just like recipes are shared by anyone and everyone, so should software. The entire works of the Free Software Foundation rests on this principle - and the GNU tools by the FSF form a core component of Linux.

But why ?

Now, why should information be free at all? Most users are quite happy to use their pirated copy of Word or Windows XP and not bother about all this. But little do most legal buyers of such software know that they do NOT, in spite of spending thousands, actually own the software. All they own is the permission to use it.

Take the case of Powerpoint, the ubiquitous presentation program, for instance. When you save a presentation as a .PPT file, no one except Microsoft knows how to read/modify it properly. If your friend at location X wants to add a slide, he/she MUST have Powerpoint installed. That person MUST have bought Powerpoint by paying Microsoft a heavy sum. (There are programs such as OpenOffice.org that do an excellent job at guessing the format of Powerpoint files, but thats beside the point).

Take another example - the MP3 standard of encoding. Did you know that any software that uses the MP3 algorithm commercially must pay royalty to the creators of MP3 - the Fraunhofer institute ? They always have the rights to the algorithm. Should they decide one fine day that MP4 is the new MP3, and the older MP3 should be banned - they have ALL rights to do so.

Even though Fraunhofer institute has specified how to read MP3 files, they will always retain intellectual rights to the format. The same applies to Adobe Corporation and its PDF format. However, as an aside, this is much more generous than the Microsoft way of keeping the entire format closed to the general public.

Some standards, like HTML and XML are Open Standards. No one needs to pay anyone an HTML page. This page you are reading uses both HTML and XML, and I didn't have to pay anyone anything.

A related move by large software houses is to indulge in software patents. Software programs are very much like music or literature or art - and since patents are typically not allowed for these, software should not be patentable either. Visit nosoftwarepatents for more information on this issue.

So, any alternatives ?

Ethical issues apart, let's focus on what alternative we actually have. There is a group of people who believe that software should be free. It is a large group worldwide, who take pride in writing good quality software and giving it to you and me for free. They even give us the right to improve upon it and change it according to our will. The two primary organizations behind this are the Free Software Foundation and the Open Source Initiative. While the goals and objectives of these two organizations are somewhat different, what really matters to us is that due to their efforts, we need not lock ourselves into proprietary closed solutions by large software vendors.

What do you use a computer for ? Browsing the net ? Chatting ? Emails ? Programming ? Web-development ? There are free software for all of this and much much more. You can get all this in a typical Linux operating system distribution. To get started on it, please read this page. Even if you dont want to install an entire OS at this point of time, there are several Free Software released under the GNU General Public License or GPL - you can download an excellent collection from The Open CD.

All that I have tried to explain in this page is adapted/inspired from and much better expressed in this article. Please go through it at your leisure.

Read more about Linux and free software on this page. Leave your comments here.