I'm David and this is my blog.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Free Software and Freedom

Computer user! I've spotted you. You are using a computer. Don't be ashamed. Everyone does it. It just means you are using an operating system and some programs. That operating system may be Windows, OSX, Linux, or something else. Those programs may be Firefox, Internet Explorer, Word, or Quicken to name a few.

Since I've successfully called you out as a user of the computer kind, my next task is to edu-muh-cate you on something called free software, what it is and why should you should know about it.

First, how free is the software you are using? By the way you can comfortably sit on your wallet and the ease with which you agree to EULA's, I'm guessing it's not free enough. Right about now, much of our lives is spent using computers. We use them to balance our checkbooks, to organize our family photos, and to keep in contact with friends and relatives. We use computers to live our lives.

If we care about our personal freedom to balance our checkbook the way we want, to organize pictures the way we want, or to communicate with others the way we want, we should value freedom in the software we use.

Software freedom is not in a great state these days. Before I tell you why, I'd better tell you what it means for software to be free. Free to many of us is the ultimate of cheap. That is the price is zero. While price is important, it is not the ultimate concern for us as a society. The free I'm talking about is free as in freedom. You need the freedom to do what you want. This freedom includes changing software, copying it or even printing out the source code and throwing darts at it.

The Free Software Foundation has made this definition of freedom more explicit with their four kinds of freedom. With free software you have the freedom to:
* Run the software, for any purpose.
* Modify the program to suit your needs.
* Copy and distribute copies of the program.
* Distribute modified versions of the program.

If you want to remember this easily you can remember that you can run, modify, copy, and distribute modified copies of free software. For short that's RMCDMC. The stranger the acronym the easier to remember but let me help you anyway. I can remember that one because it reminds me of the 80's rap group Run DMC. They were so illin'. The point is, you should know these freedoms by heart and you should care that the software you use has them.

Just above, I wrote "software freedom is not in a great state". The point of that, aside from giving myself a chance to quote myself, is that people are use a lot of non-free software. Programs like Windows, Word and Quicken all qualify. You cannot run them without accepting end-user license agreements that restrict you from each of the aforementioned freedoms. You cannot change them legally and you cannot copy them or distribute any changes you would make if you could.

Since free software has been around a while, there's lots of good free software available. Firefox can replace Internet Explorer. Open Office can replace Microsoft Office. Thunderbird replaces Outlook Express and so on and so forth. That's not to say these are task-for-task, drop-in replacements but most tasks are covered just by investing a little time learning. Furthermore, just by using free software, you can help improve something that will always be free.

You should care about the freedom of the software you use. Freedom in software means the author or owner of the program cannot stop you from doing what you want with the program. In many cases, this means improving it or just fixing a bug. What a vendor does by being gatekeepers over software changes is to artificially limit how good their software can be.

It's fairly often I find a problem I'm sure somebody would fix if only they had the source code and the freedom to do so. Case in point: Windows OneCare installing itself over conflicting competitors willy-nilly. If it were free software, the problem stands a good chance of being fixed by someone like me who has suffered because of this missing feature.

Question: Out of the programs I mentioned at the beginning, only one is free software. Do you know which one?


  • Firefox is FREE and THE BEST Browser!!!. You failed to mention any good "free" options for Quicken. Any recommendations? I currently use M$oft Money, but thinking of switching... Thanks for the interesting post.

    By Blogger Jim R, At 2/27/07 5:29 PM  

  • Thanks Jim. As for a quicken replacement, I've taken a look at GnuCash. Since I don't use Quicken for much more than emailing the odd invoice, I'm probably not going to get into GnuCash too far but I think it's the best option at this point.

    By Blogger David, At 2/27/07 8:16 PM  

  • Wow - I have stumbled onto your blog - How do you know all this - the computer still scares me with what it can do. My children use it like it is second nature to them for whatever they need. They are never afraid of adding something. Now I am going to try firefox because I have no idea what is does. Let's see if it works. Free software sounds good.

    By Blogger sue, At 6/9/07 5:50 AM  

  • As a follow-up to jim r, I did try out Gnucash and it was cryptic to use at first. What's good about gnucash is that they get you into more formal double-entry accounting when you use it as opposed to quicken where some transactions create or destroy money. Gnucash has a pretty good stock updater that uses Yahoo's free stock quotes.

    By Blogger David, At 6/9/07 1:05 PM  

  • Opera-is a fine,easy,and fast loading browser! I have used it some two years now and find it very responsive as well as reliable.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At 11/28/07 10:46 AM  

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