How Good is Free Software?

We often get asked about various free software products on the market and how they compare to their paid competitors. While we won’t dig into reviewing individual products here, I thought it would be beneficial to our clients that they understand the pros and cons to using their favorite free products.

What is “Free”?

There is often a great deal of confusion surrounding what “free” actually means in the software world. Since software can be infinitely replicated at little to no cost, software piracy has become a booming business, and many consider pirated software to be “free”. However, it’s typically not what the owner intended, and is almost always illegal, so this is not a proper use of the term.
The biggest confusion seems to be with “free” and “open source”. These two terms are often used interchangeably, and sometimes incorrectly. Open Source software means that the source code, the original set of instructions written by the developers, is available publicly and freely. Free software means that the actual compiled program is available free of charge. Open source is usually, but not always, free.
Even those two simple definitions get much more complicated in the software world. For example, some software is both open source and free (Ubuntu, 7zip, OpenOffice, ClamWin, Mozilla Firefox), while some software is free but not open source (AVG, Microsoft Security Essentials, Internet Explorer, Adobe Acrobat Reader). Additionally, the definition of “free” and “open source” varies wildly. Some open source software may be publicly available, but there might be restrictions on modifying or reselling it. Some free software may limit you to a certain number of copies or restrict you to only installing it on non-commercial systems. There are several organizations, including the Free Software Foundation and Open Source Initiative, that are attempting to normalize these definitions.

Benefits of using free software:

  • It’s free!
  • There are a lot of great free software products that are better than their paid counterparts.
  • If the product is open-source, there is often a large community of developers working to improve and enhance the product. Some say this even leads to more secure programs.

Drawbacks to using free software:

  • Support is rarely included, and typically only in the form of an online community forum of volunteers
  • There is also rarely any warranty. Free software is usually “use at your own risk”. These first two reasons are usually why we recommend proven mainstream software products for business-critical functions.
  • Free closed-source software is sometimes supported through ads and junk toolbars, which can be both annoying and problematic
  • There are a lot of terrible free software products that are not nearly as good as their paid counterparts.
  • Many free applications have restrictions on use that users are unaware of. For example, it is against the terms of use (and potentially illegal) to use AVG Free Edition on a business computer or on more than one of your personal computers.

The bottom line:

Pay close attention to the licensing agreement you inevitably must “Accept” when installing or downloading the software. Make sure you are comfortable with and aware of the risks involved and are not about to violate the terms of use. If you think you might need help, make sure you have someone standing by who is familiar with the product!
If you have questions on specific software products, feel “free” to send us an email at info@infotech.us. Even better, post your question below!

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