If you are reading this you probably use free software. In fact, I think the probability that you are reading this article using free software is extremely high, whether it is “free-as-in-speech” as in Firefox, or “free-as-in-beer” as in Internet Explorer. Free software is increasingly being taken for granted and is almost treated as some kind of legal right in some quarters. And so it should be. A lot of people have had to put a great deal of effort into ensuring sufficient “free-as-in-speech” software exists for this to be so.
In a recent discussion on the Slashdot web site, free software users and advocates raised the question of whether the KDE project should be ported to the Microsoft Windows platform. Advocates for porting the KDE desktop environment made the argument that porting KDE to Windows would enable a new population of users to experience the software and that this exposure would entice these new users to seek out and adopt free software for use in their daily computing lives.
Free software, also known as open source, libre software, FOSS, FLOSS and even LOSS, relies on traditional software legal protection, with a twist. Semantics aside (I will describe all the above as “free software”), the tradition at law is that free software is copyrighted, like most other software, and is not released, unbridled, to the public domain. Authorial or ownership rights can be asserted as with any bit of proprietary software.
GNU/Linux is growing all the time: new software is being created; new copies downloaded or bought; new users are discovering free software for the first time. With this growth we have seen the rise of polished distributions, sales-minded distributors, “XX” software is being released, and so free software is gaining commercial success in many fields. Even governments, from Peru to the UK, are now racing to use free software. But governments seem to be the only ones who are talking about switching specifically because they want free software, not just stable, secure and powerful software.
Maybe it’s true that a “Rose by any other name still smells as sweet,” but not being able to easily pronounce the name of software is a big turn off to exploring it.
That’s true whether the name of your word processing program is “Espronceda” or “Microsoft Word” or “OpenOffice.org Writer”.
In a few years viewing source code within the major components of software infrastructure will probably be a routine way of doing business. In the meantime it seems that the only reason managers want free software is because it is free (as in free of costs). That’s not a good reason in itself: in the long run there are compelling reasons that robust, mission critical infrastructure software should be made free software.