What is free Software and Why you should care

By Jean Hertel, 25/09/2017, in category Tips

Free Software, Paranoia, Personal

When I tell my friends and relatives that I prefer to use free software, many ask me what this business is and why they should care about it. After answering this same question so many times, I have decided it is more practical to write a blog post and describe what the subject is about and why they should care too.

First we need to understand some of the history of software and the emergence of other systems. In the early days of computer science, around the 70s and 80s, there was a very famous operating system in universities, called UNIX. In this system anyone could pick up the source code and change what they wanted, without any major problems. For people who studied computer science at the time this was great because it allowed everyone to study everything freely and change something if they wanted to. The problem that occurred is that such software was not free, but from a company. At one point this company decided that the software could no longer be used freely, and since there was nothing to stop it from doing so, the company totally banned the use from that version on.

This ban on using UNIX shocked many people and scholars, as several had contributed to the growth of the project, but were now forbidden to use it. One of the people who was quite shocked by the case was Richard Stallman, the father of Free Software.

Richard Stallman has a funny story about the software because he worked at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) and once had trouble with a printer. The problem is that the paper hung on the machine a few times and the software simply gave no warning. The person had to go manually look at the machine to find out that it was hung. As Stallman knew how to program, he offered to adjust the problem free of charge to the company that made the printer. The company in turn was rude and denied Stallman the source code claiming that if there was a problem, it should be reported to the company as they would fix it themselves.

Stallman was annoyed at not being able to solve a simple problem and the UNIX ban was further aggravating the issue. Sick of these problems Stallman decided that he would write his own operating systems and that to avoid the same problem that occurred with UNIX, he would write a source code license that would prohibit these problems. In this way, the General Public License (GPL) was created that gave programmers the assurance that their software would always be free for studies and improvements. Along with this initiative also came the GNU project, which would be the basis for all free software.

Well, now that you know what Free Software is, the question is: Why should I worry about this?

This question is interesting because we have some examples of cases where free software is much better than the closed one. We recently had a case of John Deere brand tractors having problems due to proprietary software. See the full story here.

In short, when the equipment breaks, due to its software, only the manufacturer of the tractors can fix it, leaving the farmers without much option. To try to get away from the problem the farmers have "hacked" their tractors and put other software on them, so that they themselves can fix the parts of the tractors.

If the software were free they would not be limited in this way and anyone else with the least knowledge could provide a version of the software without this limitation.

Another very common example is with today's cell phones. If you have an Android-powered phone, be warned that hardware manufacturers do not usually release many updates. After some time the cell phone is simply "forgotten" by the manufacturer and you end up with the following options:

  1. Get the current phone and have outdated software running the risk of being "hacked" by some old problem in the software that has already been solved in the newer versions.
  2. Buy a new phone.
  3. Unlock your phone and install some other version of Android in it. This is widely known as "root" on the mobile. Usually if you do, you lose the warranty on the device because the manufacturer does not want you to install other versions of the system.

If your phone uses only free software you would not suffer from this type of problem.

I hope I have made it clearer what free software is and why you should get to know it. If you are interested in knowing more, you can look for me, I am always open to clarify doubts :)