Friday, September 03, 2004

There is no Such Thing as Free Software

Yesterday at lunch the conversation came around to free software and I had to say it: "There is no such thing as free software". Provided that we are talking about free software and not "Free Software", I stand by my statement. Well, even if we are talking about "Free Software", I stand by my statement.

The problem with "Free Software" is that it is written by geeks for themselves. Most Free Software is not a program for doing something, it is a toolkit for building a program for doing something, because that is how the true geek likes to do it. After you have downloaded the software, you have to devote time to understanding the toolkit and to building the tool that you need. As you do not have unlimited time, it is not free.

It is as if you went to the hardware store and instead of buying a saw they gave you a kit for making a saw with a sheet of cut metal, a gidget for setting the teeth, a file for sharpens the teeth and a multi-page book of instructions. Sure you can set the saw teeth to be a rip saw or a cross-cut saw, but it is going to take hours of careful setup before you can cut any wood.

Worse, when you upgrade your system, as you have to every few years, you find that you have to download a new version of the free software because that is the version that is compatible with your new system. The new version of the software does not work with your old configuration, so you have to spend time understanding and configuring your setup again.

The people who create Free Software do it to please themselves. It is much more important for them to have the software "do the right thing" than to make the software compatible with the previous version. Thus every version seems to have a number of arbitrary incompatible changes from the previous version.

Note that I am not saying that software that you pay for is necessarily better than Free Software. Very often with paid software you find that the new version is arbitrarily different from the previous versions in annoying ways and yet you have to suffer the indignity of paying for it as well.

At least with Free Software you know what you are getting into and why. Free software (no caps.) poses a whole set of extra problems and issues that we will discuss at another time.

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