The best computer tip you’ll ever get from me.

You don’t have to pay for software anymore.

In fact, I’ve decided that I’m not going to pay for software ever again unless it’s absolutely necessary.

Now, I’m not talking about the software piracy that everyone makes a big deal about. In fact, everything I’m talking about is completely legal, and it has been for years.

I’m talking about free and open-source software. Free as in freedom, often free as in beer, and open in that you get the entirety of the source code to look at, tinker with, and improve.

What, exactly, is open-source software? Open-source software is software developed by a community of people who believe that more benefit is derived from letting people modify and change the software as they see fit, rather than restricting modification or changes to the original developer. It allows people to fill a need quickly, and then improve on the original solution by letting anyone return their changes to the community at large. An excellent example of this is the Mozilla Firefox web browser. Firefox has rapidly developed over the past 10 years to be a fast, efficient, secure web browser that people can use on any computer. Most of the development these days is done by programmers funded through donations or by companies like Google, but over a quarter of its development is still driven by volunteer programmers, and its source code is still freely downloadable.

Free and open-source software has actually been around for quite some time. The Free Software Foundation was founded in 1985 to foster the development and use of open-source software. The latest version of the most commonly-used open-source license, the GNU Public License, has been around in its current form since 1991. The movement only really began to take off with the advent of the GPL-licensed Linux kernel in 1994 and the growing ubiquity of fast internet connections. Now, there are thousands upon thousands of open-source software projects under a multitude of different licenses, such as Mozilla Firefox,, and numerous different distributions of GNU/Linux. It’s also become a very profitable business model as relates to the Internet itself.

You may be wondering what any of this has to do with a pricetag. Well, the open-source business model is such that most open source-based companies give away their software and then either sell advertising or charge for long-term dedicated support. Many smaller projects also get along quite well by taking voluntary donations. The benefit is that software becomes a commodity, much like steel, cotton, or other bulk goods, and the cost drops to essentially zero, while the economic base shifts toward people who know how to make the commodity good useful.

An excellent example of this is the open-source database engine MySQL. MySQL AB, a European company, gives their software away, and makes quite a tidy profit charging large companies for technical support and administration help related to running tens of thousands of databases on the MySQL engine. The software is free to use, free to modify, and incredibly well-written in and of itself, and the internet community benefits as a whole from having a fast, free database server. At the same time, the developers as the software make a living from doing something they’re good at.

Now, how does this relate to you, humble computer user? Well, let’s say you bought a computer two years ago, and you feel like it’s getting “long in the tooth”. You don’t want to buy a new computer, and you don’t want to spend $300 on a copy of Windows Vista that you can actually do things with, but you’re tired of all the anti-virus software and anti-spyware utilities you have to purchase and run. How does open-source benefit you?

You could backup your files, download a copy of Ubuntu Linux, install it in place of Windows, and get a decent performance increase from your computer. Ubuntu is geared toward the everyday computer user, so it won’t take you too long to get used to it, and because the Ubuntu software base is designed with security in mind and is patched on a regular basis, you benefit from not having to worry about anti-virus software and anti-spyware utilities. You can open all of your Microsoft Office documents in, a free office suite, and import your old Quicken files into GnuCash. While you’re balancing your checkbook, you can listen to all of your music in Amarok, a free iTunes-style music player. Your videos will play in VLC Player, and you can browse the web using Mozilla Firefox. You can IM your friends using Gaim or any of a number of instant-messaging clients, and you can check your email using any of a number of email clients. You can even edit video from your digital video camera using Kino, a popular Linux-based video editing suite. There’s also a version of Solitaire for those of you who feel so inclined.

The beauty of this is that every single piece of software I mentioned in the last paragraph doesn’t cost a single thing. If you need support, you can pay your friendly local computer geeks to help you. The downside is that you can’t easily run your old Windows programs, but there’s even a way around that. A number of those software suites, such as Firefox, OpenOffice, VLC, and GnuCash, have been released for Windows as well, so you can try them before you take the big step of moving to a new operating system.

I’m not really going to get into the tangled question of why this hasn’t caught on sooner. Part of it has to do with ease of use, part of it has to do with the availability of broadband internet for downloading big files, and a large part of it is that Microsoft has a really good, really effective sales and marketing department. There are a number of other reasons that I’ll be happy to discuss with you over a cup of coffee if you stop by our office. The important thing to know is that having an open, peer-reviewable means of developing software is going to do wonderful things for computer users everywhere, and  it won’t cost you a dime if (and when) you choose to adopt it.

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