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The Twelve Top Myths of Free/Open Source Software

If software costs nothing, it's no good

  • November 25, 2008
  • By Bruce Byfield

By now, you'd think that anyone who owns a computer knows about free and open source software (FOSS). However, once you move beyond techie circles, you'll find that, for many people, the concept is unknown. Even worse, when people have heard of it, they have alarming -- and rather discouraging -- misconceptions of what it involves.

Here are the twelve most common misconceptions of FOSS, and why they're distorted, exaggerated, outdated, or just plain wrong:

1) If software costs nothing, it's no good

Technological culture is so influenced by business logic that most of us believe that "you get what you pay for" is common sense. However, when you only look at proprietary software, that adage isn't true. If price really reflects quality, then Adobe Creative Suite would be six times better than Xara Xtreme.

By the same logic, you can't judge FOSS by the fact that the price is usually either gratis or nominal to cover shipping. In fact, since FOSS like Bind or Apache is running much of the Internet, you have to conclude that at least some of it is high-quality indeed. But, really, you can't judge any software in any meaningful way until you've tried it.

2) FOSS is inferior to proprietary software

This idea may have had some truth twenty years ago, when FOSS was just getting started, and needed a lot of development to catch up with existing proprietary programs. And you can still find areas today, like OCR scanning, where FOSS is inferior in functionality or usability to its proprietary equivalents.

However, if you compare the most common programs -- for instance, Firefox to Internet Explorer, or OpenOffice.org to MS Office -- the idea quickly becomes indefensible. While you can quibble over a feature here or there, in general, the leading FOSS programs are a close match for their proprietary equivalents.

3) FOSS is piracy (or at least encourages it)

Actually, since FOSS licenses permit copying and redistribution, the concept of piracy is irrelevant to it. You can't pirate what the copyright holder encourages you to give away. Moreover, when the few restrictions to copying in FOSS licensing are violated, such as the preservation of the original creator's credit, many holders of FOSS copyright are prosecuting the violators as fiercely as proprietary software vendors do pirates. For instances, the Busybox project has brought legal action against several violators of its license in the last year.

True, many FOSS supporters would like to see a world where proprietary software doesn't exist, so you can easily imagine that some might use that ideal as an excuse to ignore proprietary licenses. But since most FOSS supporters either use proprietary software reluctantly or refuse to use it all, such cases are hardly the norm.

4) FOSS has no support

Selling support and related services is how many FOSS-based companies like Red Hat make a profit. But, even if you don't want to pay for support, most FOSS has mail forums in which you can receive free help -- often as quickly as you can from a commercial company. If anything, the problem is not getting help so much as being deluged by suggestions from helpful volunteers.

5) FOSS is only for developers

FOSS has always been centered on developers, who invented it and continue to sustain it. Especially in the early history of FOSS, this orientation meant that little attention was paid to usability. But, as the popularity of FOSS has spread, artists, technical writers, and usability experts have also been attracted to the community. For the last decade now, usability has been an important aspect of FOSS development, and now the leading programs are as easy to use as the leading proprietary ones.

As FOSS continues to spread, the attention to usability can only increase. Recently, for example, Mark Shuttleworth, the leader of the Ubuntu distribution of GNU/Linux, has challenged project members to exceed OS X in usability in the coming years.

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