Nine Reasons for Using Open Source Software

Wednesday Dec 16th 2015 by Bruce Byfield

With open source software going from strength to strength, why is proprietary software still a major contender?

For years, I've wondered why anyone still bothers with proprietary software. Around the turn of the millennium, they might not have found an open source alternative, but today, that situation is rare enough that it comes as a surprise.

Force of habit is a likely explanation, but often users simply don't know what they don't know. In fact, thanks to obsolete rumors, sometimes what users believe about open source is the exact opposite of the truth.

By contrast, here are x reasons, both practical and philosophical, why I do all my computing with open source software:

9. No Cost

Open source is supposed to be about philosophy and consumers' rights, but let's be honest -- being free for the download doesn't hurt, either.

After over a decade, I find buying and pirating software alike the quaint relics of an archaic system. A system whose high prices encourage dishonesty is distasteful me, and I particularly dislike the way that, considering the high unemployment rates among disabled -- over twice the general norm, means that companies in effect receive direct subsidies from governments or non- profits when they sell accessibility software.

Besides, if free speech is to continue to be a basic human right, it requires access to computers and software for everybody. That access is far more likely to be accomplished with cost-free computing.

8. Instant Gratification

Everyone knows the convenience of app stores for mobile devices. What most people don't know is that every Linux distribution has repositories that include a selection of productivity apps like office suites and graphic editors. If you suddenly have the need for a tool, you can usually find and and install it in under five minutes. If one tool doesn't have the feature you need, you can try another one, and never pay a penny for any of them.

7.Quick Bug and Security Fixes

Proprietary software vendors are notorious for security by obscurity -- that is, keeping bug reports quiet until they are repaired. By contrast, the general practice in open source is to announce and fix bugs as quickly as possible. I have even known package maintainers to take personal leave from their work so they can duck home and spend the afternoon getting a patch out.

6. Greater Security

As Android tablets and phones demonstrate, open source operating systems like Linux can be configured insecurely. However, open source default security is usually much higher than security in proprietary operating systems.

If nothing else, Linux is much more careful about maintaining the distinction between administrative and general user accounts that proprietary operating systems. Social engineering and poor choices such as weak passwords can still make Linux vulnerable, but the danger is more to a particular general user account than to the system, and is easily repaired, especially if you have current backups.

5.Comprehensive Support

Because most open source software is not built by a single company, many argue that it lacks technical support. If anything, though, the community over- compensates, offering help in chat, emails, and blogs.

Far from a lack of support, the problem is sorting through the available help. However, specifying version numbers or the current year generally filters search results enough that you can find relevant information.

4. Doing Things Your Way

Open source is all about customization. Users choose their own graphic interface (or do without), and their software as well. Most desktop environments, open source or proprietary, offer a choice of wallpaper or themes, but the most advanced open source desktops, like KDE Plasma, also include options for how windows open, creating hot spots on the desktop, and dozens of other things. In fact, with Plasma, you can even maintain different desktops for different projects or tasks, and multiple icon sets. In open source, the software conforms to the user, not the other way around.

3. Extended Hardware Life

Most computers function for five or six years. However, in proprietary software, their functional life is often halved, as companies take advantage of the very latest hardware specs. Upgrade your software, and your hardware may not run it.

In comparison, most open source projects are careful about backward compatibility. Even when hardware is getting near the end of its functionality, you can generally find open source software that runs on it. As a result, open source software is more economical and more environmentally sound than proprietary software.

2. Greater Privacy and Control

The source code of open source software is publicly available. Consequently, it is difficult, if not impossible, for open source software to include back doors and other forms of spyware. Unless a system is set for automatic updates, it won't even install newer versions without you taking deliberate action. Unlike with proprietary software, you don't just have a license to use the software -- you have a license to do what you want with it, including modifying it, assuming you have the expertise.

1. Access to the Best Software

The profit motive exists in open source software, but it is not the dominant one. Increasingly, key pieces of software are run by non-profit foundations, which frees programmers to focus on excellence. Although in recent years, there has been a move towards regularly scheduled releases, many projects will delay a release rather than ship defective software.

With this attitude, the best of open source software is comprehensively featured. Increasingly, the best of the best is catching up to its proprietary rivals, and exceeding them. For instance, the paint program Krita is increasingly popular among artists, while LibreOffice Writer has features and stability that leaves Microsoft Word far behind. You may have noticed, too, that many of the new features in Windows 10 were borrowed from open source.

The Non-Profit Philosophy

I have been concentrating here on the practical advantages. However, for many users, a major reason for open source's appeal is its philosophy. Although open source mixes easily enough with business, its de-emphasis on profit means that it can do many things that the proprietary software cannot.

Open source software can empower users at a time when governments want to restrict their rights. It makes computers accessible to the poor, and helps reduce the disadvantages that developing nations face as they build their technical infra-structure. It can encourage corporations to co-operate for their mutual benefit. Where profits make software for endangered languages unsustainable, open source can provide tools to keep those languages alive.

Personally, none of these things are directly relevant to me. Yet I retain enough idealism that I appreciate that my choice of software can make so many differences.

Add my own convenience, as indicated by these nine points -- and, well, the choice should be self-evident, really.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

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