Monday, March 2, 2009

Free Software Guide

A comprehensive guide to successfully making use of free software


This guide is designed to be a general guide to inform readers about the benefits and drawbacks of free software, to inform them of different types of free software and teach them to differentiate between the two, and set their expectations appropriately.

Free Software Types

The word free is a little more ambiguous than it may seem. When used to describe software, it can usually mean one of two things: (1) free as in free beer [crude, but this description has practically been standardized when describing free software -- think of it as free potato chips or gummy bears if you want] or (2) free as in free speech. in beer

Software of this type is usually available at no direct* monetary cost. This software is still not owned by the end user. That is, you can't view the source code and modify it to better suit your needs. This software is more appropriately described as being rented from the creator/owner. in speech

Free (speech) software is entirely different, but seems very similar and has strong similarities with other free software. As stated before, however, the most fundamental difference is that this type of software provides its source code for the end user to take and modify to better suit his needs. While much free (speech) software has no direct* monetary cost, that is not always the case. Review the list below to see how free (beer) and free (speech) software makers can make a living with their code.

*The following list annotates how software makers can and often do make a living by distributing their software without charging end (personal use) users -- many of these overlap:
  • [beer] alternate versions (such as a pro version -- with enhanced or more robust features) are available for paying customers [AVG, WinAMP]
  • [beer] the software is free for for personal use, but not commercial use [Ad-Aware,
  • [beer | speech] the software is free in both respects, but you can purchase an 'enterprise' upgrade to pay for technical support from professionals who can do anything from help with the inner workings of the code to do customized modifications for your use[ubuntu SE]
  • [beer | speech] the creators may accept donations as a 'thank you' for the hard work they've done and time they've saved the users who have enjoyed the benefits of the software [FileZilla, SpyBot S&D]
  • some benefit from the user statistics they aggregate from your daily use. others do it, but google does it best. their products are free (beer) to you but they are paid by your computer habits and subtle browsing nuances[chrome, picasa]

Installing Software

Sometimes free (beer) software is one of the biggest distributors of what I consider mal-ware. You want to play on-line poker but you don't want to pay anything...this website says its free...just install the software and enter your email address and you are playing in an instant. you have three toolbars, an adult friend finder program running when windows starts, and you are getting 100 spam emails a smart and don't let this be you!

I'd apply this to all software installations, not just free ones. Don't be afraid of performing an 'advanced' install. You usually designate all your install 'preferences' before the install begins, so if you get scared and want to back out, you can safely do so by using the 'back' button or 'exit setup/installation'. That said, usually the recommended install options are set as the defaults during the advanced installation, it just gives you the option of changing them when that option doesn't exist in a standard installation. Most things won't need to be changed, but if you read the fine print (not the EULA, those are ridiculous!) you can opt out of all those annoying 'toolbar' installations and in some cases some other 'opt in' programs that will either give out your email address or install additional software that you likely have no need of.

You don't have to be a geek to save yourself some time and hassle by paying attention during installation.

Finding Free Software

Finding free software is a little tricky. I won't go over the basics of internet I already covered that in my How to perform an effective Internet search [external link] tutorial. Some key words to attempt are open-source, or open source along with free and games.

The problem with searching for free games is that lots of people search for that...and people who do marketing know that lots of people search for that. A standard google search for free games turns up a list of questionable sources. There are probably some free games available...but from a basic look, they seem to be very concerned with advertising. People who make free games often can't pay for advertising because they are broke. They make free games! With few exceptions, free software will not be advertised as heavily as non free software. With that said, a standard google search for free games open source returns much more believable results. The top results include a wikipedia article (while not a definitive source, they are peer moderated which is helpful in many scenarios) a sourceforge hosted page (good), and some other pages that seem much more legitimate than the first return.

This does hinge on the games being (or people thinking they are) open source, though. We should be able to find games that aren't open source and are still free and safe to download. It often comes down to intentions. Many bloggers like to compile lists to build traffic so they can make a few bucks from google ads (or other ads) they display on their pages. There's no harm in that...they want to provide quality content (maybe using a ridiculously overstated title) in order to get traffic to their site. Seems fair. Thus, some of the content from blog type compilations can be very useful. I just did a basic google search for best free games and the results weren't all that disappointing. Some things can't be taught and are hard to explain, but the results come across as relatively objective and not overly 'in your face' -- no one likes to have software pushed on them.

Good Luck

Be smart...and hesitant. If it looks too good to be true, it may be. It may not...but if you are careful during installations and watch out for obnoxious looking sites, you may find some quality free software to make use of.

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