Free Software for Fun and Non-Profit

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Note: this article was originally published for CharityChannel.com, and is reprinted here under a less restrictive CreativeComments Attribution-ShareAlike license.

Information Technology can be a very expensive endeavour. Non-profit organizations often seek donations or grants in order to obtain the technology products and services that are increasingly becoming mandatory components of their operation. As with most things, though, the devil is in the details.

Most people don’t realize that modern commercial software is rarely “sold” in the conventional sense, but rather “licensed”. Microsoft explains that this “is different than purchasing a car or house in that you have the right to run the software but there are ongoing requirements that determine how the software can be used.” The requirements of a software license vary from product to product, but most of them specifically forbid using the program for anything other than its intended purpose, sharing the program with other people, and modifying the program in any way.

Software vendors have very legitimate reasons for placing these restrictions on their products: liability concerns, technical support, and of course profit. Software vendors do not want to be held responsible for any damage that might result from misuse of their products, so they specifically state what the intended use is and tell you that you’re on your own if you use it for anything else. Technical support is extremely difficult to begin with, and made immeasurably more complicated if folks are allowed to tinker around with the inner workings of a program. And of course sharing copies of commercial software denies the vendor profit from sales.

This practice of placing restrictions on software has been going on for a very long time. In 1984 Richard Stallman, working at the MIT Artificial Intelligence Labs, got fed up with such restrictions and set out to create a free computer operating system. He asked for volunteers to help him. Thus was born the Free Software Foundation.

The Free Software Foundation promotes free software. They say that ‘Free software’ is a matter of liberty, not price. To understand the concept, you should think of free'' as infree speech,” not as in ``free beer.” They list four specific freedoms that Free Software grants to its users: freedom to run the program, for any purpose; freedom to study how the program works, and adapt it to your needs; freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor; freedom to improve the program, and release your improvements to the public, so that the whole community benefits. It should be immediately obvious how this contrasts with the rigid licensing requirements of proprietary software, where the user pays a license fee for the right to use the program but does not actually own the program.

Using Free Software means that non-profit organizations can dedicate their precious resources in much more effective ways. Instead of paying for the right to use a piece of software, organizations can improve their staff skills by training them how to use their Free Software. Instead of spending time keeping track of their license compliance in the dreadful event of a software audit, organizations can spend time actually using – or improving – their Free Software. And instead of diverting their capital to a corporate headquarters in a different state, organizations can focus on growing local talent and giving back to their own communities.

With very little profit motive, Free Software developers can concentrate on making excellent products, not just excellent revenue streams. Proprietary companies generally release new versions of software at a much slower pace, since they have marketing and packaging concerns to address. Most Free Software is distributed via the internet, with no packaging or shipping logistics to worry about, so Free Software can be released and updated more frequently: as the features require, not as a sales schedule requires. Free Software developers generally listen closely to their users, and have an active interest in implementing the features they need. Because the software is Free (as in speech), end users are allowed to modify it for their specific needs, adding or removing features as they see fit. For most end users, this last issue seems perplexing: they don’t have the skills to modify the software, even if they wanted to, so what’s the big deal? The big deal is that the freedom to modify a program ensures that that program can’t be hijacked or abandoned.

One of the major complaints against Free Software is that it lacks quality documentation. In many cases this is true. It seems that some of the people writing the software either don’t bother writing the accompanying documentation, or they assume that the people using the software will be as skilled or savvy as them. This trend is slowly starting to change, though, as developers recognize the importance of quality documentation. The internet, too, provides access to support forums, mailing lists, and in-depth walk-throughs (called HOWTOs).

The second major complaint against Free Software is the lack of professional support. It’s true that most Free Software projects lack professional support. Conversely, though, most Free Software projects can provide outstanding technical support for free by email or web-based discussion forum. And in most metropolitan areas, there’s another invaluable resource available to Free Software users: the Local User Group, or LUG. LUGs are informal special interest groups that meet semi-regularly to discuss Free Software, offer “how to” training sessions, and generally build community. A non-profit organization could easily earn the affection of a LUG, as well as competent technical support, by providing a meeting facility for the group.

An organization can begin using – and benefitting from! – Free Software today. The Mozilla Project may be one of the most successful Free Software projects around. They create and support a variety of internet tools, like the Firefox browser, the Thunderbird email client, and the integrated Mozilla suite. These are all high-quality, innovative software that can provide immediate improvements to the way you use the internet. Pop-up advertisement blocking and junk email controls will help streamline your use of the internet. New features like tabbed browsing and an integrated search function make these products even more compelling than competing proprietary software products like Microsoft Internet Explorer and Outlook Express.

The Mozilla Project is just one example of Free Software. There exists a tremendous body of usable, high-quality software that guarantees you the right to use, modify and share it.


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