On Saturday, the freethinkers of the software world held a small party to mark a little known day on their calendar: World Software Freedom Day.

For those uninitiated to this concept -- a full-fledged philosophy for many -- applying something as lofty as freedom to the world of bits and bytes may seem a tad misplaced. However, advocates of Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) will tell you that ‘freedom’ is as critical in the digital world, especially in one that is largely controlled by proprietary (and market) forces.

Richard Stallman, the foremost torchbearer of the Free Software Movement, points out ‘Free’ is a matter of liberty, not price: “‘Free’ as in ‘free speech,’ not as in ‘free beer’,” he distinguishes. In simple terms, the user is free to run, copy, modify and distribute software, and this, enabled by the fact that its source code (a set of instructions that calls the shots) is freely available.

For the general computer user, Mr. Stallman’s now famous free speech/beer adage may be more relevant in the ‘free beer’ kind of way. That is, you can download or order copies of any computer applications (from the local Linux groups), free of cost. Coming to the ‘free speech’ type of freedom, it means that if you want a particular application to be modified to suit your needs -- say, using an Indian script -- a developer can access the programme that runs it and ‘tweak’ it for you.

The common myth is that free software is for geeks or techies. Standalone free software products — like Firefox (a feature-rich browser), Open Office (for word processing) and VLC (a powerful media player) — have broken the ice to an extent by providing FOSS alternatives to the long-standing proprietary products (see graphic). However, unsubstantiated worries about compatibility issues and unfamiliarity have prevented the GNU/Linux-based operating systems (OS) from becoming main stream.

Now besides the ‘freedom’ it represents, how does using a FOSS product benefit a common user? For starters, everything is zero cost. Every possible application that you can think of comes bundled with GNU/Linux OS and can be installed by clicking on the ‘add or remove’ function. So, no chasing different vendors to buy different applications. And given that FOSS is user-centric and mostly a community project, applications here are often the most superior and interoperable ones on offer.

Another big winner is that your hardware will never be “too old” to support any FOSS programme ever.

“Microsoft OS, for instance, gets heavier with each version, forcing users to upgrade hardware. Linux doesn’t have a mandate to ‘encourage’ people to buy new PCs, and so has far lower system requirements,” points out Atul Chitnis, founder of FOSS.in. PCs on Linux run for years, and at full speed, without any upgrade.

A big advantage here is the security factor. In the GNU/Linux systems, users can’t run applications that attack system files, making it impossible for virus to propagate. “GNU/Linux OSs are built on Unix concepts, which from ground-up was designed to be multi-user/multi-tasking/connected,” explains Mr. Chitnis. “Windows comes from the single-user world of DOS, which allows for such attack.”

“A huge industry has now sprung up around the entire viruses-on-Windows scenario — even Microsoft has now started shipping anti-virus software. This is ironic; instead of exploiting the situation this way, it should be fixing the design flaws of their OS!”

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