1.1. “What is Free Software, and Why Do I Give A Damn?” The Case for Making The Switch

The traditional definition of “free software” has varied slightly over the years, and has multiple meanings depending on which member of the community one is talking to. Yes, oftentimes free software can mean software that is “free as in beer,” i.e. receiving a product for free and not needing to pay in order to use it. This is definitely a good aspect to most free software, however the more important definition is the one that is more widely intended when one speaks of “free software.” Free as in “libre,” that is, software that opens its source code to public viewing and adaptation. This is contrary to closed-source software like the Windows or OS X operating systems, which do not release their source code and therefore cannot be modified or independently verified by members of the general public.

Now, most partisans of free software advocate for its use based on a quasi-moral or altruistic argument. Free software should be used because it puts users in control of their own computers, because it doesn’t lock users into so-called “walled gardens” that force them to choose certain options, et cetera. Never before have we been confronted with such a narrowing technological environment — Apple wants to lock its users into using iDevices, only getting software from its closely-watched App Stores, and locked out of any sort of meaningful configuration of their own computers. Microsoft and Google are not too far behind Apple’s lead in this regard. Therefore free software represents a clear alternative to these “un-free” systems of control. This approach to arguing for free software is all well and good, but it doesn’t attack at the central problem with free software: its perception as a hobbyist operating system, unreliable and only for advanced use. You can give all the moral arguments in the world, but as we have seen throughout history, these rarely make deep imprints in human behaviour.

For the unconvinced, here is the primary reason why you should make the switch to Linux and free software: because in nearly every case, it provides you with the best computing environment available, with the most features and most customizable and dynamic interface on the market today.

To all the Mac fanboys out there, I’m sorry for making you spit out your tea and crumpets. But it’s true, and I’ll explain why.

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As referenced earlier, free software opens its source code to the general public so that anyone can verify it or modify the program to their liking. It should be noted that a significant proportion of general users would never feel the need to do something like this. Just the same as how people wouldn’t want to use Linux based on a conception of it as a hobbyists’ operating system. The benefits are not just isolated to the end user, though: when using free software, you get the assurance that the software has most likely been vetted by prior users and developers, to grant it greater credibility. Free software that has been downloaded direct from the developer or a secure repository is much less likely to contain back doors, malicious code, spyware or other nasties prevalent in proprietary software.

In addition to this, open software has a much higher degree of usability because of its openness. Say there is a functionality in a piece of software that just doesn’t make sense to you, and you wish you could either turn it off or use another program that works in a different way. In Windows, you are much more likely to be stuck with Microsoft’s whims, locking you into a particular software suite or way of doing things. If not, then you may have to pay in order to get full access rights to a new application. With free software, we don’t have to worry about any of that. If you have some programming skill, you can easily poke around the source code and adjust the functionality of your favourite programs, and you are fully within your right to do so. Or, better yet, you are free to surf through the repositories or online databases like Github in order to find a suitable alternative. This more democratized software development process breathes healthy competition into the software market, which can only benefit the end user.

Now you may say “Linux might be great, but it simply isn’t an operating system for daily use!” To which I would respond: today’s Linux has advanced dramatically from what it was fifteen, ten, even five years ago. It isn’t like that old RedHat box you played around with back in the mid-90s. Interfaces for most major distributions like Ubuntu and Linux Mint have been polished considerably well. Each major distribution has its preferred display environment, and each one looks and performs just as well as their proprietary competitors. Take a look at elementaryOS, for example, which tries to emulate Mac OS X’s signature visual style:

Versus Mac OS X:

Modern Linux distributions like elementaryOS put a high priority on sleek and functional user interfaces. Fedora Linux comes with GNOME3. Linux Mint has Cinnamon. Ubuntu has Unity which, while it is often maligned by many in the free software community, has been making serious improvements in recent years. And there are many other options to choose from, all of which give you easy and intuitive interfaces without the need to muddle through the Terminal or obscure command switches. Take your pick — you don’t have to settle for the godawful mess that is Windows 8, or the suffocating money sink that is Mac OS X.

Free software isn’t just limited to operating systems, either. Got a bone to pick with Microsoft Office? Try LibreOffice. Don’t want to give Google Analytics all of your site visitors’ data? Check out Piwik. Addicted to iPhoto but don’t want to pay a king’s ransom for a new MacBook? Take a look at Shotwell. Why would you pay Apple hundreds of dollars to use Time Machine, iTunes, or iCloud when all of these systems are freely available on Linux, and are by most accounts even better? Why would you pay Microsoft to lock you into their ridiculous Windows 8 Metro interface, when you can have a computer that works exactly how you want it, with better performance and (usually) better stability? Even if there is a program that only comes on Windows that you absolutely must have, these can be run via virtual machine systems like VirtualBox, making it easier than ever to have the best of both worlds.

For nearly every proprietary software platform in use these days, there is a tried and true open source alternative. Some of them are more advanced than others, but for general-purpose daily computing, Linux and free software provide the most advanced and customizable user experience available — one that is also increasingly stable and hardware-friendly.