I’ve written a few books, I have only ever half-heartedly attempted to get one of them published – thinking that I’m not really a writer, more of the outsider thinking I talked about recently. Writing these books though was enabled by free software. I’d had an Amstrad PCW which was a word-processor but I only used it for programming at the time. I didn’t write stories, despite being told at school by my last English teacher that I was a good fiction writer, because again I feared being laughed at. By the time I decided to write again I’d moved onto a PC and suddenly I was confronted by word-processing software like Microsoft Word, WordPerfect and so on costing hundreds of pounds.
Thankfully, I got a free copy of Protext 4 for MS-DOS with a computer magazine. This was a big deal in those days, free software was often written by hobbyists and tended to be utilities, text editors and drawing programs were mostly shareware which you could “try before you buy” and then there was the commercial packages with their eye-watering price tags. Today my laptop cost less than them. I used Protext for years, those who don’t remember early nineties computers may be amazed that you had to control the whole thing with the keyboard. No mouse. At all. It was surprisingly quick to use though, no distractions of formatting and pictures, no internet, no emails, just you and your words.
I moved onto Windows word-processing when I worked for a PC shop and got a cheap copy of Lotus WordPro which we used to bundle with the computers we built. I’m only now moving onto the next big thing – which is something we kind of hoped for but didn’t expect back in the days of ordering a 1.44Mb floppy disk of freeware programs from a paper catalogue.
Big complicated software like Office packages take big teams of programmers or a lot of time, or both, to write and in the old days collaboration was more difficult but now there are organisations like Mozilla, Apache and others who organise teams of coders who volunteer their time and skills to create fantastic free software like the Firefox browser (which I’m using at this moment) and the Microsoft Office-compatible OpenOffice (and it’s offshoot LibreOffice). These charitable foundations and teams who code for the enjoyment and achievement of it are creating ever more sophisticated software and giving it away for free, only perhaps politely asking for a donation towards their efforts which flies in the face of the idea that people will only create something if they are financially rewarded. A large number of the coders on these projects are professionals volunteering in their spare time too.
There will always be a market for commercial software as many people and businesses either want or need to use software that has become industry standard no matter how closely compatible the free software is, and often the commercial software just has features that free competitors either haven’t got or can’t have due to patents. There is also the issue of future updates and technical support though with the use of online forums you can usually get an answer to any problem you have with free software pretty quickly and even updates and bug fixes are generally quick in appearing.
With the advent of smartphones and apps there has been an explosion of free software yet again. The centralised nature of the App Store and Play Store has encouraged people to learn to code and get something they’ve made out there, just like the old days of PCs, as it’s now even easier to get your app seen and used. Of course much that appears to be free often isn’t quite free and many apps are also supported by advertising or the dreaded in-app purchase which I’ll write about in a future post.
Sometimes though some people expect free software when it isn’t at all though as other companies have shown giving away old software can be a canny move, introducing people to the brand, giving them skills which can lead to employment using the current version etc. Serif in the UK have always been good at this, every version of their software I’ve used has been either a free version or more recently a two-version-older copy at a bargain price, and Google’s products like Chrome, Google Earth, even the Android O/S are free because they encourage you to use Google’s search products. Even Microsoft now gives away many very good pieces of software like Live Essentials and Security Essentials.
So long live free software, what would some of us do without you.