Free Software, Free as in Beer

Being available at no cost may not define free software, but it is responsible for many of its ups and downs over the years.
Posted November 20, 2014

Bruce Byfield

Free software, Richard Stallman famously wrote, is "free as in free speach, not free as in beer." The phrase has always sounded clumsy to me -- after all, how often do you find free beer? -- but it emphasizes the point that free software is a legal definition, and not a matter of cost. However, the billions of times that the phrase or variations of it have been repeated tends to obscure how much free pricing has affected the history of free software, alternately helping and holding back its acceptance.

From the beginning, free pricing has affected how outsiders regarded free software. Free pricing is not a necessary condition of free software, but historically the majority of free software has been available without cost.

The result has been a confusion of free software with freeware, encouraging its dismissal. "You get what you pay for," outsiders often say, implying that, because it costs nothing, free software suffers from low or variable quality.

Free software, advocates, of course, know that price and quality have no necessary connection. Yet almost certainly, this equation has slowed the acceptance of free software.

Although the attitude seems to be fading at last, for years, people have found a price tag on their software to be a vague guarantee of quality -- even in the case of commercial applications like MS Word, where the hands-on evidence has contradicted the assumption.

Conversely, for all the talk of political freedom, the usual free cost has also encouraged the spread of free software. Corporate startups, developing nations, the impoverished, the handicapped -- all have gravitated towards free software despite their doubts, because the free price was the definitive argument.

So far as I know, nobody has estimated the research and development that free software has saved, but the savings in development time alone must be in the tens of billions of dollars, at the very least.

Yet turn again, and online services have competed against free software by also being available for free. Unlike free software, Google Docs and Facebook do nothing for user privacy or security, yet their combination of easy access and free costs has proved unbeatable, especially on mobile devices.

The hard truth is, free software can offer no better terms than online services can -- at least if convenience is the criteria -- and has been slow to respond to the changed conditions of the cloud. Consequently, it has been all but shut out of mobile applications, with efforts to correct this oversight arriving slow and long after user habits have been established. Look at the state of free software on mobile devices, and you could almost believe that the history which was responsible for the GNU General Public License is happening all over again.

Changing the Game Rules

These examples suggest that being "free as in beer" has been alternately an advantage and a disadvantage. However, overall, the free price tag has worked to erode the assumptions of the high-tech industry, increasingly forcing proprietary rivals to play by free software's rules.

Nowhere is this change more obvious than with Microsoft, free software's traditional arch-nemesis.

For years, Microsoft's major products have been the Windows operating system and MS Office. Yet as free software alternatives have matured, Microsoft has continually slashed the price on both its cash cows.

The basic prices for both Windows and MSO are roughly half of what they were fifteen years ago. But in practice, almost no one pays even those reduced prices. Versions with reduced functionality, student discounts, upgrades, subscriptions, and every other promotional tactic imaginable mean that most people can gain access to Windows and MSO at half or less of the basic prices.

Admittedly, for all its aspirations, free software is still not a major competitor for Microsoft. But apparently, little more than the mere existence of high-quality free alternatives appears to have panicked Microsoft into slashing prices.

In fact, in the last decade, Microsoft has moved from name-calling through casting doubts to limited acceptance of free software to increase the appeal of products like Azure.

Last year, it released a version of MSO for Android. Last week,Microsoft released the code for its .NET Framework, and, while the reason was not given, a probable reason is that .NET had no hope of competing with free alternatives such as Python or Ruby while remaining proprietary.

Such changes are not a sign that Microsoft is changing direction or growing mellow. At least potentially, free software remains its competition, and over the years Microsoft has shown a talent for changing no more than absolutely necessary.

However, the changes are a response to changing market conditions, and mature, no-cost software may be the biggest change of all.

Free software supporters have the habit of dismissing free-as-in-beer as unimportant. At times, they seem to consider it too tawdry to talk about. Yet while free prices may not be a defining point of free software, they have affected its fortunes over the years more than most advocates imagine.

Also see: Best Linux Desktop: Top 10 Candidates

The 9 Best Linux Distros

100 Open Source Replacements for Expensive Applications

Tags: open source, Linux, free software, Free Software Foundation

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