Why use Free and Open Source Software?

Reasons to use Free and Open Source Software

There are many reasons why the Church and organizations interested in the good of society should consider using Free and Open Source Software (FOSS, or F.O.S.S. for short — or even F.L.O.S.S., since Libre is “free” in French, and the movement is international!).

If you are involved in a religious organization, a school, a union, a non-profit, arts organization, a socially-aware small business, etc., I invite you to consider the many advantages of F.L.O.S.S., including:

  • collaborative development process
  • it’s free! (as in speech)
  • it’s free! (as in beer)
  • no vendor lock-in
  • choices
  • educational possibilities (for schools, etc.)
  • security advantage

You can probably think of some more advantages if you ponder sufficiently: but this ought to get us started. I’ll say a little more about each of these points.

Collaborative Development Process

The collaborative development process resonates with any organization or group that values working together for the good of community. Indeed, much of F.O.S.S. is made by people who are members of a community of developers. The skills and talents of many are respected and drawn into this collaboration, and the fruits are shared. (And even if you can’t write computer code, you can contribute by testing and providing feedback; writing documentation – or even sharing once in a while on a forum or newsgroup.

The critics of F.O.S.S. (often large software vendors who make a lot of money by keeping us “dumb” and dependent) have sometimes criticized F.O.S.S. as “communistic,” on account of this process. Yet this is the way the early Christians lived – and a way that can be very satisfying to participants, as it values our working together in community.

It’s Free! (as in Speech)

One could get bogged down in the finer differentiations between “free” software and “open source” software. Let me summarize it by saying that “free” points to the philosophy, and the “open source” to the development process. Philosophically the Free Software Definition (as propounded by the movement guru Richard Stallman) emphasizes liberty, not price … “free” as in “free speech,” not as in “free beer.” Open Source focuses upon the development method, but also has a healthy dose of sharing philosophy, as in for example the Debian Social Contract. (Debian GNU/Linux is an exceptionally good Linux distribution developed solely by volunteers and a non-profit foundation. Bruce Perens [about] is one of the gurus behind this side of the Open Source movement.

It’s Free! (as in Beer)

But alas,”free” software can also mean “free as in beer!” The licenses generally stipulate that whenever software is built upon previous progress under the same license, the source code (at least) must be given away freely. (The only disadvantage here is that some people seem to think that anything “free” is of lesser value: Free software turns this assumption upon its head!)

Still, people can make a living in FOSS. (Of course, one can charge nominally for the media, if distributed on CDs for example – or in a nifty package with manuals.) One can also charge for support services, manuals, and other expertise. That’s what you get when you buy a packaged Linux distribution such as SUSE Linux, or pay someone to set up your systems or web stuff.

Look at the following if you want more info on the GNU General Public License (GPL), Selling Free Software, or more on the Philosophy of the GNU Project.

No Vendor Lock-in to expensive upgrades

If you have used computers for a while – particularly those with an proprietary operating system by a company from Redmond, Washington – you know all about this. You’ve found that every time you have to “upgrade” the operating system or software you pay a pretty penny — for hardware and software. (Costs may be partially hidden in the cost of hardware. And no doubt about it, MS makes it darned hard for a vendor to sell you a box without their products! Can you say “monopoly?” The E.U. and many nations have: the U.S. just said “I obey!” … for now.)

You’ve also found that once you get the new box, you have to pay all over again for most of the productivity software. Several years ago I spent hundreds and hundreds of dollars for some bible software. Then the maker decided to change their whole scheme of doing things, and I was stuck with a “white elephant.” (I can actually still run it on Linux under wine, but Bibletime does just about everything it did better, and for free.)

If you get a bunch of people together who have been using computers for a while, you will have plenty of horror stories about how they were forced to “upgrade” MS Word, or other programs, and got little productivity increase – and maybe even some headaches, such as incompatibility with past versions. Some of these – like all the money I spent on Bible software, can leave one feeling like a real sucker! But it doesn’t have to stay that way. The revolution may not be televised, but you can download it (or buy inexpensive media).


Even if you still use the operating system from the world’s richest man, today you have many more choices than you have ever had before. And the quality of the software (fueled by the power of this collaborative development process) is truly amazing. To go even further, when you choose to “defenestrate” (get rid of windows), and use one of the linux “distros” (distributions), you literally have a world of software installable from the media (CDs or DVDs), or from the network or internet.

Sometimes it can almost seem that there are too many choices, but isn’t it nice to know that they are there, even if you don’t need them right now?! It gives you the freedom to grow, and have your system grow along with you as you try something new. (I have listed some recommended cross-platform software programs on the Legacy site, which is still pretty up-to-date.)

Educational Possibilities (for learning institutions and organizations)

Free and Open Source Software is also the best thing since sliced bread for learning institutions and organizations, our cash-strapped schools in particular. I have read many an account of schools, libraries, etc. saving greatly by using F.O.S.S. and such as the Linux Terminal Server Project. (The LTSP “allows you to connect lots of low-powered thin client terminals to a Linux server. Applications typically run on the server, and accept input and display their output on the thin client display.”).

Besides the cost savings, use of F.O.S.S. in education provides choices
Our Free Software guru, Richard Stallman, goes even further than suggesting schools can save a bundle, etc. He thinks schools should “use exclusively free software.” Some of his reasons are below (or see the full statement):

  1. First the obvious: save the schools money! … “Free software gives schools, like other users, the freedom to copy and redistribute the software, so the school system can make copies for all the computers they have.” … But watch out for (proprietary) geeks bearing gifts: “proprietary software developers can eliminate this disadvantage by donating copies to the schools. (Watch out!–a school that accepts this offer may have to pay for future upgrades.) ”
  2. “School should teach students ways of life that will benefit society as a whole.!! … just as they promote recycling”
  3. “corporations offer free samples to schools for the same reason tobacco companies distribute free cigarettes”
  4. “Free software permits students to learn how software works.”
    “The free software community rejects the “priesthood of technology”, which keeps the general public in ignorance of how technology works”
  5. “Teaching the students The most fundamental mission of schools is to teach people to be good citizens and good neighbors–to cooperate with others who need their help. … In the area of computers, this means teaching them to share software. to use free software, and to participate in the free software community, is a hands-on civics lesson.”

Security Advantage

When the source code is open to independent peer review, there are many community collaborators closely inspecting it to ensure the highest integrity and security. These “white hats,” who have a vested personal interest that things be as safe as possible, will greatly outnumber the “black hats.” The later, in the case of proprietary closed-source software, will have free reign with any and all exploits they discover, until whoever controls the code finally discovers and patches the flaws.

I can say a lot more. Come visit the Open Source Apostle weblog for more on technology, … as well as all the things we don’t talk about in “polite” company, like religion and politics.