The truth about commercial free software

Software can be divided into two broad categories: commercial and commercial free. The first category, commercial, includes programs from the heavyweights of the software world, such as Microsoft and Adobe, which tend to be well developed and supported; however they come with a price tag, which in the case of some high-end applications can be a steep one. The second category, commercial free is also known as noncommercial or open source, and includes a wide variety of software available at no cost.

Some of these open source projects are well developed, and are the work of whole teams of programmers – this is the way that Linux and its umpteen variants distros were made, and kept up to date by countless volunteers. Ditto for the office suite LibreOffice, which somehow manages to keep pace with Redmond’s popular Microsoft Office version after version. Also, we’d be remiss not to mention, the free image editor that offers so much more than Microsoft’s Paint, balancing advanced features with a simple to use interface.

However, not all commercial free software is as ambitious, and certainly not as successful. Free software certainly has appeal for the broke college student looking to stretch their cash while having access to a wide variety of software. However, it’s another question as to whether non-commercial software should ever be used in an enterprise situation, and in what scenarios. It’s not without precedent – both the UK and French governments have turned to open source LibreOffice to save the money they were spending on Microsoft Office.

But before diving there are some issues to consider.

Nagging ads

Advertisements make the money on the internet, and this is no mystery. However, when we use a piece of software, most of us do not want to be bombarded with marketing. 

Some free programs turn to an adware model to bring in some cash. They offer a free tier but also offer a paid one, and popular utilities such as CCleaner and Super AntiSpyware incorporate ads for their paid tier in the free tier. It’s up to users to decide if the free software is worth the subtle prompting to upgrade, as seen in the image below.

In other cases, the ads go further. For example, WPS Office Free incorporates five seconds of an advertisement each time the software is opened. While it’s a brief interruption, this ‘time speedbump’ does reduce productivity, and TechRadar’s review of this software did put this fact in the ‘negatives’ column. Such ads also can cause users to consider alternative free office suites that open without the delay found in WPS.

Infrequent updates

Commercial software gets designed and refined through an ongoing process of beta testing and updates. Take the example of the software OS, and consider how many versions of Windows Microsoft has gone through and how it offer significant upgrades to Windows 10 on a frequent basis. While the process is not always seamless, there are regular updates, such as the Patch Tuesday program, that address issues with the OS on a regular basis, and generally improves things. Helpfully these updates are designed to download in the background, and install overnight.

Now compare Microsoft’s way of working to the noncommercial Linux OS. Linux does get updates, and they come in two flavors. A point release distribution is a complete update with a new set of installation images, and these come out, depending on the specific distro, every few months. The other update is the rolling release distribution, which incorporates the latest releases and security patches.

While some more established forks of Linux, such as Ubuntu, have automatic updates, less popular distros do not update seamlessly, and require manual updates via the command line, which involved getting more hands-on than a novice is likely to want to, making the update process quite arduous at best, and neglected at the worst.

Ease of use

Users often come to a new job with a familiarity with mainstream software acquired during education or training, or at a previous. In an open source environment it may save on the acquisition cost to go with Linux and OpenOffice rather than Window and Microsoft Office, but the increased training costs, and lower productivity from employees struggling with unfamiliar software, may offset those savings.

Compatibility issues

Another issue is that not all free software will offer the same compatibility as the paid-for equivalents. For example, in response to increased competition from free office software, Microsoft changed the default saving format for a Microsoft Word document from .DOC to .DOCX back in Word 2007. As this was over a decade ago, some of the more popular free alternatives to Microsoft Office, such as LibreOffice and OpenOffice, subsequently incorporated the new file format into their software for compatibility with Word documents.

However, not all programs did. For example the freestanding and lightweight word processing program AbiWord, long a favorite with writers, doesn’t support the .DOCX format, even in its latest version 3.0.2. In fact, it no longer even supports the Windows OS, which it did previously, making us wonder if the publishers should change their tagline to something other than ‘Word processing for everyone’. 

Security issues

Many developers of noncommercial software incorporate existing open source code into new applications, with the intention of saving time and lowering costs; after all no one wants to reinvent the wheel. Open source code also offers the advantage of fast-tracking a project, as the code is available, and can be opened as needed, unlike proprietary code that gets locked down, and which can require manufacturer assistance for modifications.

However, open source code can contain issues, including security vulnerabilities. Coverity scans open source code for issues, and in 750 million lines of code in its database it found 1.1 million, although more than half of them had already been addressed. These vulnerabilities get identified and tracked in the Common Vulnerabilities and Exposures list (CVE), which is sponsored by the US Government; in 2017 a record-breaking 8,000 new vulnerabilities were added to this database.

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Jonas P. DeMuro

Jonas P. DeMuro is a freelance reviewer covering wireless networking hardware.