The city of Munich runs on it and it’s also powering organisations as far afield as Australia, Brazil, Turkey and the UK. It is free software and it means what the name suggests and more.
Strictly speaking there are two types of free software – programs that cost nothing to buy and ones where the user is free to redistribute or change the software as they require.
These applications cost nothing because they’re built by a community of software developers rather than by a private company for profit.
An example of the difference in spirit is Mozilla, which developed the FireFox web browser and the Thunderbird email program, two of the most popular no-cost software programs.
Mozilla is a non-profit group and self-styled “public benefit organisation dedicated to improving the internet experience for people everywhere”.
Much of the internet’s infrastructure actually runs on free software and it has to be said, an awful lot of it is written by the technically minded for the technically minded.
Things are changing and it’s no longer exclusively for hobbyists or technology buffs: for everyday computer users there are plenty of tools for the desktop that often replace expensive commercial software.
These programs don’t require lots of technical know-how to operate. Free software advocates often use the analogy of driving a car to describe the experience of using these desktop tools.
So, while some controls may vary – windscreen wipers and indicators on opposite sides of the steering wheel, for instance – if you’ve driven a car before then the basic usage is fundamentally the same.
In many cases, there is a no-cost alternative to some of the most popular and widely used applications on the market.
One of the leading lights of the free software movement goes toe-to-toe with the heavyweight that is Microsoft Office.
OpenOffice.org is purposely designed to include most of the components that people use for their day-to-day tasks.
Its word processor, spreadsheet and database tools are intended as like-for-like models of their commercial counterparts. Whereas Microsoft Office retails for as much as €350 per user, OpenOffice.org doesn’t cost a thing.
OpenOffice.org supports multiple formats, so that a spreadsheet can be saved in a way that allows a Microsoft Excel user to open a document that was created in OpenOffice Calc.
Many users report that they hardly notice the difference between the free tools and their commercial equivalents.
Free software is not without its drawbacks, with compatibility issues chief among them. When sending word processor files, some people say they are obliged to save them in Rich Text Format in order for other non-OpenOffice users to read the documents.
This problem isn’t unique to free software. Microsoft Office 2007 actually has a brand new file format that is readable only by other users with the same software.
That said, it’s easy to change the default settings to save documents in a format that anyone else can read.
Training need not be an issue. There is a properly accredited European Computer Driving Licence training course for OpenOffice.org in Ireland, run in association with the Blackrock Education Centre in Dublin.
As well as productivity tools, there are free graphics packages where the cost saving is potentially even higher. Instead of Adobe Photoshop or Illustrator, why not GIMP or Inkscape?
Free web browsers like FireFox and Opera have the significant advantage of being far less prone to viruses and other online threats, which is true of many free software applications.
In fact, security is one of the areas where people can take most advantage of free software.
AVG offers an anti-virus and anti-spyware tool at no cost and even Microsoft has got in on the act, releasing Windows Defender free of charge last year.
There is a raft of other free security tools for protecting PCs such as ZoneAlarm’s firewall and AdAware which guards against spyware.
Some media outlets set the scene as a kind of titanic struggle between good and evil. And there’s no denying the almost religious fervour of some free software advocates.
Mel McIntyre, managing director of the IT services provider OpenApp and a long-standing supporter of free software, injects a healthy dose of realism into the discussion.
“Users are not very technical and they’ll need support and capable help,” he points out.
That applies whether the software they use is free or from Microsoft, he adds. “The world has grown up thinking Windows is easy but you need clued-in support for that, too.”
He insists free software is a viable option for businesses – with some caveats. “It can only be done to the extent that users can find a trusted adviser,” he acknowledges.
In other words, small companies can use free software provided their regular IT supplier has some experience of installing and supporting it.
There is a slew of material available on the internet, with helpful comparison websites that go through the differences between using, for example, OpenOffice.org Writer and Microsoft Word.
So what’s needed is not so much technical knowledge as sufficient curiosity to find out more about using these products.
Although it’s early days for free software in terms of gaining mainstream acceptance, there are signs that this model is becoming more established.
Downloads of OpenOffice.org have now passed the 62 million mark. Dell, the world’s biggest PC maker, is coming under increasing pressure to release machines with a version of the Linux operating system pre-loaded.
Other IT heavyweights like Sun and IBM are also rowing in – the latter recently did a deal with Yahoo! to launch a free enterprise search engine for businesses.
The search engine giant Google has also launched free productivity tools, Docs and Spreadsheets, with presentation software in the pipeline.
Google CEO Eric Schmidt has denied this puts the company in direct opposition to Microsoft. “It doesn’t have all the functionality, nor is it intended to have the functionality, of products like Microsoft Office,” he said.
That may be enough for some people. Variety, say free software supporters, is what matters most.
“You’ve got a healthy system if you’ve got Fords, Toyotas and Opels on the road,” says McIntyre. “If you’ve only got Fords and they only come in black, that’s a problem.”
Ben Gough, managing director of the property management and auctioneering firm Wyse, says the free software packages he uses are functional and they allow the company to be productive.
He arguably puts his finger on real the issue when estimating the money saved. “The cost of replacing the free software in place in Wyse would be in the region of €110,000,” he states.
That money can be put to other uses within the business, Gough says.
Wyse has four offices in Dublin and its 80-strong staff uses several desktop tools every day including OpenOffice, the FireFox web browser and the Thunderbird email client and file manager.
The backend systems handling email and the database are also free.
Gough sees no major drawbacks to using the software and sending documents outside the company hasn’t been an issue.
The learning curve isn’t particularly steep either. “We find with new staff who have not seen it before take to it fairly well,” he adds.
An important consideration was that the software supports Wyse’s block management software from Topfloor. “Also, pricing was attractive, and you are paying for support alone, not support and software where piece X needs piece Y to work safely,” Gough says.
He’s adamant that using free software is a legitimate option for businesses rather than just a toy for technical people.
“It works for us, and we have the support for it; there are people out there offering support [and] if you can match your needs with support then it can be a worthwhile experience in the business,” Gough concludes.
By Gordon Smith
Pictured – Eric Schmidt, CEO, Google