Just because software is free doesn’t mean it’s free software.
This may confuse those who only know the Windows world, where the software animal known as “freeware” is readily available but truly free software is a bit more scarce. They may be excused for thinking, when we Linux users talk about “free software,” that they use free software too. After all, doesn’t a free antivirus program qualify as free software? Or what about that gee-whiz free password manager that’ll generate and store five or six passwords–more if the “pro” version is purchased?
Linux users will also be excused for rolling their eyes before answering, “Nope. Neither of those examples is what we mean by ‘free software.'”
Sure, honest-to-goodness free software is available for Windows. Many, if not most Windows users use a free browser such as Firefox and certainly free office suites such as LibreOffice have gained much traction in the Windows world. Other than that, you usually have to go looking for Windows FOSS, and most of what you’ll find was originally developed to run on Linux. For example, I have my favorite text editor, Bluefish, and my favorite accounting program, GnuCash, installed on the sole Windows machine I use.
But that same Windows machine also has some freeware, which is nonfree, proprietary software that doesn’t cost anything to use or run. Because Windows is inherently insecure I use a “free” antivirus program. Until recently, I also kept a free, but proprietary, firewall installed as well.
Freeware may not cost anything out-of-pocket, but it always comes with a price. I was rudely reminded of this the night before last when I was interrupted at my “day” job by a phone call from a friend who relies on my limited expertise to keep her Windows laptop running. It seems she had clicked through what she thought was a request by AVG to update her antivirus engine and when the update had finished, her browser searches took her to an AVG search page. She needed my help to return to Google, her search engine of choice.
This was a road I’d been down before. The distributors of freeware figure that since you’re getting their oh-so-valuable software for free, you won’t mind if they change a setting or two on your computer so they can make a buck or two on the free software you’re using. Changing your default search page so they can rake in some Google Adsense bucks is one of their favorite tricks. As is adding a toolbar that sucks up system resources while it tracks your online behavior.
Over the phone I was able to talk her through getting the AVG search page off of her home page, but when AVG search kept showing up whenever she created a new tab, I had to make a trip to look at the laptop in person.
It turns out that the “security update” she’d clicked through was actually a request by AVG seeking her permission for them to install their toolbar and to use AVG’s “safe browsing” search engine. Never mind that the request was designed to look exactly like the familiar “your-AVG-engine-is-outdated-and-needs-upgrading” notification–AVG would say she’d “opted-in” to the process.
Undoing what they’d done required a visit to the Control Panel to remove the toolbar app and then a march through Chrome’s settings to remove references pointing to AVG. This wasn’t difficult, but it was taking up time that could be better spent doing something else–especially given the fact that I’m way behind schedule here at FOSS Force.
Actually, by Windows freeware standards, AVG’s behavior wasn’t that bad, even if they did take advantage of my friends lack of knowledge to trick her into installing their
spyware toolbar on her machine. There’s much worse out there. I’ve written about Zone Alarm, at one time absolutely the best software firewall for Windows, which takes over the settings on every browser on a Windows machine to redirect search results to their page with every single update–with no way to opt out of the process as far as I’ve been able to tell. This is a particular nightmare for web developers who might have five or six browsers installed on their systems.
Not all freeware acts this way. Much of the freeware available for Windows falls into the category called “crippleware.” Although these are marketed as fully functional applications, they’re actually merely samples of a commercial product with many useful if not necessary functions disabled. They’ll work fine for simple tasks, but as soon as you try to actually do some work with them, you’ll find that a needed function is only available on the “Pro” version which you are welcome to purchase–get out your credit card. This model also exists in the FOSS world, but not to the extent it does with Windows.
In the Linux world, of course, behavior such as changing your browser’s settings without your explicit permission would be considered next to criminal. If such an application was included as part of a distro’s software repository, it would be promptly removed as soon as its bad behavior was realized. Indeed, it’s doubtful that such programs would ever make it to be included in a distro’s repository, as its unwelcome properties would most likely be discovered during the vetting process.
Thankfully, most of my Windows friends who rely on my help to keep their computers healthy are running XP, which will be reaching its end-of-life soon and will no longer receive Microsoft’s so-called “security updates.” I’ve already been hinting that at that time they’ll have no excuse but to finally make the move to GNU/Linux. I have no doubt that as much as they’ve been resisting this move, when the time finally comes they’ll find themselves wondering why they waited so long. Maybe then they’ll realize what I’ve been talking about when I try to explain the difference between freeware and software that is free.