What Free Software Is Good At and Where There Are Gaps

Because Free Software applications are generally written to satisfy a personal need for a particular program, rather than a perceived market demand, many excellent tools do one job each and do it well. Bloated do-it-all programs are comparatively rare, and it's interesting to note that several of the largest Free Software desktop applications (in terms of lines of code) started life as proprietary products.

When a proprietary application is written as part of a wider business model—for example, to lock users into a particular format—there is often no exact equivalent in Free Software. In particular, with multimedia software and the associated hardware, this happens for a number of reasons:

• Business interests that seek to control user behavior (for example, forcing the use of a particular portable audio player with the company's own music store on the Web) don't publish details of their file formats. This makes it difficult for Free Software authors to support those formats, although sometimes they figure them out anyway. Unfortunately, reverse engineering a format is considered illegal in some countries, even though it's something that all kinds of software developers have to do on a regular basis.

• Some countries around the world, including the USA, allow patents to be filed on software and formats in addition to physical inventions. This leaves Free Software authors in danger of patent-infringement claims, even if they build support for these patented formats into their programs completely independently. (Imagine if you had ten million downloads of your Free Software video application, and then you got a lawyer's letter saying you owed five dollars per unit, plus damages.)

• In the case of a particular item of hardware, it may be that no one who purchased the device has written a GNU/Linux driver for it. This scenario is made more likely if the manufacturer of the device doesn't publish full specifications for it, or if it doesn't work very well. In contrast, the manufacturers of the worst hardware always provide proprietary drivers for Windows, because they have a vested interest in selling junk to the mass market. This driver problem often affects Mac users, too.

Despite these three factors, if you choose your hardware and software carefully, you can minimize compatibility problems. As far as proprietary lock-in and copy-restricted formats go, these are best avoided on any platform. You don't want to be locked out of an archived project in five or ten years because of a file format that you can no longer open.

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