Freeware versus Open Source

Today I was getting caught up on my reading of QST.  I had gotten two issues behind for various reasons, and was browsing the November issue.  In the editorial there was a quote from a popular contest logging program author implying that their software is open source.  I was really puzzled by this as I know for a fact that the software isn’t open source and I re-verified on the web that the source code isn’t freely available and is only given to select people upon request.  This software quite simply isn’t open source, it’s freeware.

There seems to be a lot of confusion within amateur radio over just what is open source,  and I’ve even seen amateurs berate others for wanting open source software because it’s thought someone wants a free lunch or wants to copy a product.  This couldn’t be further from the truth and it really shows an ignorance of the modern software world.  Amateur radio collectively has never really understood or embraced open source, opting for freeware offerings since the days of DOS.   Freeware software authors are often put on a pedestal in the community as selfless contributors doing a great service.  Most have good intentions, but freeware is not necessarily a good thing.

Freeware is not free and is a technological dead end.  Now that I’ve lost half my readers and puzzled the rest, please stick around and I’ll explain.  But first, what is freeware? Freeware is software that you can install without paying any licensing fee.  You can use it all you want and share it with others, but you can’t sell it, reverse engineer it, or modify it.   Freeware is not open source software.  You do not get the source code for freeware.

So how could freeware not be a good thing, or even a great thing?  It’s written by someone, one person or perhaps a team of people, giving their time and energy to a project that they derive no income from and get only satisfaction and accolades for providing a free tool to a group of users.  And, did I mention it’s free?  So, we should really be thanking them and indebted to them, right?  To an extent, yes, but long term they’re doing a disservice to the community.

Freeware “sits” in between commercial and open source software.  It’s my belief that commercial software is more beneficial to amateur radio than freeware.  With commercial software there is a motivation (revenue) to keep the product up to date and functional and not let it whither on the vine like some freeware projects have over the years.  With a commercial product, the desire for revenue drives quality and responsiveness to the user community.  With open source, quality drives usage and community participation.  If the product is popular, but quality later suffers, the community can fork a new initiative to maintain and improve the software based on the original project’s source code.  With open source there is a built-in mechanism to bypass lousy or absent code writers, or unfriendly supporters of software like we’ve sometimes seen in the freeware world.

Development of new features in the freeware world is usually at the whim of one person.  This can also be said of open source software, however because the source is available, anyone with the requisite motivation and skill can modify the code and not involve the original developers at all if needed.  Living within the walled garden of freeware is great until the gardener decides to stop maintaining the flowers. The same could be said of commercial software, but for better or worse money is a great motivator.

Often de facto standards develop around a piece of software.  This isn’t really the case with a logging program, but there’s a least one digital mode and one messaging system that have developed proprietary standards around them.  To interoperate with these standards one has to reverse engineer the standard based on the behavior of the application.  In the case of a messaging system, and one that is centralized, a homogeneous software environment can fall apart when a latent bug rears its ugly head.

So what is the reason for someone to offer freeware and not open source applications?  I’ve often pondered this question and can come to only one conclusion, a desire to someday go commercial with the product.  With open source, the intentions of the author are quite clear and in the open.  When a freeware software author refuses to open source their project for fear of it being copied and a competing product being created, they don’t quite understand that this sometimes happens in the open source world and as mentioned above, is known as a fork.  It usually occurs when someone feels they can do a better job improving the software and meeting the needs of the community.  Forks are often short-lived but in some cases a fork will become more popular than the parent it was spawned from and it becomes the de facto parent project.  This is a risk, but ultimately it’s a better process as it results in a sort of software Darwinism.  Forking is not plagiarism, as long as the original code is attributed to the original authors, and forking is an accepted practice in the open source community.  Nit-picky “armchair programmers” who are often the bane of freeware authors have nothing to complain about with open source as they can improve the software themselves or be put in their place when they discover they’re not really skilled programmers.

Open source enables collaboration.   I had to put considerable time into developing a specific feature on my open source Arduino keyer project.  If I would have had the source for a logging program that implemented this particular protocol, it would have saved me much time in developing this feature, or I could have even written and contributed a module for a logging program to implement the feature rather than having to write what I did for the Arduino in a roundabout way.  Arguably the Internet wouldn’t be what it is today, or perhaps not even exist, without open source software and the collaboration it creates.  Undoubtedly amateur radio has missed out on some collaborative opportunities over the years due to a lack of open source software.

I think it’s time for amateur radio freeware authors to take their commitment to the community a step further, embrace what became popular in the mainstream software development world two decades ago and open source their code for a long term benefit to amateur radio.

7 Responses to “Freeware versus Open Source”

  • Luc, LX2GT:

    I see freeware, as free as in beer. Open Source is Free as in freedom. The English Language is somewhat limited for that expression. One thing I never really got in Amateur Radio is, why we kind of do the open source thing in hardware (public schematics for projects and more), but on the related Software it is so much different.

  • Demetre SV1UY:

    Why is it bad for freeware authors to go commercial? After all their idea about a program they wrote is their own anyway.
    What I hate is when a freeware author calls commercial products all the names and at one point they themselves decide to go commercial or they decide to sell their program to someone else. To put it mildly, this is hypocricy!

  • Cai W6CAI:

    As I’ve been exploring digital modes, I’ve discovered that there are several good, freeware software packages where the program’s author has passed away. Since the author never shared the source code with anyone, that software can no longer be updated to work with new hardware or newer operating systems and eventually it will not be feasable to use. Software authors ought to consider their legacy and the ability of the community (and new hams in particular) to continue to benefit from their hard work.

  • Charlie - M0PZT:

    This post makes a lot of sense, although I don’t agree with going open-source even if the author is doing it free, for a hobby (like ours). I actually write audio/broadcast software for a living – The cheapest application is around $20 with the most expensive $300, depending upon usage. I have also written a few amateur radio applications, mainly PZTLog which began as a personal project but is now available for people to use if they like. In my business, I do offer some free utilities but as it’s my main source of income, I don’t like to be too generous!

    With Ham Radio software, many people just want to use a bit of software – They want something fairly simple to set-up, grasp, and to (hopefully) make their operating/experience more fluid and enjoyable. I totally accept that a freeware project gives the author no incentive to continue his/her work other than the praise (or heckles!) received from people using it. Some people just aren’t interested in opening-up the lid, tweaking and improving etc. They just want it to work. I also feel that putting a project “out into the wilds” as open-source then creates issues for the author. The scenario of them receiving support questions for a version not of his making could cause headaches. I’m happy to share ideas and pieces of code with people if they approach me and asked “how did you do xxx?” – I did the same, I struggled with the Locator Square Conversions (Lat/Lon, Radians etc) and 2 kind souls helped me out – 1 gave me little bits of information, because if I “had the whole answer handed to me, I wouldn’t learn anything”, too right… The 2nd chap gave me the source-code to an EME project he had worked on, which filled in the gaps.

    I suppose if I were to charge for my logbook program, it would certainly keep me interested and willing to support/improve it. Actually, the original concept was started back in 2009 but (typically), I lost interest in the hobby and didn’t really return to the airwaves until the start of this year!

  • Hans (BX2ABT):

    Freeware or commercial, both are bad. With either one you will always be at the mercy of the writer. Only with open source software can you fully control what you do and how you do it.

    My latest example: Wxtoimg is the only worthwhile program for decoding APT images from NOAA sats. There is a Linux version, but compiled only for x86 processors. The Raspberry Pi would be an ideal computer to set up as a monitoring station, but alas, it’s ARM based, so Wxtoimg won’t run. The author is not responding to requests (even paid), so there you go….

  • N7KRE:

    Well a little too technical for me, I use FREE software I don’t use commercial or
    open source software If I find someting I can use then from time to time I will
    toss in a few bucks to support it, I don’t like to fool around with commercial or
    open as it takes too much of my time, I have been license since 1960 and worked
    in the CATV field for a few years. All I am interested in is something that
    works for me, Things get to complicated and high tech, I am just a poor laid back
    operator and now half the shack has things I cannot work on let alone haveing to
    do with new fangled soft ware, too each his own. support those you want. If I was
    that technically empowere to back door, change, modify I would be making my own
    software instead of wasting time with others. I also use a pencil to log or reaL
    and if I could spell look out!!
    paper, and when I figure out how to use something else I will change if I don’t die
    firet, hi…

  • jeff n1kdo:

    Joe Taylor’s WSJT and friends are open source, free as in freedom. Also free as in cross-platform — it builds and runs on Linux and windows. You’ve got to love that… Also W1HKJ’s fldigi — source is available, runs on Windows, Linux, Mac.

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