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What is Free Software
The free software movement was started by Richard M. Stallman and GNU in 1984, later the Free Software Foundation was founded.
Free software is defined by the offering of 4 basic freedoms:
- The freedom to run the program, for any purpose (freedom 0).
- The freedom to study how the program works, and adapt it to your needs (freedom 1). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
- The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor (freedom 2).
- The freedom to improve the program, and release your improvements to the public, so that the whole community benefits (freedom 3). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
Non-free software is also called proprietary software. Free software should not be confused with freeware, freeware is free as in free beer, not as in freedom.
What is Open Source
The open source movement was started in the late 90s, and originated as part of a marketing campaign for Free Software. It emphasize the technical and economical benefits of open source code and open development, and care little or nothing at all about the ethical aspects. However there is very little software acknowledged by the Open Source Initiative that is not also Free Software, hence the term FOSS (Free and Open Source Software) is often used.
Benefits of Free and Open Source Software
These freedoms benefit users in many ways. Without access to the code and the right to modify it and distribute it a distribution like openSUSE would not be possible at all.
Fix the software
These freedoms mean that you can fix bugs, which exist in all software, or you can change the software to do what you need it to do, or even fix security issues. In the case of proprietary software you can ask the provider to add functionality and fix bugs, and maybe they'll do it when it suits them, maybe not.
Free software enables you to share software and thus help your friends and neighbours without you having to breech licenses.
Know and control what is going on
With proprietary software you can't know what a given program _really_ does. Some very well known proprietary software has been caught spying on users and sending information about their behaviour and such. Proprietary software also has a tendency to include various digital restrictions on what the user can do, when, for how long, etc. With free software you have access to the source code and can study what the program does and change it if you don't like it.
Open source code makes it possible for more people to see the code and fix it, it can develop faster and become better. This system of "peer review" can be compared to the way scientific research works. In comparison proprietary code is kept secret and rarely seen by anybody outside the company behind it.
It's also a way in which companies can share development costs. For example Novell and Red Hat are competitors yet they develop many of the same programs and thus help each other. IBM and HP could also be seen as competitors yet they both contribute to the Linux kernel, etc., thus sharing development costs.
Free software makes a competitive market for support possible, potentially hightening the quality of support. With proprietary software only the provider who has access to the source code can realisticly offer decent support, and thus has a kind of monopoly.
I'm not a programmer, why should I care?
Most of these freedoms require you to be able to read and write code for you to take advantage of them directly. But even though you're not a hacker you'll benefit, from others taking advantage of these freedoms, or you can join together with others and pay a programmer to make changes that you'd like or need - or you can take advantage by using the openSUSE distribution.