Open Source for Non-Programmers

On a Linux forum, when you get into discussions of the benefits of open source over proprietary software, inevitably someone will say something to the effect of If you don’t like it, you can change it—that’s the beauty of open source. While that may be the beauty of open source for programmers, how does that benefit affect non-programmers?

I myself am not a programmer, so being able to modify the source code of a program is a dubious benefit for me. I do, however, enjoy several fringe benefits as a regular software user.

These are the main ways I benefit from open source:

  • Low or No Cost
    Yes, it’s true. You can legally charge money for open source software, but very few people do, and the prices can never be exhorbitant (say, $500 for an office suite), because people can easily compile the source code themselves for less than $500. The cost you pay, if you pay anything at all, is usually marginal and covers the distribution costs, the packaging, the shipping, or support. I’ve never had to pay money for any of the open source software I use, though.
  • Peace of Mind
    Free? Hm. Does it have spyware? Does it have adware? Is it a virus? Well, I’ve yet to come across an open source program that’s installed malware on my computer. I have, back in my Windows-using days, installed freeware (different from open source, by the way) that’s come with malware or at least nagware (Want to upgrade to the full edition? Your free trial is almost over!). I think this is a combination of open source program creators generally having good intentions and other open source programmers being able to examine the source code.
  • Community Support
    This is a double-edged sword, of course. Some open source projects are funded by a company, but most are developed by a worldwide community of programmers and testers, meaning that if the project is successful enough, it’ll never die just because one company decides to discontinue it. It also means no company can lock you in to the way they want to do things. If a previously excellent open source project starts going in a bad direction, you can bet there are programmers out there who are working on a fork of the project.

    Here’s where the other edge of the sword comes in, though: someone has to do it. If the project isn’t funded by a company, it’s usually volunteer or subsidized by donations. So if no one’s interested in continuing the project, the project just dies or remains stagnant.

Interested? You may have already started using some open source programs—Firefox, Audacity, FileZilla, GIMP.

If you’re not a Linux user, there are still plenty of great open source programs for you to try out:


  1. I am using Windows right now, but almost all of my software is open source, such as Firefox, Miro, Pidgin, Thunderbird, Filezilla Client, Filezilla Server, UXTheme Patcher, VLC, Abiword, Gimp, RSSOwl, Frostwire, Infrarecorder, X-Chat, Blender, Stellarium, Battle for Wesnoth, Apache, MySQL, PHP4+5, Perl, NVU, Foxit, K-Meleon, 7-zip, etc.
    Its great not to have that guilt that I’m using secret shady code.

  2. Hi, I’m just about to jump into the world of linux… it’s good to know there is plenty of Windows “substitute” software out there for linux-based OS’s. I came across your blog in the ubuntu forums.

  3. In fact, I think this is the safest way to transition people (those who are willing to make the transition) to Linux–start them with open source applications on Windows, and get them used to in a familiar environment the idea that open source isn’t scary or shoddy.

  4. I’ve been using Firefox for some time now… and I think I’m ready to leave Office behind as well. OpenOffice looks like I’ll have no trouble adapting to, and I have noticed that these open-source programs are just as good if not better than their “closed” counterparts.

  5. you should also use some other open source software, such as what I posted above. It can be a system shock when you don’t recognize apps, that are normal to most linux users.

  6. ubuntucat: Hey, use ubuntu every day. I found your site via the forums. I’m trying to use a new network disk that I got. All I really want to do is mount it and make bakcups to it.

    I am a long time *nix user and am comfortable on the command line and hacking things. I am also a programmer by trade so I can be really dangerous if I want to. :-)

    I didn’t find this info on your site (lots of other info though… great work!). Any suggestions or pointers would be appreciated. I got the thing mounted via samba, but that’s not really what I want to do with it…..

    Thanks and best of luck.

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