By Chris Long
Open source software is created by enthusiasts for free
There is no doubt that free technologies, mainly open source software, are proving more popular both inside and outside the computer industry.
Behind this growing acceptance is a non-commercial movement of independent developers that are putting together the open source software that anyone can use.
Paul Allen, editor of ComputerActive magazine, said the defining feature of open source software was that the set of tools and systems were developed by enthusiasts rather than big companies.
But he added it should be treated as "free thinking rather than a free lunch" because it is not always free of charge.
Out of this movement have come fully-fledged programs, such as Open Office for e-mail, spreadsheets, word processing and presentations, and VLC for video, that were put together for free by a community of people.
"The entire source code for the software is made available to the community and anyone can modify it," said Phil Andrews from open source software provider Red Hat.
While the core software may be free to download and install, some companies are making money from open source by offering support services. This can be in the form of a helpdesk or more technical aid to troubleshoot problems once the software is being used.
Paul Allen said open source is unknown to many computer users
"In the same way that you would take purchase software and have a maintenance contract
we supply a support contract for open source software," said Mr Andrews.
Despite many businesses turning to open source and its use becoming widespread, it remains relatively unknown to the masses of computer users, said Mr Allen.
He said consumers were particularly unaware of the free versions of operating systems, largely Linux, that are available. This could be because many appear in different versions that can look fragmented to those unfamiliar with them.
Beyond operating systems, many do use open source programs even if they may not know them as such.
"On the applications side, programs like Firefox and Thunderbird are immensely popular and are catching up Microsoft in some places," said Mr Allen.
Many of the open source applications have millions of users.
For instance, statistics suggest that there are about 40 to 50 million users of Linux desktops, while Open Office has been downloaded 60 million times since October 2008.
The browser Firefox has been gaining popularity with web users and the organisation behind it claims it now has 270 million users.
Lawful or not?
Independent developers use some code from big firms
One factor driving the acceptance of open source software has been the success of small form factor notebook computers that shipped with a version of Linux installed.
One pioneer of this approach was Asus whose netbooks originally shipped with Linux and Open Office installed. Now they are just as likely to have Windows XP and Office installed.
Mr Andrews believes the open source community could have made more of that opportunity.
"But when you have someone like Microsoft who suddenly decides they want that market - they have the war chest to take that market," he said.
The growing popularity of commercial applications has driven the creation of open source equivalents - these are often based on other people's software, Mr Allen said.
"If a company wanted to have compatibility with a certain type of device or service, it has to reverse engineer its standards, so they are actually breaking into the technology".
"Whether or not it's legal for them to do so, is not for me to say," he said.
When big companies feel threatened by others tweaking their technology, they have been know to consult their lawyers, he added.