The future is free

What is the long-term future of free software?

The development of powerful free software shows no sign of abating (it took us quite some time to whittle down our favourite free applications to the top 100 we've highlighted as part of our recent feature). Even the likes of Microsoft and Adobe claim to be embracing free software principles and it begs the question, where will all this stop?

In the mid-'90s, you couldn't even browse the web without first forking out for Netscape Navigator, while the plethora of word processors, email clients and image editors required to carry out the most basic tasks all came with a price tag.

Fast-forward to 2008 and any self-respecting bargain hunter will be all-too aware of the applications regarded as the leaders in the free-software field. OpenOffice and The Gimp are among the products mentioned time and again when technology enthusiasts reveal their hit lists of the web's best finds.

But what of the long-term future for free software? Is there really a limit to what we can expect to get for nothing? Adobe has released a scaled-down version of Photoshop (see our Photoshop Express review) and countless other global software brands offer free alternatives to the paid-for products upon which their revenue depends.

But one PC Advisor reader went further this month, suggesting in the letters page of our July issue that Microsoft make a free version of Windows XP available to consumers. Given what the software giant would have to lose by giving away a full desktop operating system —­ millions of paying customers, apart from anything else —­ it seems unlikely. But with computers such as the Eee PC pushing Linux to the children, there is some risk Microsoft will lose the hearts and minds of the next generation of computer users.

A free desktop Windows still seems unlikely in today's climate, but then so did a free version of Adobe Photoshop 10 years ago. Nonetheless, it's unlikely our investment in essential applications is going to increase in years to come.

Browser wars

It's possible that powerful desktop-bound operating systems aren't the future anyway. Much of the development from the likes of Google and smaller groups such as YouOS is based around the notion that we'll eventually run word processors, MP3 players, instant messaging applications and various other tools online, with barely any applications installed on our hard disks at all.

For this to happen we'd have to have access to ubiquitous, high-speed wireless broadband and our internet browser, rather than Windows, would become the gateway to all of the tools we use on a day-to-day basis.

If that's the case, choosing the right browser is only going to become more important in years to come. While many have never tried anything other than Internet Explorer (IE), competitors to Microsoft's market-leading browser are growing their share of the market and continuing to add new features.

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Paul Trotter

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