In some cases the word "free" can mean one of two things, or both. There is "free" as in speech and "free" as in beer.
The first free would be more descriptive if you used the French word Liberté (as in Liberté, égalité, fraternité - Freedom, Equality, Brotherhood) or liberty, meaning the freedom to do as you will with the software. This is generally viewed to mean see how it works and adapt it to your own purposes. Another term for this is "open source", meaning that the code that is used to build the software is "open" and there for all to see.
The second free is the more common sense of the word, as in "without charge". You can use the software and not have to pay anyone for the right to do so. This is the part that most people are interested in. Unless you are a computer programmer the ability to see the code that built the program is not important to you.
Interestingly you can have software that is free as in no charge, but you cannot see the code (i.e., proprietary free programs) such as Internet Explorer (although whether that is truly free in that it only runs on MS Windows is another debate). You can also have code that a company maintains intellectual property rights over and charges for, but you can also see the source code, should you be so inclined (not as common). The free software that most often gets the headlines is free in both senses, often referred to as FOSS or F/OSS software (Free Open Source Software).
As usual there are two sides to every story. There are some people who say, essentially, that free software is only free if your time is not worth anything. If you have free software that you have to build and support by yourself maybe paying a few dollars for a pieced of software is not all that bad an idea. That said a lot of popular FOSS software like Firefox is available already built and is very easy to use.
Like most things to do with technology and software in particular there is not a clear cut black and white answer to any question to do with free software.
Of the software packages listed I have used the following:
- OpenOffice - Early versions of this very extremely slow, but it has gotten much better. Their stated target was to be equivalent to MS Office 97 (not a bad target, in my opinion, as that was somewhat the zenith for that package before it shot off into bloatware)
- ZoneAlarm - Nice firewall program, but they push hard to move you to the paid version
- AVG Free - Good anti-virus software, but again they push you to use the paid version, going so far as to present "warnings" about needing to upgrade to the paid version that are not true.
- Audacity - Good audio program with lots of community support. For most people this will fill their audio needs.
- Google Maps - Cool mapping application
- Ubuntu Linux - This is my desktop OS at home, in addition to a laptop running Windows XP Pro, plus my wife's Mac. I spend most of my time in Ubuntu, switching over to the Windows machine for very specific things that I do not have under Ubuntu (mainly other MS products like Office or Visual Studio)
The thing to keep in mind when you look for software is that generally there are lots of people who want to do what you're doing or trying to do. Lots of people have to do the same thing you're trying to do and some of them know how to program. Over time software gets written to satisfy these needs. Some of it is commercialized and some people make simple knock-offs of it. Depending upon you comfort with computers you can get by with all kinds of free software. If you're not as comfortable with software you can purchase software that has commercial support and is perhaps more popular, increasing the number of people who can help you with it.
The techgnostic thing to do is to get a trial of the commercial software as well as copies of a couple different free alternatives. Give them all a try and go with the one that best balances off the satisfaction of your needs with the demands it makes on your resources, be they time or money. In the end you will probably wind up with a mix like me, and save a lot of money by not having to buy programs that have a thousand features when you only need two every now and again.
Do you have any favorite FOSS programs? How about proprietary programs that there are no alternatives for that you depend on?