Working in IT, I often have friends ask me for advice or help with computer-related tasks. I try to oblige as often as I can. While my usual consulting/freelance work is in wikipedia:system administration, I have no problem doing a bit of web design for friends or local businesses.
A Word About Freedom:
When someone says the word Freedom, we usually think of the rights that the Constitution grants us - Free speech, Freedom of the press, etc. However, there's no reason why the ideal of Freedom can't be extended to almost every (reasonable) area of life and society.
Free / Open Source Software (FOSS):
Almost 100% of my computer-related work involved Free software. The term Free software, also known as "open source", has nothing to do with price (as often stated, it's "Free as in speech, not free as in beer"). It describes a category of software designed to protect the Freedoms of the user. Specifically, this means that when sold or distributed, the software includes the source code - the human-readable programming language that allows one to modify the software itself (in any way they see fit). While 99% of users might never have a need for this Freedom, it greatly improves the overall quality of software. You might not know how to program, but you'll benefit from using software that someone else used, and said "hey, this would be better if it did X. I'm going to make it do that." Free software also means that the user can redistribute the software as much as they like - "hey, I found this cool program, let me burn you a CD" - legally. In fact, it's encouraged.
Free software is everywhere. Many of the most popular web sites around, including Google, Facebook, CNN, WikiPedia and many others are run with Free software, whether it is the Apache web server (currently running 51% of web sites), the wikipedia:Linux Operating System, the MySQL database (a modified version of which runs Google), or programming languages such as PHP.
Not only was the Internet started using 100% Free software, but it's also still visible almost everywhere (and getting more popular every day). The Mozilla Firefox web browser is Free, and also free as in no cost (it's the best web browser available in terms of following the published standards that all web sites should adhere to, and currently in a close tie with Microsoft's Internet Explorer). The majority of web sites on the Internet are visible because of the Free Apache web server. And the list goes on.
My own work is almost entirely centered on Free software - most of which is also available at no cost (free as in beer). My system administration work is almost entirely involving the wikipedia:Linux and OpenSolaris operating systems.
This site itself is powered by all Free / Open Source Software (FOSS) including:
- OpenSuSE Linux
- the Apache web server
- the MySQL database
- MediaWiki, the program that manages all of the content (hence the striking resemblance to WikiPedia.
- the PHP programming language.
And not only is it Free - so I can make whatever modifications and customizations I want, and never have to worry about the developers stopping upgrades or support - but it's also free (as in no cost) - so none of it cost me a dime!
FOSS and Business:
Firstly, the idea of "security through obscurity" - the idea that since people can't see the code of a proprietary (non-Free) program, it's more secure - is, if not a flat out lie perpetuated by those selling proprietary software, hotly debated with no clear answer. Free software works. It often works well. It's well supported by the community (mailing lists, online forums) as well as by paid consultants and often the developers (at the right price). It's customizable to no end - if there's a feature that your business needs, you don't have to beg the manufacturer to include it - just hire a programmer. Or, better yet, find a half dozen other businesses that need the feature and split the cost of the programmer - it's a lot cheaper in the end. Yes, your IT staff might not be gurus in the fine arts of Sendmail configuration files or MySQL optimization (it's supposed to sound confusing, because it is), but there's no lack of consultants or freelancers who can do the initial work and train your staff.
Most importantly, from a purely business perspective, Free software makes sense because of control. If your product depended on a widget that's only made by one company in the world, and it was a tiny part of their product line, you'd probably be worried that one day you can't get any more widgets. Using proprietary software (software that's not Free, i.e. products from Microsoft, etc.) is the same thing. The vendor decides what software to make, what features to add, when to stop making it, and how good their support will be. If they decided to release a new version, the choice is simple: buy the new version, or never have any more bugs fixed. Even worse, in the odd case that the vendor decides to stop developing the software, you've now invested precious time and money into an obsolete product - nothing will get fixed, no new features will be added, and (most likely) your information will be stuck in an esotreic, proprietary storage method - with no easy way of getting it out.