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Free Software for Microsoft Windows

This page is about free software which runs on Microsoft's Windows operating systems. The meaning of "free software" here is software whose users are permitted to use it for any purpose, to study it's internals (source code), to modify it's internals, and to redistribute modified or unmodified copies. For the complete definition of free software, see The Free Software Definition.

List of headings

  1. Free software for normal computer users
  2. Free software for people developing for the MS Windows platform
  3. What's so good about this software?
  4. Where did this software come from?

Free software for normal computer users

For a more comprehensive list, see gnu.org's "Free Software alternatives to proprietary applications on the Microsoft Windows OS" or for a list of free software that works on MS Windows, MacOS, and GNU+Linux, or for which there are equivalents for each of those platforms, see Graziano Sorbaioli's software page (previously at chi3.org).

Below I have just listed some popular and particularly easy to use examples.

Mozilla Firefox
A web browser, like Internet Explorer, except it doesn't include spyware and it has fewer security holes, so you won't get as many viruses. Spyware is never added to free software - at least I've never heard of it happening - because there's no unviewable place to hide the spyware, and there's no way to make it non-removable. Security is generally better for free software because audits and fixes can be performed by anyone, and fixed versions can be published by anyone.
OpenOffice.org
A productivity suite, like Microsoft Office, except it costs nothing and doesn't have to support a business model based on user lock-in. It also has some nice extra features such as the ability to create PDF documents.
Pidgin
An IRC, Jabber, Yahoo!, etc. chat client. The most recent release for MS Windows can be found at: http://www.pidgin.im
The GNU Image Manipulation Program (yes, "The GIMP")
A graphics package, like Photoshop. I haven't used the MS Windows version in a while, so I don't know how stable the recent versions are.
ClamWin
Anti virus software. I've never used this, so I don't know how good or user-friendly it is, but installing a first or second antivirus package never hurts (if the package is free software).

Free software for people developing for the MS Windows platform

I haven't used any of these, but others have said they're good.

The GNU Compiler Collection
There seems to be two projects which provide an MS Windows port of GCC, they are Cygwin, and MinGW.
Inno Setup
An installer for MS Windows programs.
GNU Emacs
This is the greatest text editor and working environment in the software world. You can download binaries for MS Windows, and there's also a FAQ for the MS Windows port.

What's so good about this software?

The value of free software is easy to misunderstand. The four freedoms are of questionable value individually; their significance arises when they are combined.

The first freedom: "The freedom to run the program, for any purpose". Some software licences prohibit the running of a program for the purpose of studying the programs behaviours. Such clauses are aimed at hiding spyware, or at inhibiting the development of similar software — which might affect the profits of the proprietary software.

The second freedom: "The freedom to study how the program works, and adapt it to your needs". This means that software users are not under the control of the software owner (the publisher). Many people discount the value of this freedom because they say "I'm not a programmer, this freedom is useless to me", or programmers say "I don't have time to reprogram all the software on my computer". The fourth freedom is needed to understand the value of this freedom.

The third freedom: "The freedom to redistribute copies". Sharing software is useful and simple, denying it for some perceived social gain based on the profits of one company is absurd.

The fourth freedom: "The freedom to improve the program, and release your improvements to the public". The job of making software do what it's users want is too big for any one person or company. Only by being permitted to collaborate will the job get done.

Where did this software come from?

In the 60s, all software was free software. In the 70s, that culture died. In 1983, a guy called Richard Stallman decided it had to be brought back. For more info, you can read the full story of free software, or the short history of free software.

Since 1998, some people began calling free software "open-source software", so you may have heard of free software by that name, but I recommend that people don't use that term. The goal of the "open source" people was to escape the ambiguity of the word "free", but I believe the plan has backfired. For an essay about the two terms, see "Why ``Free Software'' is better than ``Open Source''". My thoughts on the matter aren't identical to those of that essay, but the differences of my opinion aren't enough to motivate me to write my own essay right now, so that one will do.


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© Copyright 2009 Ciarán O'Riordan. Verbatim copying and distribution of this entire article is permitted in any medium, provided this notice is preserved. Distribution of modified versions of all or part of this article are permitted, provided that such works carry three things: (1) this copyright notice, (2) prominent notices stating the that it has been changed, and (3) information for how to obtain the original (such as a URL).