In the world of free software, two terms come up often: freeware and open source software. There’s overlap, which makes the definitions confusing.
Freeware refers to any software that’s available for free or without a cost. Some big-name companies offer free software. Consider Skype, for example, or Adobe Reader, both of which are free to use. Freeware is often used interchangeably with “free software,” a term originally coined in the 1980s by Richard Stallman who started the GNU project. These programs are free to use, study, modify, and distribute as you wish. However, with freeware, the code is often kept under wraps. You don’t have to pay to use it, but you can’t study, modify, or distribute it yourself.
The idea of open source software didn’t come around until 1998. It’s similar to freeware in that users can use, study, modify, and distribute the program as much as they want, typically under the GPL license. Because of this, open source software is closer to free software than freeware. The main difference is in values that surround the ideas, however. Open source emphasizes collaboration and development, while free software is a contained package. Open source software is often so open that you can find forums discussing it, and contributions to the software may even be adopted from a third-party plugin or functionality.
Popular examples of open source software include OpenOffice, a suite of office apps, Google’s Chrome browser, and the popular content management script WordPress. Fan favorites Thunderbird and Firefox, both by Mozilla, also fall into this category.
Another difference is that businesses typically use software labeled as open source while freeware is marketed toward individuals, even if the usage is nearly identical. Although there are differences between the underlying values of open source software and free software, the two are sometimes grouped together under a neutral umbrella: free and open source software (FOSS).
Whether software is free or open source, there can still be a large team at work behind the scenes to create useful programs, fix bugs, and add functionality. It can be costly to keep up these enterprises. In some cases, an open source organization may keep part of the code secret, allowing others to use it only when they pay. Others may create a revenue stream by training people how to use their software for a fee. Finally, freeware can earn revenue to pay programmers by displaying ads within the program. This is commonly used in mobile apps.
Choosing the best software to get the job done is typically more important than whether it’s open source or freeware. However, organizations may opt for open source software that doesn’t rely on displaying ads, which can interrupt workflow and use valuable space.