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The Apple vs. Epic saga put me on the path to open source

Fortnite
Fortnite (Image credit: Windows Central)

The Epic Games vs. Apple saga is well storied already so that I won't be going over old ground here. But the whole sorry tale did prompt me to rethink how I use my tech, both for work and for personal use. Because big tech companies can burn you, and often do.

I'm not really a Fortnite player, so the loss of access on iOS doesn't really affect me, but not being able to use xCloud on there certainly does. All of these big companies have their ecosystem plays, and it seems you're not entirely safe locking into any of them.

And while it's impossible to avoid in many cases, there's plenty of software out there that doesn't rely on the shackles of Apple, Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Amazon, and so on. Free and open-source software (FOSS) doesn't just come without a price tag; it comes free of any required attachments to a big ecosystem, and in probably more cases than you think, it can change the way you use a PC.

Big tech cancels or changes products at its user's cost

HP Elite X3

Source: Windows Central (Image credit: Source: Windows Central)

Remember Windows Phone? The biggest example of a tech cancellation in recent memory for regulars to this site, but it's proof of how big things can get when it comes to pulling the rug out from under the users, from under us. By contrast, Android is open source, so even if Google, for some reason, decided to stop making a phone OS, someone else would likely pick up the reigns. Indeed custom versions have been a thing since pretty much the beginning.

It isn't quite the same as what's going on between Epic and Apple, of course, but its impact was very similar. A bunch of people who relied on this thing being around then had to start looking elsewhere. Had Microsoft open-sourced Windows for phones, I guarantee there would be a community still building and supporting devices.

These companies all make changes or closures, and it's you and I that suffer for it.

But it happens on a smaller scale, too. Most recently, Apple acquired Dark Sky and has since shut down its Android app, and the API will cease to function from the end of next year. Affecting users and affecting developers, both of which will have to transition to something else.

Facebook recently announced that Oculus owners will be forced to login with a Facebook account soon. And some of us never got over the closure of Google Reader. Even today.

All different examples, but there's a common theme. All of these ecosystem plays come at a cost. All the big tech companies want, no, need to lock you in to continue a steady source of revenue, but it's not necessarily in your best interests.

FOSS doesn't just mean Linux

GIMP Windows

Source: GIMP (Image credit: Source: GIMP)

The part of the Epic vs. Apple argument I agree with the most is that there's no alternative on iOS to buying apps. No alternative means no competition, which means Apple can keep charging developers 30%, and the users of the platform ultimately pay the price.

Android, of course, is a little more open, with alternatives to acquire apps that don't involve Google, such as Samsung's own store, the Amazon Appstore, and of course, Huawei's AppGallery since they don't even have access to Google. But there are options out there.

Options are what you get with FOSS. And it doesn't mean you have to use Linux. Open-source software is prevalent across Windows, Mac, and Linux, as well as mobile and the web. I've been dabbling more recently with Linux and Chrome OS alongside my regular Windows 10 use. I have already found several amazing applications that work on all those platforms that are capable of replacing software I've been using for years.

Open source apps can be amazing

Visual Studio Code

Source: Windows Central (Image credit: Source: Windows Central)

Many years ago, I used GIMP, a popular cross-platform open-source image editor along the lines of Photoshop. Then, for reasons I can't really understand, I moved to paying for an Adobe CC subscription. Now I'm back on GIMP, or more specifically, a forked version called Glimpse. This is an incredibly impressive piece of software with plugins galore available, supporting Windows, Mac, and Linux and costing absolutely nothing. No subscription to Adobe, just great software built by people who just want to make it as good as it can be. Video editors would do well to check out the impressive KDenLive, which can also be used on all the major platforms as an alternative to Adobe Premiere.

It doesn't stop there, either. Microsoft 365 is a great package, but if all you want is something lighter, free, and compatible with Office files, there are suites like LibreOffice. Once again, this is available on all the major platforms, completely free and open source. Microsoft has been contributing more to the open-source community of late, too, with one example being its Visual Studio Code application. A personal favorite is StackEdit, a web-based open-source markdown editor which has become my new place for writing all my work.

And did you know that the Telegram app is open source? It's also a much better service than WhatsApp and can be used on many platforms all at once.

The future is open source

Kdenlive

Source: Kdenlive (Image credit: Source: Kdenlive)

Obviously, there will always be ecosystem tie ins and places you're unable to avoid "the man." Gaming is a big one, of course, and content. But in those cases, you should always keep your options open. If you buy all your content in Microsoft's store, then what happens if, as has happened in the past, Microsoft decides to pull the plug?

I'm hardly an expert; I'm only just beginning to find my feet in the world of open-source software. But this whole debacle where one enormous company has stopped another enormous company using its services because it wants to keep more money for itself shines a golden glow on the FOSS community.

These folks are making good software for the sole purpose of making good software. If you choose to toss a few bucks their way to help cover costs and keep the development train rolling, that's great; I've done that regularly.

The issue isn't things costing money, I'm happy to pay, and I'm happy to donate to developers offering a free product to help them keep doing good work. The issue is when big business decisions start affecting the little guy. Us. I want to use the software I know was built for the sole purpose of being a good piece of software, not to lock me into a subscription or keep me using one particular platform. It's refreshing, and it's been a real eye-opener starting to explore what's out there.

Likewise, if you're already a fan of some great open source software, share it with us in the comments below so we can all appreciate it.

Richard Devine is an Editor at Windows Central. A former Project Manager and long-term tech addict, he joined Mobile Nations in 2011 and has been found on Android Central and iMore as well as Windows Central. Currently you'll find him covering all manner of PC hardware and gaming, and you can follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

18 Comments
  • Audacity is a great simple audio editor of WAV, MP3, etc FreeStudio by DVDVideoSoft However, I still like office for the pure fact it bundled in OneDrive storage. I share it with parents and siblings as a yearly Christmas gift
  • Yeah we also share Office, which makes it a good price I think especially since it can also be used on 3/4 devices per person.
  • Plus One to the Audacity choice. It makes a somewhat advanced edit, like: 1. combining several recordings of the same voice line
    2. Adjust variation in pitch and speed
    3. downmix them into one ...a faily simple task, considering how difficult that is. A very unique scenario, but it shows the power of this app :)
  • Bitwarden is a very decent and cross-platform open-source password manager. There is also VLC, of course.
  • Good article, interesting insight on Open Source.
    But the weakness open source has always had is that, in the end, there is really nothing like very high quality and truly free software. Yes, you may not pay for it, but someone else is, indirectly. Consider all the people that work on open source software projects globally: they are predominantly daytime professionals in either programming or some other field, spending their free time on the open source projects, or students still in school working on this. The actual livelihood of developers that maintain open source code is earned elsewhere - in other words, someone else is indirectly paying for the open source development and maintenance, therefore, the devs can afford to do it 'free'. I have never come across a 'full-time' open source developer. How would the person survive? The alternative is donations, but how reliable are those?
    Consider services like Wikipedia - as awesome as it is, they quite literally have to rely on donations to stay afloat, needing annual campaigns to raise funds. In the end, it is why closed source/proprietary software is predominant and will continue to be so. It boils down to the practicality of supporting devs in the real world. People actually want to write and support great software, but they also need to survive :-(
  • Exactly. This is the key thing that tech utopians don't want to think about. Notice how the open source gaming industry is booming? Neither do I. Developers need money to stay afloat, let alone build something great. Evil Companies Making Billions are raking it in ultimately because their software and services are popular with consumers. They have the resources to build and refine good software and services by charging customers or selling ads or both. They have nothing to fear from the open source movement. This is coming from someone who has used OSS for years and still does.
  • I agree, free stuff can never be good as software with an industry behind. Free software is what developers do on their free time, not the main job. And it shows. Wake me up when it's the Year of the Linux Desktop and we'll talk again.
  • Solid points. I have a similar, but not identical take: Open Source software is how larger companies give away the stuff they don't really care about to gain goodwill in the marketplace (some niche individual packages that people do voluntarily, like Audacity, excepted). The companies that focus primarily on Open Source software make their money from selling services maintaining the software, which also means they don't have an incentive to make it easy to manage, at least not the open source parts. Hence the learning curve difficulty with Linux over Windows. Small companies who are in the business of software development can't afford to give away their crown jewels -- they would go out of business. We use open source software, mostly development libraries, and we contribute fixes, but we sure as hell don't open source our core development work. That's our intellectual property and the reason we are able to be in business.
  • And that is the true hypocrisy of open source software
  • 7Zip is open source
  • Yeah, I don't think it's the way, except of course, for using very specific programs.
  • It's easy as a user of software, rather than a developer whose livelihood depends on it, to say that the world would be better if software were free. Fortunately for all of us, the vast majority of mainstream software packages people know by name are NOT open source (so not counting back-end systems only known to developers). Richard Devine, you also have the small/big company thing backwards -- big companies can afford to give away their excess/non-core development for free by open sourcing it and donating it to the community. Smaller companies, that always exist hand-to-mouth, struggling to survive, need to monetize everything possible and protect themselves from the bigger, more powerful competitors. If everything were open sourced, revenues would plummet and software innovation would dry up (without profit to motivate funding it, development stops). Fortunately, this hasn't happened yet. Can you name any popular open source games? Among apps, there are a fair number of niche open source apps (I use Audacity and PuTTY nearly daily myself, Open/Libre Office has its followers), but the big ones are not -- MS Office, even Google's weak Google docs, Adobe, Corel, Intuit's packages, and enterprise packages like Oracle and SAP ERPs, or CRM packages like Salesforce.com and Microsoft Dynamics CRM. This is a good thing. Open Source is fine for what it is, but we should NOT be pushing companies to open source their hard-developed intellectual property.
  • In the end, there really is nothing like non-trivial 'free' software. The idea of free or open source is only a matter of perspective. Highly skilled developers writing and maintaining open source code can afford to do so because they do not need to be paid for that particular service to survive. In other words, they earn their actual livelihood through other means. It's as simple as that. If I work full time developing non-trivial software (for example, AAA games that cost millions of dollars to develop), I better get paid for that, else I'd be homeless in no time. Hence it cannot be 'open-sourced' or free. It has to cost some money so the developers can get paid and survive to make even more software. This is normal and the way of all things.
  • I want to love open source. I love the *idea* of open source. But every time I've actually tried using open source, it leaves me longing for the spit and polish of a paid for app. Libre office is a perfect example. It works. But it's ugly. I can't understand for the life of me how, with a world full of billions of people, there seems to be ZERO designers in the open source community. Appearances matter. So yes Libre is technically installed on my computer, but only for the few times I'm too lazy to import an email attached .doc file into office online for viewing. But I'd never consider *composing* a doc with it.
  • People complain about big companies just dropping products, well this is still somewhat of an issue in open source. If the author decides not to update the project any more and no one steps up to take over maintaining it, you have software that is frozen. You still can use it, but no more bug or security fixes. All that to say that nothing is perfect and you just need to "pick your poison"
  • There are a few I often use: GestureSign, 7zip, Vlc, Handbrake and Throttlestop.
    Rarely I use free 3d model software (Blender/Bforartists and Hexagon which is at least partially free, Hexagon is pretty cool although somewhat different). I use them for simple stuff though. Software I use for work is commercial or in-house.
  • Open software is like fan made subs (and the people that aren't in a English speaking countries know this better), it's nice that they are there but the difference in quality is noticeable. If you are just doing it for a hobby, then open software is more than enough, but if you are doing it professionally then paid software is the way to go. The open software I use are mainly emulators for PC and they are great, but for example if you compare the speed of emulation from the first party emulators for consoles to these open software projects you instantly notice the difference, the PS2 emulation on PS4 for example is far faster than on PC with much stronger specs.
  • I've noticed to my surprise that there are actually quite a few Open Source titles on the Microsoft Store. This includes official an unofficial ports. Everything from Audacity to 7-zip. Blender, Kodi, Inkscape, they're all there. Makes me wonder what else is out there? Would love to see a follow up article listing all the open source titles available on Microsoft Store.