Free Software, Open Source, Freeware, Shareware: What's the Difference?

Free Software, Open Source, Freeware, Shareware: What’s the Difference?

Terms such as free software, open source, freeware, and shareware are commonly used in mobile app development. As much as most of these terms may sound the same, they refer to very different things. This article will address the main differences between the terms so you can make the best choice for your own apps.

Free Software

Free software refers to software that users have the freedom to run, adapt, distribute, and make improvements on with only one restriction: the redistributed software versions must contain the original terms and stipulations of free use, referred to as copyleft.
Richard Stallman started widely using the phrase in the 1980s when he was running the Free Software Foundation (established to support development of free software) and the GNU Project (established to develop a free operating system).
The Free Software Foundation (FSF) developed four principles, dubbed the “four essential freedoms,” that software must abide by in order to be considered free software:

  • The freedom to run the program and use it for any purpose;
  • The freedom to study the program, including how it works, and modify it to meet your preferences and needs;
  • The freedom to freely redistribute the program to better help others; and
  • The freedom to redistribute freely any copies of your modified and adapted versions of the program to better help others.

To protect those principles, the FSF created the GNU General Public License (better known as the GPL). When developers submit their software under the GPL copyleft license system, end users will enjoy all the “four essential freedoms” described above. Worth mentioning, free software is all about liberty, not price; therefore, users are free to do whatever they want with it, including distributing the modified version at a fee –unlike freeware. Furthermore, unlike freeware, free software gives users access to the source code (due the freedom to modify).

Open Source

The meaning of “open source” closely resembles “free software,” but it is not identical to it. Basically, open source refers to a software with a publicly accessible source code under a license that gives users the right to do with the software as they please, including studying, changing, and distributing it.
The term, open source, was originally coined in the late 1990s by individuals—the founders of the Open Source Initiative (OSI)—seeking a less ambiguous definition of free software.
Although the OSI agreed with the FSF about development and distribution of free software, they emphasized that software freedom was mainly a practical matter and not just an ideological one. Therefore, in a slight shift from free software, open source software emphasizes pragmatism in use, particularly in security, cost savings, and transparency. Open source supporters intended to concentrate on the practical advantages of using open source software that would be more appealing for a corporate world, instead of emphasizing ethics and morals.
For example, while Chrome OS and Android are open source projects, they cannot be categorized under free software because they do not sufficiently meet all the four essential freedom conditions.
Eventually, it can be said that both open source and free software definitions refer to developing the same type of software, but the difference lies on the messaging used.


Contrary to free software and open source software, freeware fails to focus on freedom, and it also lacks an explicit definition. Generally, freeware refers to software that is available without demanding a fee for usage. Freeware software can be distributed as a fully operational program for an unlimited period.
The rights of owning such a software usually belongs wholly to its developer. In some cases, the developer may choose to require users to start paying for the freeware after a certain period. Unlike free software and open source software, freeware is normally shared without including its source code. Therefore, users are unable to make any changes to it.
Examples of freeware are widespread, but two common examples are Adobe Reader and Skype; both programs are available for free, but neither is open source, and both are proprietary. Another example of common freeware might be an old game, which a game developer might choose to re-release as freeware. Though this means the game is now available free of cost, but the code behind the game remains unavailable and proprietarily protected.


The concept of shareware is similar to that of freeware in that it is originally distributed free of charge. However, unlike freeware, that cost-free period is usually only for a trial period, after which the software stops being freely available until the user pays for continued use or license. Other versions of shareware may be functional for an indefinite trial period, but certain features are unavailable without paying for their use.

Which is Best for Apps?

Knowing the differences between the above common software terminologies is important. For example, instead of developing an app and releasing it to the public without a license, you can adopt a free or open source license model to apply legal protection to your code, and prevent unauthorized third-parties from profiting from your hard work.
In addition, freeware and shareware, in particular, are important options for mobile app developers who want to give users a chance to try their products without losing full proprietary rights. Freeware gives you the opportunity to ensure your app reaches a wide audience, especially when you want to develop an ad-focused app. With shareware, users have a chance to try your app before paying for full use.

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