Free, Open Source Software (F/OSS) is to computing as public defense is to criminal justice: unappreciated, often unknown among the general public; the workhorse dedicated to freedom, both in reality and in principle. Yet, ironically, the public defense community lags behind Fortune 500 companies in recognizing the value of F/OSS and leveraging it within the organization, both to maintain information agility and to maximize limited resources.

The most obvious benefit of F/OSS is the price tag; as the name implies, free software costs nothing. As computing hardware continues to get cheaper, the cost of software licensing is increasingly the limiting factor for technology initiatives in underresourced public defender offices. The diversity and power of the F/OSS software ecosystem enables enterprise-level technology solutions on modest budgets.

Another major advantage of F/OSS is the avoidance of vendor lock-in. Commercial software vendors have a strong motivation to discourage users from switching to a competing product. This is often accomplished by ensuring that their software stores your information in a manner that will be difficult – if not impossible – to access using alternative software. F/OSS, by contrast, typically adheres to industry-standard file and data interchange formats, easing the transition between software solutions and facilitating interoperation with other products.

F/OSS is often cross-platform, so you can use the same software on Macs and PCs. This is especially helpful as users increasingly prefer to use their own computing hardware at work (a trend referred to as Bring Your Own Device, or BYOD), which implies a heterogeneous computing environment embracing both major operating systems. By adopting F/OSS, organizations can more easily accommodate user preference in operating system while maintaining a uniform software base.

A more subtle benefit, though increasingly important, is the superior security of F/OSS solutions. In the traditional proprietary software model, a comparatively small number of software developers create and maintain application code. Only those few can easily look for security flaws in the software, and only they can fix them. F/OSS development, by contrast, is spread out across a whole community of programmers, providing many more opportunities to find and fix problems. The F/OSS community regularly responds to newly-identified security threats more quickly and effectively than their closed-source counterparts.

Finally, because F/OSS application code is available to everyone, it's possible for an organization to customize or extend software to suit their unique needs. Proprietary software, by contrast, is a “take it or leave it” proposition; if you don't like how it works, you'll need to find an alternative. Though few public defenders have dedicated IT staff, there are plenty of IT consultants who can be hired to make such customizations at an hourly rate.

Trying F/OSS will literally cost you nothing; in fact, there's a good chance you're using it already. The popular web browser Mozilla Firefox is one of the best-known F/OSS projects. LibreOffice, the F/OSS equivalent of Microsoft Office, is also in wide use, as is Mozilla Thunderbird, a powerful e-mail client. VLC media player is versatile and powerful, playing everything from DVDs to audio streams. VirtualBox allows you to run a virtual computer with a different operating system (eg, to run Windows-only software on a Mac). Synkron synchronizes data between a file server and a laptop or a computer and a backup drive.

The next time your organization needs a new application, look at F/OSS first. The advantages are so significant that in many cases, it would be hard to justify choosing a commercial alternative.