Open source software is usually compared directly with proprietary software, which is natural enough since the latter has dominated the computing world for so long, and largely defined its landscape. But in doing so, it is often forgotten that free software has features that are simply not available with closed source.
For example, one of my favourite open source tools is the Live CD. There are hundreds of these that let you try out different GNU/Linux distros without needing to install them. They also let you recover lost files – particular useful on Windows systems that are infected with malware or won't boot for any reason. Live CDs simply aren't possible when software houses lock down uses of their code.
Another area where Windows apps can't compete is in portability. Because open source can be copied freely, you can transfer it on to USB drives without needing to ask permission (which wouldn't normally be given for traditional software). More than that, you can actually run the apps from those same USB drives – again, something that is rarely possible with closed source, proprietary code.
This has led to the flourishing of an entire portable apps ecosystem, centred around the site Portableapps.com:
PortableApps.com Suite is a complete collection of portable apps including a web browser, email client, office suite, calendar/scheduler, instant messaging client, antivirus, audio player, sudoku game, password manager, PDF reader, minesweeper clone, backup utility and integrated menu, all preconfigured to work portably. Just drop it on your portable device and you're ready to go.
These are all Windows applications, the idea being that you can plug the USB into any Windows PC and safely run your open source programs without changing anything on the system – or worrying whether it is infected with malware (ironically there's no GNU/Linux equivalent yet – although this is being worked on, apparently.)
The power and popularity of this approach is indicated by an important milestone the site has recently achieved:
PortableApps.com has hit the 100 million portable apps downloaded milestone. That's 100,000,000 portable apps served to millions of users in nearly 60 languages all over the world.
The 100 million download milestone came soon after PortableApps.com's big win at the 2009 SourceForge.net Community Choice Awards. The millions of users using software from PortableApps.com definitely contributed to our win!
All of the 100 million portable apps served from PortableApps.com were of open source software which runs on our open source, free, open platform that runs from any removable drive. With no vendor lock-in, users are free to use the software anywhere, on the devices they want, the way they want.
Nicely put: try matching that with traditional software.