When you hear the term “open source,” what do you think? If you’re software-savvy, your heartbeat may jump and you’ll probably check out the new toy, wanting to know if it’s available for your computer.
This article is geared primarily to Windows users, as most Linux fans are already familiar with the Open Source community.
WHAT THE HECK IS OPEN SOURCE?
Open Source means precisely what the name implies. Unlike Windows (and pretty much every other expensive software,) which expressly prohibits buyers from trying to hack the program, Open Source developers must make their code available to anyone who buys/uses their software. Part of the Open Source licensing package is an understanding that anyone can modify at will.
Of course the majority of people who use Open Source software lack the technical expertise to rewrite a piece of software. Modifying the program isn’t a requirement for use. It’s simply okay to do so.
In some cases, updates to an Open Source application may occur daily. Their website will list the versions as their “daily build,” a literal description if ever there was one! The daily build is by definition a Beta (or test) version. There’s a good chance it may contain bugs. If you’re new to the process, look for the download link that says stable version or latest stable version.
A good portion of Open Source software is available for download for free. Regardless of whether free or for pay, however, ALL the associated code must still be made available, as part of their GNU General Public License. The GNU license is the pact that defines Open Source. Under that same pact, if you make any changes/improvements to the software, you have to make the modified coding available, too.
When Open Source software is offered for sale, expect pricing well below the competition. Take Red Hat, the most popular Linux option for servers. A Red Hat Server package with basic support is offered from the Red Hat site at $349*. That’s for the latest version, the direct competition to Windows 2005 SQL Server Edition.
You can’t buy Windows 2005 SQL Server Edition directly from Microsoft. Windows Server Edition resellers don’t list their pricing online, requiring you to phone for quotes.
On Amazon.com, Windows 2003 Server Edition starts at over $600 for the CD Rom. There’s no clarification as to whether that’s the full package, or an OEM (Original Equipment Manufactures) CD. If it’s OEM, Microsoft will not offer support for installation or use. As of early January, Amazon showed two listings for Windows 2003 Server Edition in the range of $600-700. All other Amazon listings were $1500 and up. And remember, this is the 2003 edition selling for $600 and up, technically outdated software.
While the vast majority of people still use Microsoft Windows as their Operating System (or OS, for short,) it isn’t the only game in town. Besides the better-known MacIntosh/Apple line, the Linux platform is making inroads. Once it’s installed, Linux is as simple to use as Windows. Linux is also more stable than Windows, not to mention less vulnerable to viruses and hacking. Nothing with active Internet access is truly invulnerable; but comparatively speaking, Linux is darned close.
Several “flavors” of Linux are available for download online at no cost whatsoever. Some are more user-friendly to install than others, and some Linux versions offer an installation CD and documentation for a fee. Both the low and no-cost versions of Linux work very much like Windows once installed. Installing Linux, however, is substantially more complicated than a Windows installation.
Linux is not the only Open Source operating system available, nor the only one available for free. While no doubt some of the non-Linux alternatives function well enough, finding compatible software might prove a challenge if you’re using OpenBSD, Solaris or eCos.
Shifting our attention to task-specific applications, Open Source has a challenger for Adobe’s graphics juggernaut, Photoshop.
Adobe Photoshop CS2 is offered on Amazon.com starting at $509. Its counterpart in Open Source is called The Gimp. Price for The Gimp? $0. That’s zero, as in free. Donations are requested and appropriate, but there’s no required cash out of pocket to download and use the fully-functional graphics editor program. That’s not a 30-day trial, either.
As is true for a lot of Open Source applications, The Gimp is available for Windows, Mac and Linux.
There are dozens, if not hundreds, of add-ons and plugins for The Gimp. Unfortunately for Windows and Mac users, most of them are designed exclusively for Linux platforms.
Another Open Source graphics editing program is called Seashore. It claims to compare favorably with The Gimp. For vector graphics, the top Open Source offering is Inkscape. Some of the more popular Open Source 3D editors come packaged under the names of Ogre and Art of Illusion.
THE SOUND OF… WHATEVER YOU LIKE
Would you like to use your computer as a tape recorder? While it’s not as sophisticated as Sound Forge or Adobe Audition, there’s an general purpose Open Source audio editor known as Audacity. It won’t rip a CD and convert it to mp3 format. It will, however, record from a microphone or from your computer’s sound card (and export to mp3 format, if you so desire.) It comes with a limited number of filters and special effects, enough to handle minor audio editing. Multi-track recording is awkward but doable.
Audacity’s default is mono recording. Changing to stereo and setting bitrates are simple processes.
If you want to save to mp3 format, Audacity requires downloading and installing a separate .dll file. The file downloads in zip format, including text with simple instructions telling you how to install it. After you’ve unzipped the folder, copy the .dll file to whatever directory you desire. The first time you use Audacity to export to mp3, you have to tell the program where you stashed its missing .dll file. As long as you remember where you saved the key file it’s not terribly difficult, and it’s a once-only process.
There are a few other audio-editing applications available for Linux, but the only high-profile Open Source audio editor for Windows and/or Mac is Audacity.
WORD PROCESSING AND OTHER OFFICE-RELATED
Open Office is Open Source’s answer to Microsoft Office, and includes almost everything you’d get in the expensive software. Open Office has a fully-functional word processor, database creator, spreadsheet mechanism, presentations program, and even a drawing program and specialized math integration program.
If you don’t recognize the latter two from Microsoft, there’s a reason. They don’t have a counterpart in Microsoft’s offering.
Microsoft formats are not native to Open office. While you can overwrite defaults to automatically save your text files with the .doc extension, for example, your saved document may not look the exactly the same when opened with Microsoft and vice versa.
If you don’t want an entire office suite, AbiWord is a fully functional standalone word processor, and there are comparable alternatives for spreadsheets, databases, and so on.
Desktop publishing is available in an Open Source program called Scribus. Scribus support includes a full page of screen shots, as well as a FAQ page, newsletters, bug reports, and more.
Want to make your own web page, but don’t know HTML from alphabet soup? Nvu could become your best designing friend. It functions in WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) mode, so even the HTML impaired can create a web page as easily as typing a letter. The learning curve is fast and easy. In fact, since it builds exclusively in HTML format, Nvu holds limited appeal to advanced web developers.
Nvu comes with an integrated FTP utility, making it a breeze to upload files once they’re created. And unlike Microsoft’s FrontPage, Nvu doesn’t require any special webspace configuration. Just create, upload, and your page is live.
FAQ BEFORE YOU ASK
There are those who shy away from Linux and other Open Source products, worried that untested software could harm their computers, or that Open Source software is just a bunch of kids playing around so there can’t possibly be any real support.
Fact is, most major Open Source applications were created by people who needed a functional program for their own work. Open Source programs generally include a downloadable manual and plenty of online support options. They do NOT include a toll-free number you can call. After all, free software developers can’t pay John Doe to answer the phone.
While chances are almost nil that an Open Source application would actually harm a computer, you do assume that risk when you download and install. (The same holds true for the paid applications, by the way. Look at their fine print.)
And most Open Source software – particularly the widely-distributed versions like Open Office and Linux – has been tested and challenged by people who purposely try to “break” it. That’s the difference in the daily build and the stable version. The stable version has gone through several attempts to break it. What makes you think you’ll be able to do what the techs couldn’t?
So what’s it going to be? Think you’re up to the challenge? You’ve got nothing to lose. You might even discover that you’re more tech savvy than you knew!
As a rule, Open Source software is stable and easy to install and use, and comes free of viruses and spyware. And it’s plentiful: if you don’t find something to meet your specific software needs at first try, uninstall what you don’t want and keep searching. There may be a dozen or so programs built along the same general idea. Pull up your favorite search engine and type in the words “open source,” along with a description of your desired application, such as word processor, office, graphics editor, etc. You might be surprised at the variety out there!
Some Open Source programs have their own home page, such as gimp.org, scribus.net and openoffice.org. Others share a common stomping grounds, so to speak. One terrific resource is sourceforge.net, where there are literally thousands of applications available for download, most of which are free. Sourceforge has its software categorized according to its general use, though you might have trouble deciphering what some of the categories mean. This author’s only major complaint is that there’s no way to sort by operating system. Finding out whether or not software is Linux, Mac or Windows compatible requires opening the page on a potential download and checking the file extension. (If the file’s extension is .exe, it’s Windows compatible. If it’s .tz, it’s formatted for Linux.) It would save a lot of time and effort if their search options could filter first for the Operating System, then for use.
*All prices quoted are in U.S. dollars.