Open Source – What is it?

Free Software Foundation LogoIf you have been living on planet Earth for the past few years, you have probably heard somebody mention the term “open source”. It could have been a geeky friend rabbiting on about how they use Linux now instead of Windows, or maybe it was the tech support guy mumbling something under his breath about Internet Explorer not being as good as Firefox. It doesn’t really matter where you heard it, but the chances are that you have.

So what is it?
Open source software is computer software that is completely free and open. I’m not talking about gimmicky freeware that lets you make a cartoon of yourself to put on Facebook while it’s busy installing nasty spyware on your computer. I am talking about computer software that is developed under an open source software license. This means that absolutely anybody can use the software for free, with no catches. It also means that the underlying code for the software is made open to the public for anybody to review or reuse and distribute.

Open source software is not just about getting something for free, it’s about freedom. The whole point is to share and share alike. The result of this attitude towards software development is better, more secure and much more innovative software that everybody can use.

If you are thinking that there can’t be much use for this sort of free software, then think again: almost the entire Internet is based on it. Everything from Google’s search engine to the servers hosting the websites you visit run open source software; even this website is powered by the Drupal content management system. This sort of free software usage has been going on for a long time, since the ’80s in fact, and now finally it’s finding its way onto your desktop at work and at home. It’s even found its way into Stephen Fry’s house.

So “how”, you ask, “will it find its way into my house?” Well, if you are brave and a little bit tech-savvy, you could try replacing Windows with a flavour of Linux, the most popular of which is Ubuntu. I only suggest this to those who are comfortable with backing up their data and are willing to try a new operating system. If you have a friend who is into computers, they can help you, and it’s not really as scary as it sounds. If you aren’t up for such a major change, then I really recommend trying out some of the programs described below. They all work on Windows, Mac OS X (which is based on an open source operating system called BSD) and Linux and are amazingly useful alternatives to proprietary software that either costs a small fortune or isn’t really the best thing for the job.

Here are eight open source applications that every home computer user should know about.

Mozilla Firefox
Firefox is perhaps the most widely used open source software on the desktop. It captured an astounding 20% share of the web browsing market due to its ease of use, its speed and the fact that it is a lot more secure than the Internet Explorer software that ships with MS Windows. Internet Explorer has long suffered from bugs which make it susceptible to viruses, and this has helped Firefox secure itself a place as a favourite among IT staff and savvy users. If you don’t already use Firefox, I recommend making the switch straight away. If you are unsure about your work policies on software, ask your IT department.

OpenOffice Office Suite
For the user who can’t afford the £200 price tag for a copy of Microsoft Office, this piece of software is essential. It is a fantastic value: it can do just about anything MS Office can and some things that it can’t, too. OpenOffice is known to be more backwards-compatible with older MS Office formats than Microsoft’s own Office 2007 package. OpenOffice is also finding more and more use in the enterprise and government sectors. During these hard financial times, many companies and government offices have decided to use and support OpenOffice rather than pay the prohibitive £400 a head that Microsoft charges for corporate Office licenses.

GIMP is the open source world’s alternative to Adobe Photoshop. If you do the occasional touching up of photos or dabble in digital art, then you should definitely try out GIMP. It has some quirks that make it slightly different from Photoshop, but it certainly is a very capable graphics manipulation program. There are loads of tutorials on YouTube to get you started.

Inkscape is another free and open graphics gem! It’s ideal for everything from cartooning to laying out newsletters. Its not really a photo manipulation program but more akin to Corel Draw or Adobe Illustrator. If you enjoy design or need to put together a pamphlet or flyer, then this is the application for you. Again, if you need help getting started, check out YouTube.

Are you an Internet messaging fanatic? If you can’t live without having MSN chat, Yahoo Messenger, Skype, Google Talk and Facebook chat all open at the same time, you might think about using Pidgin. Pidgin IM is a messenger client that allows you to be signed in to a multitude of different chat services using just one chat client. Chats all show up in one window, with a tab for each person you are chatting with. It has loads of functionality, and you can expand its usefulness with third-party plug-ins, like the Facebook chat plug-in and the OTR plug-in (for the terminally paranoid), which encrypts your chats to make it impossible for anyone outside the conversation to read them.

Have ever wanted to back up a DVD to a USB stick before it gets too scratched to play? If so, you should check out HandBrake. It’s a great tool for backing up your DVDs to AVI format or ripping movies for your iPod.

Miro is a video player with a difference. There is a lot of free stuff to watch on the Internet, from YouTube to the BBC iPlayer. Miro is a gadget that puts it all in one place and allows you to manage your subscriptions to different free content providers all over the Internet.

If you are like me and find that iTunes is a little bit restrictive or Windows Media Player is a bit cumbersome, then Songbird will be music to your ears. Songbird is a music player and manager designed by the same people who make Mozilla Firefox. Songbird is easy to use and very lightweight, so you can use it even on older computers.

Having problems playing a DVD that somebody burned for you? Fear not, because VLC can come to the rescue. Although it’s not the prettiest media player in the world, it is by far one of the best. VLC is well known for its ability to play just about any media format. In fact, I’m certain that if I could somehow plug my coffee mug into my laptop, VLC would be able to play it back as video.

The best thing about open source software is the community aspect. All the software I have mentioned, and indeed all open source software, is only as good as the community that makes and uses it. If you find a bug in or a have a great idea for an add-on to a closed application like iTunes, you would be hard pressed to get Apple to react to your bug report or idea. The Songbird community, on the other hand, would fix the bug immediately and put your idea for an add-on to a vote. If people liked your idea, it would probably be in the next version. This sort of people power is one of the open source software model’s biggest strengths. It allows for innovative and useful software. People actually get what they want by asking for it or making it themselves, rather than hoping that the functionality they need will be included by some faceless mega corporation in the next release.

I hope you find open source software as useful as I do. The boffins at Google and IBM certainly do! Give it a go today.