Free and Open Source software is about more than getting software without paying. It’s about having access to the source code (the internal workings to understand how something works) so that you can change the software if you desire. It’s also about having the freedom to be able to use the software without restrictions and without being tied in to a companies proprietary formats which lock you into their systems.
As a real world example I have documents that I created at college, University and from my first years after graduation which cannot be read because the software is no longer available and the new versions will not read the old formats. In some cases this is because the original company is no longer trading, but it also includes an old Microsoft Works word-processor format.
The word free can be a bit confusing as you can sometimes pay for the software listed. There are sometimes versions that can be purchased that normally come with added features or a formal support arrangement in addition to the free software.
For more details see: What is free and open source software.
Open source quality software
Open source software is often developed by volunteers and by the community, but that does not mean it is not quality stable software. Many of the projects also have backing from commercial companies or are contributed to by professional projects. Even those that purely volunteer based are developed by people with a passion for what they are doing and are keen to make the software as good as possible.
Open source software is often released more frequently than commercial software and as such there are often early releases or development versions available. The development releases are good if you want to sample some of the new features early, but may not be as stable. If you are looking for software to be as stable as possible then look for the stable releases or releases backed up by a support arrangement (either free or fee-paying).
Is it legal?
Copying and distributing free and open source software is legal and positively encouraged. There are conditions of the license which rather than taking away freedom of the user are designed to protect the freedom of the end user as well as the developer and to ensure that the software is always available for free.
The most common licenses are the GNU General Public License version 2 (GPL v2) and more recently the GNU General Public License version 3 (GPL v3). There are however other licenses that the software can be licensed under which are still considered open source or free software.
Is open source suitable for commercial use
Free and open source software is used in all manor of ways all around the world by companies large and small for all different aspects of computing. Open source software powers all manor of devices from sat-nav and mobile phones to blockbuster movies, medical research and the majority of the most powerful super computers in the world.
I’m a Windows user, it won’t interest me – will it?
There are lots of useful open source software available for any operating system. If you are a Windows user then you can run a selection of open source software on-top of the proprietary Windows software. The majority of this software will run on Windows as well as Linux and if it’s not then you have access to the source code so you could change it to run on whatever system you wanted (if you had sufficient skill or knew someone that did).
If you would like to experience life without the Microsoft License Fee and restrictions of the Windows End User License Agreement then you can even try Linux without interfering with your Windows set-up until you are ready to make the final leap.
Popular free software
There are many thousands of different software packages available. The following are some suggestions based upon popular free software.
Firefox web browser
Alternative to: Internet Explorer / Safari
Available for: Linux, Windows, MAC OS X annd other operating systems.
Firefox is one of the best examples of open source software projects. It is a great example of how community developed software can not only compete with, but exceed that of the competition.
OpenOffice.org office suite
Alternative to: Microsoft Office
Available for: Linux, Windows, Mac OS X and Solaris
OpenOffice.org is a full office suite. It uses the ISO standard Open Document format or can read and write from Microsoft document formats. It includes Writer (wordprocessor), Calc (database), Impress (presentation application), Draw (vector-based drawing application), Math (equation editor) and Base (database).
Thunderbird Email Client
Alternative to: Outlook Express / Windows Mail or Web email clients
Available for: Windows, Mac OS X and Linux
The Thunderbird Email Client provides a fully functional email client and contact address book. It has a number of outstanding features such as the SPAM filtering, tabbed emails, search tools and filters, and archiving. As well as competing with equivalent personal computer based software it can also act as a front-end to many web-based email systems. The new wizard can auto-detect most of the settings needed to set-up the account making it easy to use. If you have multiple email in-boxes then it can merge them into a single one so that you can view all emails from the same folder.
GIMP photo editor
Alternative to: Adobe Photoshop or software included with your camera
Available for: Linux and Windows
GIMP (GNU Image Manipulation Program) is a bitmap editor most commonly used for editing photos. It can be used to edit existing photos or to create artwork from scratch or combine both for maximum creativity.
The GIMP’s interface is very different to most software so it can be hard to use at first. It is well worth persevering with as it is a powerful application.
Education Software (eg. Tux Paint)
Alternative to: various commercial alternatives
Available for: Linux, Max OS X and Windows
There is a large amount of education software available as free and open source. I have provided this one example which is a child friendly painting application designed for Linux and also available on Windows and Mac OS X. Also see the SchoolForge.net website which has links to lots more resources.
Text Editor Jedit
Alternative to: notepad
Available for: Linux, Max OS X and Windows
Jedit is a text editor written in Java. It includes syntax highlighting, split panes, multiple-text encoding support and lots of other features useful for programmers and editing html. Jedit is not the only text editor available, there are literally hundreds of different editors about, but I like the split pane editing and the fact that you can have the same editor on whatever platform I’m using.
Linux Operating System
The Linux operating system along with other free software provides everything needed to run a computer without needing to buy or use proprietary software. There is also proprietary software available if desired.
Most people will get the Linux Operating System as a Linux distribution. The Linux distribution normally includes at least the following:
- Linux kernel (the operating system)
- GNU utilities (provide the basic functionality and command line tools)
- X windows (to allow graphical programs to run)
- Window manager (gives the graphical look and feel)
- Applications (eg. office suite, photo editor, web browser etc.)
This meets the majority of everyday computing needs without needing to purchase any additional software.
This is only a short list of some of the most popular or more commonly used free and open source software. The are lots of other applications available from text editors to full blown video editing. In addition to the widely used applications, free and open source software is also available in niche markets such as DJ software (eg. Mixxx).
You can also find more in the software review category of my personal blog.