By Dr. Joe Webb on September 11th, 2012
Software Freedom Day, a celebration of open source software and freeware, is held every September. Few people realize how important “open source” software is, but it is used mainly on computer servers to provide access to all of the data that are accessed on the Internet and on most corporate computing networks. But it’s more than servers. Free software is not just about software, it’s everywhere. Most people now enjoy the benefits of free software on their smartphones and tablets.
Those who know my computing habits have long been entertained by my fascination with free software (and my non-Apple life, excepting my iPhone, of course). It’s not a deep frugality, it’s a curiosity about how something that is “free” could actually work well. It turns out that free software is not free, it’s a collaboration of people who share their development work, and the price they pay for the software is their time for developing it. Because so many people share and contribute, the cost works out in everyone’s favor. Many companies found they were paying so much money for licensing that it was less expensive and more reliable to collaborate in open software projects. The key characteristic of the free software movement is that its development is open for all to see, hence the term “open source.” The software that has become available is often quite exceptional, has fewer bugs, and runs reliably. At one time, Sun Microsystems was spending enough on office software that they bought an office software company, and converted it to the OpenOffice project. In the end, individual computer users benefit as they are allowed access to these programs at no charge. This is how the open source movement promotes itself and gathers new contributors.
Much of the interest in free software came from a great dislike for Microsoft, its licensing practices, and its products. This stimulated interest in using Linux as a desktop operating system. I used Linux for about six years and enjoyed it greatly. My Windows experiences of crashes, lost or damaged files, and other problems led me to explore Ubuntu Linux and PCLinuxOS. Yet, I did switch back to Windows last year once it was clear that Windows 7 had the features that I was enjoying in Linux. Many products, such as GoToMeeting, would not operate in Linux, nor in any products that allowed running of Windows programs in Linux. So I did end up switching. (Before the usual comments from the peanut gallery about “get a Mac,” I must state that one of the reasons the Mac is so solid is that it is built on top of a free open source version of Unix, called BSD). I still have my little Asus Eee which runs the quick and fast Xubuntu Linux. That is my only Linux computer today. Interest in the Linux desktop has waned with greater use of tablets, and Apple’s increased market share of computer sales.
Below are some of the more interesting programs, available for free, that I use on a regular basis. Some are Windows only, but others are available for Mac and Linux. Here are my choices for basic software:
Word processing: Abiword, a quick program that has most major features one needs. (Windows & Linux)
Spreadsheets: Gnumeric, another light program that in academic tests often is show to be more precise than Excel. (Windows, Linux)
Full office suite including presentations: The old standby OpenOffice has word processing, spreadsheet, presentation, drawing, and data base programs and runs on Windows, Mac, and Linux. The program got caught in the dust created by the acquisition of Sun Microsystems by Oracle. The preferred suite is now LibreOffice, which uses the OpenOffice code as a base, and has much better features and interfaces. I greatly prefer the LibreOffice product and use it every day. If you depend on Excel for making charts and graphs, you’re best to stick with that. A new alternative for free office suites is Kingsoft Office, which has a well-featured suite with word processing, spreadsheets and presentations. (Ironic side note: The developer of Kingsoft is based in China and has been producing office software for many years. The company faced bankruptcy because of China’s rampant software piracy. Yes, even homegrown companies have to deal with the problem). Kingsoft has a paid version that has more features. All of these office suite alternatives save in Microsoft formats as well as their own. (Mac users: the inexpensive nature of Pages, Numbers, and Keynote, and the high quality of those programs may not make use of free suites attractive.)
Internet browser: Firefox is the most popular browser after Internet Explorer, but Google Chrome has a large user base. Chrome uses the same core program that Apple’s Safari does. I’ve never liked the way Internet Explorer wants to take over my computer. Firefox development stalled for a while, but seems to be back on track and has some great add-ons, my favorite of which is TabKit. I may have as many as 15 or so web pages open at one time, and TabKit certainly makes my life easier.
Instant messaging: Pidgin is a great way to consolidate all of your instant messaging from AIM, Yahoo Messenger, GoogleTalk, Facebook, and others (Windows, Mac, Linux). It’s not always convenient to have instant messaging as a separate program, but Zoho has a free program that runs in your browser. On my iPhone, I’ve grown to like iMo for this purpose.
Desktop publishing: Scribus is a full-featured program that works in all platforms. It’s too late now, but it would have been nice to see some industry support for this project, years ago. If anyone wants to complain about a supposed “Adobe monopoly,” you have no sympathy from me.
PDF reader: My Windows favorite is FoxIt Reader. FoxIt is good because it is much faster than Acrobat. It won’t do everything Acrobat does, but I find I use Acrobat Reader only about once a year, usually around tax time where some bank has some strange PDF format that makes FoxIt choke. Other than that it’s great and is never trying to upsell me or give me big “fixes” like Acrobat does.
PDF creation: The office suites mentioned above include very robust PDF creation capabilities, and are worth downloading just for that reason. PDF Creator is one of the handiest programs I have ever used. It sets itself up as one of your printers. So just click file-print as usual, but select PDF Creator as your printer, and it will create a PDF of whatever document you have been viewing or creating. I suspect that PDF Creator will not yield satisfactory graphic arts production files, but I have not tried it for that: it’s just fine for office documents.
Audio recording and editing: Audacity is a long-time favorite, and is available in all platforms. It’s an amazing program whether you’re an audio newbie or experienced audiophile.
Audio and video playback: If you’ve grown to dislike Windows Media Player (or the extremely annoying Real Player), or have problems playing certain files, VLC media player is a superb, and often better, alternative. It’s played files that would crash or not load in other software. Download it from the official site; many sites offer it but add intrusive features. VLC is available for Windows, Mac, and Linux. There is no open source substitute for iTunes, but I wish there was.
CD/DVD burning: Windows Explorer and its link to CD/DVD writing software in Windows has been one of the most unhelpful programs in Windows since its inception. CDBurnerXP sounds like an old program because of the “XP” in its name, but it is a regularly updated product. It’s got a great file manager inside, and you can rename, delete, copy, and all other file functions without having to use Windows Explorer. It’s good to put your blank media into your computer first before opening the program. As you drag files to the blank media in the program, it keeps track of how much data you’ve identified and how much room there is left on the media. (As far as finding a free replacement for Windows Explorer, sorry. But Powerdesk is worth paying for; download the trial version and sign up for the developer’s newsletter and wait for a sale).
In terms of keeping Windows computers running well, there are free programs that can replace products like Norton and McAfee. CCleaner will clean up all of those temporary files that seem to be left behind in Windows. AVG is an excellent antivirus program. Spybot Search and Destroy is great for keeping you protected from various and deadly Internet problems.
A warning about some free software: non-open source programs will attempt to change your settings or add other software to your computer. This problem has become worse in recent years. It is important to always choose “custom installation” for all software to avoid changes to your favorite browser or browser toolbars, or favorite media playing software. The antivirus AVG will attempt to add its search engine screener to Firefox; just go into your Firefox add-ins and turn it off.
The Cloud: A new choice for free software is to compute in the cloud. Now that so many people have access to high speed broadband, it is possible to productively use applications in your browser. Google Documents is free to use and has spreadsheets and presentations. The features are limited, but sometimes you just need the basics. Zoho has a wide range of applications beyond those offered by Google, and it’s my much preferred cloud option. Thinkfree is also an alternative. These programs are marvelous if you travel and use hotel computers, client computers, and the like. All you have to do is to sign onto these programs, do your work and sign off. You don’t have to worry about losing a USB thumb drive or accidentally leaving a file on someone’s computer. Cloud computing will become more and more handy as smartphones and tablets are used. You’d probably prefer not to tie up memory space on your gadgets with documents you’re working on. The documents are probably more secure in the cloud, anyway, secure since phones and tablets can be easily misplaced. By doing your work in the cloud, you can access your final work at your desk and not have to play around with thumb drives or other media, and you’ll always be working in the latest version of your document. All you need is a browser, and you don’t really need to worry about what operating system you have. Just one suggestion: keep your cloud documents simple, and save the formatting for when you get back to your main computer. These cloud alternatives are also great when working on documents and projects with others. You can grant editing or view-only access to anyone, or create public documents. You can edit simultaneously with others. Files can be downloaded in all popular document formats.
In one sense, the free software movement has become less important to most computer users as tablets and smartphones have grown in use and as the desktop offerings from Apple and Windows have improved. But the more we use “gadgets,” the more we rely on free software as part of our daily routines. The importance of free software to support our new connectivity and its convenience is definitely part of the free and/or open source trend.
That’s my roundup for Software Freedom Day. So if you have a spare computer, or an old dusty one, see if it can be brought back to productive use by testing out some of these programs. For other programs, sites like FileHippo and CNet’s Download.com are very reliable.
Happy (Free) Computing!