When most computer users think of getting the latest office software, they visit their local computer store. I visit http://sourceforge.net and browse the latest Open Source software. “Open Source” gets its name from the requirement that the source code is openly available for others to build on the product. Most of the time, the price is free. This means installing on your home, office and notebook computer is legal, as there are no additional licenses to buy.
SourceForge currently lists 155,700 free packages for download. This covers all operating systems and categories. Like surfing the web, finding the right Open Source package takes work. The most famous examples include the Linux operating system, MySQL database, Open Office and, for me, WordPress.
There are instances where a charge is associated with Open Source software. As an example, Red Hat packages the Open Source version of Linux with its own utilities and support and sells its own version. The value add is what you are buying. You can download many versions of Linux that are free, though.
The same is true of MySQL. Since Sun Microsystems bought MySQL in 2008, Sun has offered enterprise versions and training for a fee. Sun Micro also owns another popular offering – Open Office.
Open Office provides an office package with word processor, spreadsheet, presentation, drawing and database access. It comes in 24 languages for Windows, Mac, Linux and Unix. Open Office can interchange files with Microsoft Office. My own experience is that importing a complex Microsoft Word document may not give identical results. When my wife edited the book “From Prospect to Wilfrid” in Word 2003 and I tried to lay it out, I found Word had turned may basic formatting such as bold and italics into structures that got in the way. I cleaned the text by exporting the text only, then moving into Open Office to do the layout.
But Open Source is not a panacea. Many Open Source packages were written to do a specific job and may not fit your needs. Also, support may disappear as an author loses interest or no longer needs the program.
Why would people write software for free? The larger packages are group efforts. Often developers need a specific function and add it as their contribution. As an example, I use WordPress as my website authoring software. On my personal Webmaster in Residence site, I delve into WordPress in detail. I am also a big iPhone and iTouch fan. WordPress separates the presentation layer from the content. The presentation of a WordPress site is controlled with an installed Theme. I looked around and didn’t find a theme that did what I wanted, so I wrote one. To make my contribution to the WordPress community, I offer my iPhone/iTouch theme for free on my site. Anyone can download and use it. My site now appears different when viewed from a browser like Internet Explorer or FireFox on a computer than it does from an iPhone/iTouch or Blackberry.
One general weakness I find in Open Source software is documentation. Developers tend to like to write software but not documentation. On larger packages, writers may contribute to the project with a user manual. Forums provide the support interface to the developers. There is no 1-800 number to call with free Open Source. I had a wonderful experience recently with a WordPress plug-in. While it did exactly what was advertised, I was using it in an unusual way. I emailed the author in Finland with details of the problem. A few hours later, I received a reply with the fix. I was impressed and sent a PayPal contribution to him as a thank-you for the prompt support.
All of this considered, I am a huge fan of Open Source. Much of the software on my computer is Open Source. Here is a list of my favorites:
http://sourceforge.net/ – Main Open Source repository
http://www.mysql.com – MySQL Database
http://www.openoffice.org/ – Open Office
http://filezilla-project.org – FileZilla FTP utility
http://sourceforge.net/projects/pdfcreator/ – PDFCreator creates PDFs from any Windows program.
http://wordpress.org – WordPress
http://www.opensourcemac.org/ – Open source for the Mac
As appeared at DurhamRegion.com on Jan 25, 2009