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September 18, 2008
IS OPEN-SOURCE SOFTWARE TOO GOOD TO BE TRUE?
BYLINE: Tim Smith
LENGTH: 920 words
Is there such a thing as a free lunch? Well, that's what the open source movement would have you believe. It offers programs for any task at no cost beyond getting hold of the installation files (effectively free with broadband), and even complete replacements for Windows or Mac OS X.
The open source movement promotes software without the restrictions placed by proprietary vendors, such as product activation that have become part of normal computing. In fact, sharing software is actively encouraged. We decided to see whether it is all too good to be true, what is available and whether it is still the preserve of techies.
Freedom of use
Long before Windows was created, the open source movement was founded by Richard Stallman with a project called GNU (www.gnu.org). He decided there should be four essential freedoms for anyone using software: The freedom to run the program for any purpose; to study how it works; share it with anyone; and to make modifications. A special video about the GNU project narrated by actor Stephen Fry can be viewed at www.gnu.org/fry.
The other significant event in the history of open source was when a Finnish student called Linus Torvalds decided to write his own kernel. The kernel is the most basic part of all operating systems, including Windows and Mac OS X.
The combination of Torvalds' kernel with the software already available from the GNU Project, resulted in Linux; a complete operating system that anyone could use and modify. There are now all kinds of variations (called distributions) that have been created by companies or for specific purposes.
Why use it?
The most compelling reason for using open source is that it doesn't cost any money to use (most of the time as we will see later). The Openoffice suite (www.computeractive.co.uk/
2128963) can replace Microsoft Word, Excel, Powerpoint and Access, saving a significant amount of money. Another good reason for using open source is educational. If you want to learn how software works there is nothing to stop you from studying the actual code of the software.
Sometimes open source programs are considered better than the commercial ones. The Firefox web browser (www.computeractive.co.uk/
2170605) has earned a lot of respect for performing better than Internet Explorer while offering greater security. Other software includes an impressive email program called Thunderbird (www.computer active.co.uk/2170797), Turbocash for managing finances (www. computeractive.co.uk/2163188) and The Gimp image editor (www.computeractive.co.uk/
There are even more possibilities with the complete operating systems based on Linux. Distributions can be optimised for a particular task or for older computers. Take our current favourite, Ubuntu (www.computeractive.co.uk/
2215279). There are versions designed for recording music (Ubuntu Studio), older computers (Xubuntu) and even religious audiences (Ubuntu Christian and Muslim editions). There are versions of Linux that can run on very old 486 based computers, so it is a good way of making use of old computers that can no longer run supported versions of Windows.
Most distributions of Linux have a Live CD version where you simply run the operating system from a CD instead of the hard disk. It will be a little slower than normal but it means you do not have to make any changes to the computer. Many distributions are quite happy to co-exist with Windows XP or Vista on the same hard disk. Some potted biographies of the major distributions can be found at www.snipurl.com/3o6ct.
What's the catch?
There are a few but not many. Open source doesn't always mean it is free, although the times when parting with cash are few and far between. Neither is all free software open source. For example, while Xandros is open source, its Desktop Home Edition costs £23 ($40). Open source software should also fully comply with Stallman's vision that it is free from proprietary restrictions. So while the Opera browser is free it is not open source. Also, with open source, a fee is normally required to get immediate support either by email or phone. But it's rare to get to that point as most projects have active forums where experts are happy to share advice and hints. A couple of Google searches will often provide the answers to questions.
There is also plenty of help to be found at our own forums in the Linux and open source section at www.snipurl.com/ 3o6ek. Security and bug fixes are released without charge by publishers.
While it is unlikely that it will displace commercial applications, open-source software is here to stay. This year Stallman's GNU project celebrates its 25th anniversary and it is an indisputable fact that some projects, including Firefox and Ubuntu, are as good as commercial rivals.
There is a lot of politics in the open source community. For example, to be absolutely correct, most versions of the Linux operating system should be called GNU/Linux. Not everyone in the open source community agrees and it causes friction (see Richard Stallman's reaction to receiving the Linus Torvalds award at www.snipurl.com/3mj5i ). Ungrateful isn't the word, but perhaps he has a point.
Not all projects are as well turned out as the aforementioned software, but we think many open source software projects are worth trying. Open source has also proved influential. When Asus released the Eee PC, it couldn't run Vista so it used a customised version of Linux. Microsoft responded by extending the sales of XP on these computers.
LOAD-DATE: September 18, 2008
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