An introduction to Open Source

Open Source has been around in spirit for a long time, but it became what it is today thanks largely to Richard Stallman, hacker, software freedom fighter and beard wearer. RMS wrote the original GPL (GNU General Public License), which outlines the principles of free software. Starting in true geek style with freedom zero:

  • The freedom to run the program, for any purpose (freedom 0).
  • The freedom to study how the program works, and adapt it to your needs (freedom 1). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
  • The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor (freedom 2).
  • The freedom to improve the program, and release your improvements to the public, so that the whole community benefits (freedom 3). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.

Linus Torvalds wrote the Linux kernel in 1991. Rebel Code has a pretty good account of this, and also covers the whole history of the open source movement. Worth a read.

The internet has benefited greatly from the so-called LAMP stack, a collection of open source software that makes websites reliable and dynamic. Wikipedia breaks it down as follows:

  • Linux, referring to the operating system;
  • Apache, the Web server;
  • MySQL, the database management system (or database server);
  • PHP, the programming language.

You may not realise it, but if you use the internet you have already benefited a great deal from open source.

Although Google doesn’t release much open source material directly, it is a big proponent of OSS, and practices what it preaches. Most Google employees run Linux (specifically, a tweaked version of Ubuntu called Goobuntu), and it is often rumoured that A Google Linux distro may be in the works. Although Google denies this, such a big name behind Linux could be just what is needed to move Linux to the mainstream.

And a big name is what Ubuntu has in Mark Shuttleworth. He made his billions in the dot com boom and became the second space tourist (and the first African in space).

The money he has poured into Ubuntu has helped make it one of the most user friendly distros – and certainly the most publicised. Now with it’s ‘Gutsy Gibbon’ release (7.10) it has added flashy 3D effects, desktop search, encryption and other advanced security features.

See also…

Software Picks

The Big Ones

I’m not going to go into much detail on these since they are so well known.

  • Mozilla’s Firefox, Thunderbird and Sunbird. Replaces Internet Explorer, Outlook Express and Outlook’s calendaring features.
  • Open Office. Replaces Word, Excel, Powerpoint and Access, with a few extra goodies thrown in. IBM have recently released the new Lotus Symphony suite, which includes a documents, presentation and spreadsheet editor all in one app. I’ve been using it for a few weeks now, with only minor issues. It’ll be in Beta for a while, but mark it down as one to watch. Could wind up being an OOo killer!
  • GIMP is the GNU Image Manipulation Program. It is a freely distributed piece of software for such tasks as photo retouching, image composition and image authoring. It works on many operating systems, in many languages.
  • Alternatively try GIMPshop, a modification of the free/open source graphics program GNU Image Manipulation Program (GIMP), intended to replicate the feel of Adobe Photoshop. Its primary purpose is to make users of Photoshop feel comfortable using GIMP.
  • Ubuntu is by no means the only Linux distro out there, but it is currently getting the most press. With Gutsy Gibbon (7.10) hot off the presses it has added some of the glitz and glamour of commercial OSes, like Vista and OSX. Available in many variations and for all platforms, 32 and 64 bit, desktop and server variations, and now super easy to install (or test by running from a live CD), I can honestly see no reason why a basic PC user would need Windows!

Other Cool OSS

  • Audacity is free, open source software for recording and editing sounds. It is available for Mac OS X, Microsoft Windows, GNU/Linux, and other operating systems.
  • Scribus is an open-source program that brings award-winning professional page layout to Linux/Unix, MacOS X, OS/2 and Windows desktops with a combination of “press-ready” output and new approaches to page layout. Underneath the modern and user friendly interface, Scribus supports professional publishing features, such as CMYK color, separations, ICC color management and versatile PDF creation.
  • FileZilla is a free FTP client for Windows, with Mac and Linux versions on the way.
  • VirtualDub is a video capture/processing utility for 32-bit Windows platforms. It lacks the editing power of a general-purpose editor such as Adobe Premiere, but is streamlined for fast linear operations over video. It has batch-processing capabilities for processing large numbers of files and can be extended with third-party video filters.
  • Notepad2 is a fast and light-weight Notepad-like text editor with syntax highlighting. This program can be run out of the box without installation, and does not touch your system’s registry.
  • Also Notepad++, another source code editor and Notepad replacement, which supports several programming languages, running under the MS Windows environment.
  • Password Safe is tool that allows you to have a different password for all the different programs and websites that you deal with, without actually having to remember all those usernames and passwords. KeePass is another alternative.
  • Toucan is a small utility allowing you to synchronise, backup and secure your data with more options than the built in suite utilities. It is split up into 5 tabs, allowing you to easily find the function that you want.
    If running applications off a portable hard drive or USB stick is news to you, check out Portable Apps for Toucan, Firefox, Notepad++ and many more OS apps.
  • TrueCrypt creates a virtual encrypted disk within a file and mounts it as a real disk. It can encrypt an entire hard disk partition or a storage device such as USB flash drive. An essential piece of software to protect sensitive data.
  • Miro (formerly the Democracy Player) is a free video platform with a mission to build a more open and diverse world of online video. RSS, BitTorrent, HTTP, HTML, and CSS are all open technologies that they use to create a level playing field for video creators to distribute their work and for viewers to connect to any publisher in the world.
  • Media Player Classic (MPC) is a compact free software media player for Microsoft Windows. The application mimics the look and feel of the old, light-weight Windows Media Player 6.4 and uses a completely different codebase, integrating many options and features found in modern media players. (Click the downloads tab and look for Media Player Classic)
  • VLC media player (Video Lan Client) is a highly portable multimedia player for various audio and video formats (MPEG-1, MPEG-2, MPEG-4, DivX, mp3, ogg, …) as well as DVDs, VCDs, and various streaming protocols. It can also be used as a server to stream in unicast or multicast in IPv4 or IPv6 on a high-bandwidth network.
    Between MPC and VLC, you should never download a video file you can’t play again!
  • Juice is the premier podcast receiver, allowing users to capture and listen to podcasts anytime, anywhere.
  • HandBrake is an open-source, GPL-licensed, multiplatform, multithreaded DVD to MPEG-4 converter, available for MacOS X, Linux and Windows.
  • Blender is the free open source 3D content creation suite, available for all major operating systems. A killer app for many, but possibly too complex for the casual movie. It’s well worth checking out Elephants Dream, the world’s first open movie, made entirely with open source graphics software such as Blender, and with all production files freely available to use however you please, under a Creative Commons license. (Follow the production of the second project, Peach)

Web Based Open Source

Just a taster.

  • Vanilla is an open-source, standards-compliant, multi-lingual, fully extensible discussion forum for the web. Anyone who has web-space that meets the requirements can download and use Vanilla for free!
  • WordPress is a state-of-the-art semantic personal publishing platform with a focus on aesthetics, web standards, and usability – according to the blurb on the frontpage. Basically it’s a blogging platform, and it’s free.
  • Drupal is a free software package that allows an individual or a community of users to easily publish, manage and organize a wide variety of content on a website.
  • For a more complete run-down of open source content management systems, and the option to try them all out, take a look at Open Source CMS.
  • Creative Commons defines the spectrum of possibilities between full copyright — all rights reserved — and the public domain — no rights reserved. The licenses help you keep your copyright while inviting certain uses of your work — a “some rights reserved” copyright.
  • Open Clip Art Library is an archive of user contributed clip art that can be freely used.
  • OSWD and Open Source Web Design – Two different sites that offer a large number of hight quality web templates, all released under some open licence.

Lists like this are abundant on blogs and frequently pop up un sites like Digg. Do a quick Google and drink from the firehose. Welcome to Open Source Software.