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Open Source Software

by Eulalio Paul Cane

Imagine a world where, once you bought a computer, all the software was free, even the operating system. In addition, whenever a new version of your favorite program was released, you could get it right away, also free. Or, if you suddenly realized that you needed something new—a video editor to whip up some YouTube videos perhaps—you could download and install it in under an hour. Your cost: $0.00.

Too many people don’t know that this particular fantasy is very much a part of the real world; it’s called Open Source software, and Bill Gates & Co. hope you never hear about it.

Basically, Open Source means software produced by people who believe in computers as a means of creating community in the world. Toward this end, they encourage sharing software and they make the source code for the software available so that others can expand and improve on it, which means bugs are fixed more quickly than they will ever be by a logy corporation.

Okay, you say; that sounds nice, but what does it really boil down to? Are you talking about some chintzy freeware here, maybe a new screensaver that remembers my birthday? No, I’m talking about mature, full-featured replacements for serious desktop applications: word processors, graphic design interfaces, Web browsers and Web development programs, video and sound editors, accounting software, and lots more. At Two Trees, we operate exclusively with Open Source software.

Picks from 18,000 Programs

We start with OpenOffice, a complete suite of programs modeled after MS Works and designed to be compatible with MS Works, so that files can be exchanged between the two programs seamlessly. In addition to having all the power and capabilities of MS Works, OpenOffice does some things better than its commercial counterparts.

One of the most important to us is that OpenOffice produces high-quality PDF files directly, without the need for any secondary software. We used OpenOffice to lay out every detail of The Quincunx That Ate the Universe: A Real Theory of Everything (spring 2009), including figures, tables, index, running headers with automatic chapter titles and page counts, different margin layout for verso and recto pages, the whole nine yards. The PDF file OpenOffice produced from this (at 6″× 9″) came back from the printer without a flaw.

Then there’s the GIMP (the GNU Image Manipulation Program, gimp.org), Open Source’s answer to PhotoShop (naturally, it’s able to save images in PSD format). Using GIMP, we were able to produce the highly complex, multilayered cover image shown here, based largely on digital photos we took of a few common household objects, spruced up with a three-dimensionalized Hubble photo.

We browse the Web using Iceweasel (Open Source software based on the Mozilla family of browsers); we design Web pages in Quanta Plus; we edit videos with Kino and Audacity; and we do it all for free. And the programs I’ve mentioned constitute just a tiny sample of the more than 18,000 programs available to us through the generosity of those who believe in the Open Source movement.

Things to Like About Linux

Do I have your attention now? Are you wondering how you can get in the game? Well, the easiest way to start is by downloading some of these programs and trying them out. A lot of the most well-developed ones can be run under your existing operating system.

For example, at OpenOffice.org, you can freely download and install a Windows version of OpenOffice. This is the full version, not a trial version or some piece of software that will beg for money after 30 days (although supporting the Open Source movement with an occasional donation is a nice thing to do). Other Open Source programs (the GIMP, for example) aren’t available in Windows or Mac versions and require you to have an Open Source operating system such as Linux.

Linux is substantially more stable than Windows, can be run for years without reinstall or defragmenting, and is much less vulnerable to viruses. Most people have heard of it, but many assume you have to be a supergeek to use it. Fifteen years ago, this may have been true, but not now. In fact, today it is possible to purchase computers with Linux preinstalled. We purchased our first Linux machine this way from Ibex (ibexpc.com). Alternatively, you can get your own Linux CD for an existing machine from groups like Ubuntu Linux (ubuntu.com), which will mail you an install CD for no charge, not even shipping.

I know several people who got an Ubuntu disc, put it in their machines, answered a few questions, and were up and running in Linux in under an hour. (Incidentally, it’s also possible to run a “dual-boot” machine, which has both Windows and Linux on it.) You can even ease into things by installing Linux on an older machine (it doesn’t require tons of memory the way Windows does) and playing around with it until you are comfortable enough to switch over completely.

Compare and Contrast

Will you have to invest time to get up to speed with new software? You bet you will, but you should weigh this investment against the long-term financial savings that are possible. And you also view it in light of the substantial headaches that are all too common with corporate software that is released before being properly debugged (witness the recent Windows Vista debacle).

What’s the bottom line? The bottom line is your bottom line.

Eulalio Paul Cane is the cofounder of Two Trees, which will publish its first title in 2009, The Quincunx That Ate the Universe: A Real Theory of Everything.



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