What is Open Source and why should you care?

Operating systems and productivity software are very much here with us to stay. The millions of person hours invested in the development of the powerful programmes many of us use every day will serve hundreds of millions of users for generations to come. Only five years ago a typical desktop system may have cost as much as £1000, so possibly investing £200 in software may have seemed, relatively speaking, a small price to pay for professionals relying on mission-critical applications. However, when hardware prices plummet as low as £200 for a basic system and software becomes as ubiquitous as word processors, spreadsheets, databases, drawing and photo editing applications, it becomes harder to justify such price markups and with the expansion of the Internet practically impossible to safeguard proprietary source code. Sooner or later someone will find a way of pirating pervasive productivity applications. However, a huge lobby of software multinationals, principally Microsoft, but also Apple, Adobe and to a lesser extent Oracle and Sun Microsystems, has vociferously promoted the concept of intellectual property, e.g. if you write a book in Microsoft Word, Microsoft owns the copyright for the format in which you saved it. Some may argue the last three companies may have belatedly embraced open source out of sheer opportunism to beat one well-known leviathan.

As millions of users simply take the omnipresence of leading proprietary packages for granted, many myths about Open Source software abound.

  1. Open source is bad for software developers: Open source software is not necessarily free, but its source code and file formats are made publicly available so that other programmers can improve on and interoperate with the application. Usually you pay for support, but may download the software for free.
  2. Pirated software is against the law: Open source is 100% legal, unless you infringe the terms of the licence (GPL = General Public Licence or GNU GPL), which usually means reselling the software. Do not confuse legal open-source software with pirated closed source programs. To some extent the major players tolerate some degree of pirating in order to get the public hooked on their proprietary formats and reap huge rewards from commercial users legally obliged to have licensed software. Open-source simply has different kind of licence.
  3. Open source is a bug-ridden and virus-prone: Very few viruses have ever originated from open source programs. Viruses tend to come as e-mail attachments or are planted on your computer via decptively marketed malware such as Winfixer. The leading open-source projects Mozilla Firefox, OpenOffice, The GIMP and Clam Anti-Virus (all available for Windows and Linux) will not leave you with an unworkable machine. Compare and contrast this reality with numerous trojan horse programs that install themselves due to inherent weaknesses in leading proprietary applications.
  4. My employer won't allow it: IT departments that restrict use and installation of open source software may offer excellent excuses for doing so, but ultimately they serve the interests of large multinationals who make a fortune out of their quasi-monopolies. Why should tax-payers subsidise Microsoft so that social workers and teachers can use Microsoft Office instead of a perfectly functional and user-friendly, but much cheaper, alternative like OpenOffice?

Now let's tackle the issue from a different perspective. Do we pay the Prussian inventors of the printing press copyright or licensing fees over six hundred years after their revolutionary innovation? Of course we don't, but we still use technology that has been gradually adapted by different engineers in different places over the centuries. If I use a Hewlett Packard Laserjet printer to reproduce my scripts on paper, HP involvement begins and ends in the transfer of information from an electronic to a paper format. If the HP printer breaks down, I could just buy a different make of printer to do the same job. If I wish to reproduce the same text as HTML, PDF or Microsoft Word 97/2000 (soon to be superseded incidentally), I should surely be able to choose to use the most convenient and cost-effective tool and should not have to buy constant software upgrades to interoperate with others who use these formats. HTML has always been an open standard. I may handcode it in any rudimentary text editor or use a wide array of free open-source programmes to generate HTML for me. Like Postscript, PDF started life as a proprietary industry standard, but Adobe has since open-sourced it. Linux and Mac systems will let you output any text or graphical output as PDF. If I want polished professional output I may choose to invest in Adobe Illustrator or InDesign, or I may go with Corel Draw or Xara Xtreme. Even OpenOffice Draw will output perfectly adequate PDF. So why do I need to donate some of my hard-earned cash to one multinational just to ensure complete compabitility with the latest incarnation of its flagship office suite whose admittedly pervasive formats have no inherent benefits over open-source alternatives?

The OpenDocument Format is the result of collaboration between major players in the software and information business. Its committee includes not just IBM, Sun, Corel and Oracle, but Microsoft too. The specifications of the human-readable XML-based standard are in the public domain. Anyone may implement and support it. Some analysts claim that the principles behind ODF are fine, but in the real world ODF will suffer the fate of Esperanto faced with competition from English. ODF resembles (but predates) Microsoft's new Open-XML (note the confusing name) much more closely than the old Word 97/200/2003 format, but it is this latter standard to which the business world is addicted. This offers advocates of open standards a huge window of opportunity.

Format Lock-in

At times it seems that those who would stand to benefit most from open source software are those who are least aware or worst-informed about it. Many professional writers have used freely downloadable OpenOffice Writer for 600+ page books, replete with a table of contents, footnotes, indices, bibliography and neatly formatted to pre-press standards. Many successfully collaborate with other writers using rival proprietary software such as, err, Microsoft Word. Yet your run-of-the-mill desktop user with much more modest needs feels obliged to purchase the latter application, allegedly to ensure compatibility with documents that others may send. In a rational world lightweight users of word processors would be content with an application bundled with their pre-installed operating system, which ideally should not exceed 10% of the outlay for a new computer. Conversely, someone who writes for a living might actually splash out to acquire the best tools of the trade (there are other heavyweight proprietary tools such as Corel Word Perfect and Adobe Framemaker). When people are forced to buy a proprietary package just to import files created by others or fear that migrating to an alternative package would lead to extra costs in training and user familiarisation, we call this vendor lock-in. Indeed some public sector organisations sign contracts giving them discounts on proprietary software, which already have highly inflated prices, in exchange for a commitment to use this software exclusively for a set period. This is in effect a huge public rip-off.

Open standards, freely usable by any user or vendor.

Proprietary Multi-Vendor Multi-Platform Standards, effectively open-source but with licensing limitations

  • Rich Text Format (.rtf) (MS)
  • Mp3 audio
  • Mpeg 2 and 4 video
  • .wav audio file format (MS)
  • .avi video file format (MS)
  • GIF (theoretically still owned by Compuserve)

Common Proprietary Formats

  • MS Word (widely supported by rivals but with varying degrees of fidelity in the finer aspects of presentational formatting. This format is, however, soon to be superseded by an XML format very similar to OpenDocument.)
  • MS Excel
  • MS Power Point
  • MS Publisher (not supported by major rival products)
  • MS Access
  • Oracle
  • MS SQL Server (sometimes confusingly abbreviated to SQL)
  • MS Windows Media Video
  • Real Media Video
  • Apple QuickTime Video
  • Adobe Photoshop .psd
  • Adobe Illustrator .ai and .eps
  • Adobe Flash (vector graphics, interactive animation)
  • Adobe Shockwave (interactive gaming and e-learning)
  • MS ASP.NET server-side programming with C# or Visual Basic
  • MS IIS with Windows Server 2003

OpenOffice, currently version 2.0.3, offers excellent compatibility with Microsoft Office file formats, but omits support for the MS Publisher format. People use this substandard application (OpenOffice Draw is simply a superior product) because it is bundled with MS Office and widely used in public services. Once familiar with its interface and having mastered a few tricks to get it to yield the desired results, many users are loathe to switch to something else. This means effectively that professional printers need a copy of this program though they'd never dream of using it themselves. Many interopability issues could be solved if in their infinite wisdom Microsoft endowed this program with an integrated PDF export feature (standard on all rival applications such as the freely downloadable Scribus). So rather than waiting for the Redmond Giant to embrace open standards, we should switch to alternatives that do. You should value your Word documents not for their proprietary binary format, but for their actual contents, so opening the same files in OpenOffice and saving them in the OpenDocument Format or PDF will not change your creation, but merely free you of reliance on one software vendor.

Nobody should be compelled to purchase a program or even download a trial copy just to view a file that could easily be reproduced in an open format. Consider HTML. The W3C may regulate it and browser vendors amy implement support for it in slightly different ways, but nobody owns the standard. If I feel a proprietary HTML editor is signifcantly better than an open-source alternative, then I might invest in it, but there are plenty of open-source HTML editors such NVU which will work fine for most users. If you only edit a few holiday snaps, then The GIMP or Google's Picassa will do fine. If you have more sophisticated requirements, then you might just go for Adobe Photoshop, Xara Extreme (now available for Linux too) or PaintShop Pro.

Open Source Alternatives

Microsoft Word
OpenOffice Writer, KWord, AbiWord
Microsoft Excel
OpenOffice Calc, Gnumeric, KSpread
Microsoft Access
OpenOffice Base / MySQL / PostgreSQL
Microsoft Power Point
OpenOffice Impress
Micosoft Visio
OpenOffice Draw, Dia
Micosoft Publisher, Corel Draw
Scribus, OpenOffice Draw. Both excellent alternatives. Draw integrates nicely with OpenOffice, while Scribus provides features that rival Corel Draw and even Adobe InDesign. Sadly neither imports your Old publisher files.
Adobe Framemaker
OpenOffice Writer (yep, it's that powerful)
Adobe Photoshop / Corel Paintshop Pro
The GIMP, Xara Extreme
MSN Messenger / Yahoo Messenger
Internet Explorer
Firefox / Sea Monkey / Opera
Outlook Express
Mozilla Thunderbird
Full MS Outlook with scheduler
Gnome/Novell Evolution (fully compatible with MS Outlook Exchange Server) or Thunderbird with Mozilla Sunbird (fine for small offices)
MS Front Page / Adobe Dreamweaver
NVU (all platforms) / Blue Fish, Quanta (Linux only)
Adobe Flash MX Development Application
No real competition for advanced stuff, but try Flash4Linux and OpenOffice Impress will export slide shows to Flash.
Adobe Illustrator, Freehand, Corel Draw
Inkscape, excellent SVG and PDF support but not quite as refined as industry-leading proprietary alternatives
Final Cut Pro, Adobe Premier
Some good projects such as Kino are promising, but as yet if you want professional video editing software, you still need to go proprietary.

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