The Stars of Open Source
Although tech-savvy computer specialists historically have used open-source software, many newer programs have gained a popular appeal because of their user-friendly features and cool graphical styles. As alternatives to the expensive programs and systems most people use, these cutting-edge products are educating less-technical consumers about the benefits of open source and helping them improve the performance of their machines.
A lot of this software is available for free online, although the absence of profits has done little to curb production. There are hundreds of great open-software products, many of which are designed to efficiently meet very specific needs.
In an attempt to narrow down the field to a select few “stars,” North Krimsly, a software development manager at the Open Source Lab at Oregon State University, highlighted four free tools that recently have gained popularity in the wider world.
Open Office (www.openoffice.org) is a great starter tool for users who are new to open source software, Krimsly said. With an easy-to-use interface that resembles traditional office programs, Open Office includes a presentation program, a word processor, a spreadsheet tool and more in a program that can work on multiple platforms and in several languages. It also will read Microsoft Office documents, giving it the interoperability many people require.
“For people who haven’t used open-source software before, that’s a really good one to get started with because it’s familiar to most people,” he said. “So, they’ll get to see that open-source software really does work and can do everything that they want it to do.”
Undermining the PC/Mac debate, the Linux-based operation system Ubuntu (www.ubuntu.com) offers users a simple desktop theme without the promotions that come with most new systems. A few basic applications — including productivity, Internet and graphics programs — come pre-installed, giving users the opportunity to customize their machine with thousands of free software programs available from the Ubuntu catalog. This product works on both PCs and Macs, and as with many open-source software tools, it has a large development community that is constantly fixing bugs and answering questions.
Ubuntu is a member of a new generation of Linux programs that are more user-friendly than their predecessors. As Linux becomes more popular, systems such as Ubuntu are making it easier for people to switch from Windows or OSX, Krimsly said.
“Years ago, when I first installed Linux, it was difficult to install and difficult to configure — you had to be pretty technical to do that,” he said. “Now, you don’t have to know a lot about how to set up and configure Linux to install it. It’s got a graphical interface that comes up during the installation, and you just follow the directions.”
For people interested in designing and maintaining Web sites, Drupal (www.drupal.org) is a popular open-source content management system. This software lets designers customize their themes and content without having to build their sites from scratch.
One of the best characteristics of Drupal, Krimsly said, is its broad functionality, which allows users to build Web sites that range from corporate pages to social networking sites. Discussion boards, blogs, collaborative authoring environments and podcasts are just some of the features that can be included on a site built with this software and its add-ons.
Finally, Eclipse (www.eclipse.org) is an integrated development environment that allows programmers to write code in a graphic environment. Resembling a Web browser, this tool allows programmers to look at pages of related code in separate windows, making it easy to navigate between sections, Krimsly explained.
It also offers an integrated debugger that lets users stop their program at any point and identify possible problems. This program can be used for enterprise development, rich client platforms, application frameworks and more.