Open Source Alternatives to Popular Windows Apps

By Scott Nesbitt - Sunday, July 26, 2009

 alternatives to popular Windows appsWhen you think of Open Source software, the first thing that comes to mind is probably Linux or maybe Mozilla Firefox. One not uncommon misconception about Open Source is that the software, except for certain applications, is only available for Linux.

Obviously, that's not true. There are countless Open Source applications for Windows (and Mac OS, too). It sounds strange creating free software for an operating system that's not free but Open Source gives Windows users a lot of flexibility and a number of solid alternatives to popular Windows apps.

This TechTip looks at a few alternatives to some popular Windows applications. These alternatives can save you money while giving you the features and functions that that you need to get things done.

Microsoft Office

It's no secret that Microsoft Office is the de-facto standard for productivity applications. Office is also quite expensive. If you want to buy a copy for your desktop computer  or laptop computer, you can expect to shell out around $150 for the home version and about $400 for the full version. The funny thing about Microsoft Office is that, for many users, it contains more features and functions than they'll ever use.

The main Open Source competitor to Microsoft Office is OpenOffice.org. It's a complete suite of productivity applications -- a word processor (think Microsoft Word), a spreadsheet (think Excel), a presentation program (think PowerPoint), a drawing application, and a database. Each component is easy to use -- although it will take a bit of time to get used to the user interface -- and packs some features that Microsoft Office lacks, like the ability to output PDF files. OpenOffice.org can import and export Microsoft Office formats, although the quality of the results will depend on how complex the file is.

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One interesting feature of OpenOffice.org is that you can expand it by using extensions. The extensions add a number of features, including an array of templates, the ability to connect to exchange files with Google Docs, enhance the charting capabilities, and more.

What happens if you only need a word processor? Then you should give AbiWord a look. It's small, it's fast, and it packs just about every feature that you'd need. Like what? How about columns, headers and footers, tables, mail merge, endnotes and footnotes. AbiWord also has a collaboration feature, which enables you to work on a document with others either on a local network or over the Web.

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And like OpenOffice.org, you can extend AbiWord with plugins. A bunch come bundled with it -- ones for translation, connecting to online dictionaries and Wikipedia, doing a search with Google, and more. On top of that, AbiWord has decent support for Word files and can import and export to the format used by OpenOffice.org's word processor.

If, on the other hand, you want a simple but powerful spreadsheet then give Gnumerica look. Like Microsoft Excel, it supports a variety of mathematical functions (about 520of them) and graphing. There are also a number of tools in Gnumeric for doing mathematical analysis, and it can import and/or export over 20 other file formats including Excel.. The only major function of Excel that Gnumeric lacks is pivot tables. That's on the list of priorities for the developers, though.

gnumeric

Outlook

There's no arguing that Microsoft Outlook is the most popular email application on the Windows desktop -- whether in its full version or as Outlook Express, which ships with Windows. While there are a large number of email clients on the Open Source side of the fence, only one can compete with Outlook in the areas of features and functions. And that application is Mozilla Thunderbird.

Thunderbird is one of those applications that really packs a lot, but isn't really slowed down by all that bulk. Much like Outlook, you can use Thunderbird to connect to multiple email accounts and to send either plain text or HTML emails. Thunderbird also enables you to connect to Web-based email services like Gmail and Yahoo! Mail. You can download messages from your Web-based accounts, and send them using whatever email address you want.

Another feature that brings a bit more flexibility to Thunderbird is that, like Outlook, it supports both POP and IMAP email. IMAP support makes it easier to synchronize Thunderbird with the messages on an email server.

thunderbird

Thunderbird also has a number of other useful features, like the ability to tag messages. By defining tags, you can label your messages by their importance and by their function -- for example: Work, Personal, Writing.

You can make up for any deficit in Thunderbird's features by using add-ons. And there are a lot of them -- several hundred, in fact. The available add-ons expand the ways in which you read messages and work with contacts, turn the app into an RSS feed reader, enhance Thunderbird's privacy and security features, and even add a flexible calendar. You can also install themes to change the look and feel of the application.

Windows Media Player

Back in the old days of computing, Windows Media Player was a lean and fast little audio and video app. But it got way too big for its boots. It's now a DVD player, an iTunes wannabe, a CD ripper, an interface to MP3 players. Just to name a few. Many people I know complain that it's slow, bloated, and buggy. Why settle for more when you can something a little smaller? That's where these two Open Source alternatives come in.

VLC (short for Video LAN Client) is a wonderfully compact, yet powerful audio and video player. It supports a large number of formats -- far more than any other media player that I've used. In fact, VLC has been able to play media files that other players -- including Windows Media Player -- have balked at. With some media files, like Windows AVI, VLC even repairs damaged files. Not always, but often better than any other desktop media player I've tried.

VLC

In addition to audio and video files that are on your hard drive or home network, VLC can also play CDs, DVDs, and streaming audio and video from the Web. With streaming media, you can use VLC to either stream audio or video on to a network or save a stream to a file.

Editing photos and drawing

No matter who you are, there comes a time (usually more than one) when you need to edit a photo taken with a digital camera or create a diagram for a school paper or for work. The big commercial software players in that space are Adobe's Photoshop and Illustrator, and Microsoft Visio. Again, for the majority of users the Open Source alternatives can more than hold their own.

Editing photos

The best-known Open Source photo and image editor is The GIMP(GNU Image Manipulation Program). With The GIMP, you can retouch photos, manipulate them in a variety of ways -- from resizing and cropping to flipping them on their axes -- and convert images to other formats. The GIMP comes with a large number of filters for applying effects to an image. And it comes with over 40 tools for modifying and just plain messing with photos and graphics. All in all, it's a more than fairly complete editing package.

gimpshop

More than a couple of people have whined that The GIMP doesn't look like Photoshop!That's where GIMPshop comes in. GIMPshop changes the look of The GIMP and even the names of the menus and their items to better match those of Photoshop. Note, though, that GIMPshop doesn't support the wide array of (frankly wicked) Photoshop plugins. However, it can use The GIMP's plugins.

Don't forget the diagrams

Photos aren't the only type of images that people work with. Whether you're a student or a professional, diagrams and flowcharts are also very important. Instead of putting a dent in your bank account to the tune of several hundred dollars for Illustrator or Visio, give these Open Source apps a try.

First up, Inkscape. Inkscape is a vector drawing tool. Whereas photos and other graphics are made up of little blocks, vector drawings consist of lines and curves. This makes software like Inkscape perfect for creating diagrams or line drawings.

inkscape

Using Inkscape, you can combine lines and curves, and add text or even import bitmap graphics to enhance a drawing. It's not just black and white, either. You can add color or fill portions of a diagram with a specific color. You can also use Inkscape to create 3D images. Inkscape user have created a variety of different graphics with it, ranging from icons to backgrounds for Web pages to book covers. In fact, Inkscape includes a wizard the enables you to generate the template for a book layout based on the number of pages in that book.

Inkscape's native file format is SVG (Scalable Vector Graphics). However, you can export an Inkscape file to various bitmap graphic formats like PNG, BMP, JPG, and PDF. Very useful if you want to pull the your drawings into another program.

Dia, on the other hand, is designed for creating flow charts and technical diagrams. Like Microsoft Visio, Dia uses shapes and lines to build a diagram or flow chart. It's not a pretty application, but it's easy to use and gets the job done nicely.

As you might expect, Dia comes with a library of shapes (called objects). Most of them are aimed at programmers, engineers, and network administrators. That said, you can use the object and Dia itself for any purpose. I know people who use it to create organizational charts and to do basic information architecture for Web sites.

As with Inkscape, you can save Dia diagrams in various bitmap graphics formats including EPS, SVG, and PDF.

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Wrapping up

Open Source isn't just for Linux. Windows users can take advantage of the offerings from the Open Source ecosystem, too. Look around. You never know what you might find. In fact, you might just turn up a replacement for a favorite Windows application.