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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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
IMAP email. IMAP support makes it easier to synchronize
Thunderbird with the messages on an email server.
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.
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
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
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
Using Inkscape, you can combine lines and curves, and add text or
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
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.
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.