Free Software for the masses

Some of the best software in existence is available freely. Software developers and other computer enthusiasts have used programs distributed under Free and Open Software licenses for years, not for the programs’ aesthetic qualities, but because they were technically solid and easily extensible by any and all programmers.


These programs, including Apache which serves most of the world’s web pages, often worked very well out of view in computer server rooms. It’s not surprising, then, that Free and Open Software remained a secret from the majority of computer users until higher profile projects targeted to end users, such as Mozilla, gained popularity.


Some proponents of Free and Open Software hope to encourage more users to use free software by making it easier for average computer users to try new programs. TheOpenCD, a project which has a stated goal of getting Windows users to try free software, includes two dozen of the best free software programs and add-ons on one 250 MB downloadable CD (tools are provided to access the CD’s contents without burning to a real CD).


As with most good software CDs, TheOpenCD automatically launches an installation menu when inserted into the computer. Users can then read documentation about individual programs and their web sites before choosing to install any programs. Though there is no master list that allows the user to simply check off programs to install, the software is grouped into Office and Design, Internet and Communication, Multimedia & Games and Utilities & Other categories.


The installation wizards differ for each program, but most are no more difficult to install than any CD ripper from the Web. Most programs install successfully without permanently modifying anything and can be uninstalled without harming anything else on the computer.


Like any good compilation CD work in progress, however, some components are more polished than others.


For example, the OpenOffice.org productivity suite–Sun Micro- systems’ well-refined clone of Microsoft’s office suite–is worth a try. Other programs, such as 7-Zip–a glorified list of files meant to replace some popular file-archiving tools–are stable but lack the intuitive or even easy-to-use interface many computer novices are accustomed to.


TheOpenCD installer includes plenty of help, documentation and extras which acquaint users new to the software with its features.



OpenOffice.org 1.1.0


(Sun Microsystems)

OpenOffice.org is worth the download. Its word processor, spreadsheet, presentation, illustrating and database tools are not as refined as their commercial originals, but more than suited for most student needs.


Its usability and ability to operate with Microsoft Office files are its best selling points. Also, by virtue of the Open Source software development model, programmers have taken the most useful features of newer office suites and added them to the program.


Autocompletion of words, continuous spell-checking and a context-appropriate help tool (think Clippy, but useful and not obnoxious) all add to the positive user experience.


In addition, it uses less computing resources than the most recent Microsoft or Corel office suites.



Mozilla 1.4


(AOL/Netscape/The Mozilla Organization)

Perhaps the most successful consumer free software project, Mozilla is the successor to the venerable Netscape line of web browsers. Included in the Mozilla package are the web browser itself, a mail/news reader, a web-page editor and Internet chat clients.


TheOpenCD also includes Open Source plugins for Mozilla but not more useful commercial plugins such as Macromedia’s Flash and Shockwave plugins.



Celestia


(Chris Laurel)

Celestia is a nice surprise for Calgarians who must endure long winter nights with clear skies. This little program includes a lot of night sky viewing information in a slick package that includes object-tracking, constellation overlay, and time-travel features normally found in commercial astronomy software. Some parts of the navigation interface need work, but minor problems do not detract from this solid program.



The GIMP 1.2.5


(Spencer Kimball and Peter Mattis)

The GNU Image Manipulation Tool claims to be “a worthy competitor to other similar programs such as Adobe Photoshop or Corel PhotoPaint” but the version distributed on TheOpenCD is anything but.


The 20 MB package hides the basic functionality of Adobe Photoshop Elements behind an unfamiliar and unintuitive UNIX-like windowing interface. Though it valiantly attempts to work with a variety of file formats, show-stopping idiosyncrasies when dealing with some transparencies and vectors make The GIMP suited, at most, for personal publishing of web pages and amateur photography.


Users familiar with Photoshop will find their most common features somewhere in The GIMP, but the Open Source title is unsuitable as a stepping stone to real image editing software due to interface and operational differences.

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