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Last Updated: Friday, 8 June 2007, 14:52 GMT 15:52 UK
Getting the most from open source

Free. It is not something Western culture does particularly well. It is certainly not something that features big in the plans of the millionaires at Microsoft, Apple and Intel - to name but a few.

But there is one crowd that lives for free technology, and it is not doing bad business either.

This week we take a look at the open source operating system Linux and make a few software recommendations.


Open source is a strange phrase. To many, it suggests someone has left the top off the ketchup bottle, but in the hi-tech world it is both a way of life and some say the future of the computer industry.

"Open Source is where the source code which makes up the application is freely available to download, to distribute, to review," said Paul Holt of open source technology company Redhat.

Ubuntu logo
Ubuntu is one of the most popular versions of Linux

"It's essentially developed by any number of organisations, individuals, academic institutions. The advantages of it are numerous because there are many eyes on the code itself it tends to be much much better in terms of the quality of software - peer review etc.

"You tend to find that because of the open nature of the code it tends to be designed in a modular fashion because the module which someone is writing over here has to work with the module that someone else is writing and that really helps drive innovation."

And from the open source movement we get the Linux operating system. It is free and you can copy it to as many machines as you like.

And from that acorn did many versions of Linux grow - up to 300. Each flavour is called a distro (short for distribution) and is a version prepared for a different purpose or a particular type of user.

It is a given that techies can load it with their eyes closed but the holy grail for Linux is for it to be as easy to load and use for those who use Windows on a PC or OS X on the Mac.

Any novice installing the latest version of Ubuntu - a Linux distro developed for PCs - may find it disturbing as its highly technical computer workings are clearly visible.

But the open source crowd has taken the need for usability to heart and has worked hard to make the software look clean and professional.

It is influenced by modern front ends like Windows and OS X which is good news for novices. The surprise may be that the front end is just a bolt-on and there are many others to choose from.

"The modularity of Linux, essentially means that the front end, the GUI, the graphical user interface, is just another module," said Mr Holt, "and that means that if an organisation wants to develop its own specific GUI to sit on top of the kernel itself, they are absolutely free to do that.

"So what you are seeing is just a function of Open Source, the fact that there are a number of front ends out there, that's because organisations have felt the need to go out and develop that.

"That's all about choice, it's about organisations allowing the end user to choose what their front end looks like."

The distributions usually come with a free word processing and spreadsheet software and, if you add to that the many other applications developed by the open source world, Linux is finally looking like a very serious alterative to Windows and OS X.


Open Office is a fully functional suite of business programs that mimics just about all of the main features of the paid-for office software from firms such as Microsoft. It has been going since before 1999 and there are versions for other operating systems including, OS X and Linux.

This is the answer if the question is: "How do I get an office suite for free?"

The latest version has been beta tested by hundreds of thousands of people, each reporting back the slightest error. While this is good it can lead to a backlog of tweaks and bugs to be fixed, although unlike with Microsoft Office, you can pop over to the Open Office website and look at the status of the corrections or add a bug report yourself if you want.

It looks just like a real piece of software - real as in a piece of software you buy.

Firefox is world's second-most popular browser

The other must-have application for the modern computer user is a web browser and of course there is a very popular open source application in that area - Firefox.

According to some measures it is now in use by nearly 15% of the internet population.

Firefox was one of the first to introduce tabbed browsing and it is also one of the most secure as any security problems are found and fixed quickly by its large developer community. There are also dozens and dozens of downloadable customisations that you can add to it.

And finally the third part of the computer user's tool kit is an e-mail client and that is Mozilla Thunderbird.

It understands all the standard ways of sending and receiving e-mails and it also has a newsreader built in so you can put all your RSS news feeds into it.

These are just some of the bits of software out there being made by others for all of us - proving you can use your computer and do just about all the things you need to do without having to buy any applications at all.

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