Sunday, April 23, 2006

Free Your Computer

Anyone who works in academia, or any other number of professions, spends vast amounts of their time sitting at a computer. Many of us (especially bloggers) also spend time with computers outside work as well. Most computers come set up with a fairly standard set of tools -- a windows operating system, some suite of software for writing documents, making presentations, manipulating data in a spreadsheet and so on. We may have some more exotic software, for manipulating photos and images, making web pages and other specialized tasks, but the usual set up is depressingly common. It does not have to be this way.

Without software, a computer is just an expensive paperweight. Most people are not computer experts and so just rely on the software that comes with the machine. A consequence of this is that many people run software that is out of date, lacks all the features they really need, or even run software with known defects. The purpose of this week's post is to introduce some software alternatives that can make life easier and cheaper. I will begin with a little bit of theoretical discussion on why exploring software alternatives is a good idea, before proceeding to concrete suggestions. Those who are not interested in theory should just scroll down.

In his book The Cathedral and The Bazaar, Eric S. Raymond contrasts two methods of software development. 'The Cathedral' method has traditionally been used by companies such as Microsoft. Under this method, the company writes the software, tests it and then sells it to consumers in compiled, ready to install and execute format. With this method all the responsibilities lies with the monolithic software company, so if they make a mistake, the consumer is at their mercy. This method contrasts with 'The Bazaar' method, which is favored by so-called 'open source' software developers. Under this method, software is usually distributed for free, along with the source code for the application. The advantages of this second method is that anybody can inspect the software source code for problems and make changes to the software, as they see fit. Most computers users, for a variety of reasons, use software developed under The Cathedral method. Recently though, the advantages of software developed using The Bazaar method are becoming increasingly popular.

Internet Browsers: Almost everybody reading this post will be doing so using an internet browser of some kind. Statistics show that the most popular browser at the time of writing is Internet Explorer (a.k.a. 'Internet Exploder') from Microsoft. The reason people use this browser so much is very simple. Most computers ship with some flavor of Windows pre-installed on it and Explorer is standardly included with the operating system. Once a system is fired up for the first time, it is just a matter of hitting the 'Internet Explorer' icon and off you go. Despite the popularity of Explorer, it has many known problems. There are well-known security vulnerabilities that make it easy for malicious software to be secretly installed on your machine. Indeed, the U.S. Department of Homeland Stupidity has even recommended against the use of Explorer, because of the known security flaws. Explorer also lacks many of the advanced features (such as plugins and tabbed browsing) that are available with freely available alternative browsers. So, a first step in liberating your computer would be to try another browser. One of the most popular alternative browsers is Firefox. This is a fully featured modern browser that is completely free of charge, as well as being easy to download and install. Just trying this simple little experiment is often enough to persuade people that the world of free open source software is worth further investigation.

E-mail Clients: Just as Internet Explorer comes preloaded on many new computers, so does the Outlook, (a.k.a. 'Outhouse') or Outlook Express e-mail program. This too explains the popularity of these programs. However, as with Internet Explorer, Outlook is known to have serious security issues. In particular, the popularity of this software means that it has become a common target of spammers, hackers, phishers and all sorts of other Internet scum bags. As in the previous case though, there are excellent free open source alternatives available. The Thunderbird e-mail client, which is made by the same people who make Firefox, is a great alternative to Outlook. It also has useful features that permits importing e-mails addresses, etc. from Outlook. Another alternative to Outlook, is the Mozilla suite. This has an excellent e-mail client and also includes another good browser alternative. The combination I personally prefer is Firefox for browsing and Mozilla for mail. The important point though is that there are more choices than boring and defective old Outlook.

Office Suite: In various flavors, the Microsoft Office suite of software has become something of a de facto standard for many mundane work and business tasks. This suite though is also subject to a number of shortcomings. First off, it is expensive. Second, it is massive and takes up way more hard drive space than it really needs to. Third, it does not provide all the functionality that one may wish. Many years ago, I was a big fan of Microsoft Word. However, that was back in the days of Word 4.0 for DOS. This was a tiny, highly functional program, that could be run from a double density floppy disk. It bears little resemblance to the bloated monster that is Word of today. As in the previous cases, there are alternatives available, via free open source software. The alternative many people favor is OpenOffice. This software again is downloadable for free and easy to install, even for a relative novice. It easily reads and can write in standard Microsoft Office formats. It is fully functional, although at first minor differences may be slightly frustrating to new users. Indeed, there are some ways that OpenOffice is superior to Microsoft Office. The OpenOffice equation editor is especially good. Another very useful feature is that one can easily convert office documents into .pdf files by simply choosing a menu option, and without having to go to the expense of buying and installing third party software.

Web Editors: These days many people use automated tools (like the one available at blogspot) to put content on the web. Whilst this is ok for smaller projects, if one is to undertake the construction of a web site from the ground up, many people prefer to use web editing tools, such as the dreadful Frontpage, or Dreamweaver. Frontpage is a true horror, as the HTML code it produces is highly deviant from web standards and produces pages and sites which only really work properly with some browsers. Dreamweaver, though better in many ways, is expensive and also has known deficiencies. However, once again open source software has a freely available elegant alternative web editor available, in the form of Nvu. Although Nvu has one or two quirks, successive versions of this software has got better and better. If I am not building a site by hand in plain HTML, then this is the tool I prefer. Another advantage of Nvu is that it can be used by people with no real knowledge of HTML. A non-profit organization I know of was able to leave web site maintenance in the hands of someone who only really had computer skills that ran to running Microsoft Word. Once the software was properly configured (which, admittedly can be a bit tricky, depending upon one's set up), it was possible to leave all web based tasks in the hands of this person. For these reasons then, Nvu is well worth a try.

Image and Photograph Editing: Many people like to be able to share their digital pictures with others. Often this is done using software that is supplied by digital camera manufacturers. However, this kind of software usually lacks sophisticated features. The gold standard for image editing is probably the Photoshop program. However, this is a complicated and expensive piece of software, that many non-professional users find it hard to justify paying for. This is one of the cases where free open source software can provide sophisticated functionality for no cost. The Gimp (short for 'Gnu Image Manipulation Program') is a highly mature and powerful software solution. It is free to download and can provide even the hobbyist with access to professional level features. So this should be a 'must download' for anyone with a digital camera.

Other Software: Hopefully, the above should illustrate that the world of software can be much more diverse than it is standardly. Many of one's most used applications have analogues in the open source world that are as functional, or even more functional, than their commercially available competitors. In fact, for almost any software application, there will be several open source alternatives. Before investing in a new program, it is always a good idea to check open source archives, such as Sourceforge. Of course, not all open source projects are of equal quality or at mature stages of development. This does not mean that these projects are not worth looking at, if only to save a few dollars.

In fact, there is more to open source software than the fact that it is free. If one runs into a problem with a program there is almost always a forum where users will help each other out. Searching such forums is often quicker, less frustrating and cheaper than navigating a technical support phone system. In addition, if a program lacks a feature, then it is possible to engage with the developers and request that the feature be added. For the more technically inclined, one can even go as far as to program in the feature oneself and then share the adaption with the community of users. Even those without technical skills can help out the development of a project by describing any bugs, or problems that are found with a program. Additionally, non-technical users can also play a crucial role in writing, editing or improving documentation for programs.

The Big One (Operating Systems): Perhaps the ultimate open source project is the Linux operating system. The history of the development of this operating system is described in Glyn Moody's book Rebel Code. It turns out that for those who are sick of the Windows monopoly on the desktop, versions of the Linux operating system can easily be downloaded and installed. Most Linux distributions also make it possible to retain Windows along side Linux. There are a very wide range of Linux distributions available. Each has a particular type of application and user as it's target. A list of descriptions of various Linux can be found at Linuxdistros, along with information about their target audiences. In addition, most Linux distributions come with all sorts of software applications included. For example, the Firefox browser and the OpenOffice suite are commonly included, as are even games.

A nice feature of many Linux distributions is that they can be run from a so-called 'Live CD'. One can download the operating system (for free, of course) and save it onto a standard recordable CD-ROM. Then, it is possible to boot one's computer from the CD into the particular distribution (it may be necessary to make a few minor system changes, which have no lasting effect to do this - instructions are usually provided). This enables one to 'test drive' a version of Linux, without making any radical changes to one's computer configuration. If you do not like Linux, then just remove the CD and restart the machine and nothing will have changed. This is a really nice feature and one I recommend experimenting with. For what little it is worth, I use Suse Linux on most of my machines and I like this distribution a lot.

By following some of the suggestions made in this post, one has the opportunity of freeing ones computer from the tyranny of proprietary software and formats and saving a bunch of money in the process. I recommend experimenting with some of these open source programs. They will help set your computer free.

The CP


Blogger Piss Poor Prof said...

You should mention an easy way to track the comments made to a site (such as a blog--like this one). Sign up for a account. With Firefox, you can then get the extension, enabling you to "tag" each page you wish to track. With a handy button, I can then see a list of all of the pages I am interested in revisiting, if only to see if my comments have been addressed.


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