Open Source - No secret herbs or spices

from the May 2006 Newsletter
by Rob Zorn

The latest version of Windows XP - $535.00…
Microsoft Office Basic Version - $319.00…
Finding an alternative operating system and free tools and software? Well… priceless.

Disclaimer

This article has been written because open source software is an interesting and important aspect of computing and the Internet. Many people enjoy open source software and benefit from it. If you decide to experiment with it, however, you do so at your own risk. Actrix cannot promise support for difficulties you encounter, and accepts no responsibility for damage of any kind that may result.

It's not hard to understand why software is so expensive. Think of the incredible things it can do and imagine all the hours and expertise put into developing it, and it's no wonder we're willing to pay about as much for the programs we run as we are for the computers that run them.

But what if there was a community of experienced developers out there who just wanted to develop great software for its own sake, and who were happy to share it around without cost?

Well there is. The open source movement has been around for a long time, producing all sorts of alternative software from operating systems and office tools to editors and instant messengers. The sort of stuff they're releasing these days for free is getting better and better, and is gaining an ever increasing community of enthusiastic users.

Open source software is growing in popularity for all sort of reasons, but the main one is, of course, the cost. There simply isn't one in most cases, and unlike shareware, there's little in the way of restrictions or strings attached. Some also use it because they don't like the way big companies have muscled in and tried to monopolise the software that runs the Internet. Geeks tend to love it because it gives them so much more control over what they can do on their own computers. Many users also argue that it is more secure than Windows operating systems.

What is Open Source and why is it free?

In basic terms, source code is the stuff that a program is made out of at its most basic level. Once written, source code is "compiled" into a program that can be used by a computer. Once a program has been compiled, it is very hard to work out anything about its source code. It's a bit like how once a piece of chicken has been covered in muck and deep-fried, it would be quite difficult to work backwards and determine the exact nature and quantity of its secret herbs and spices.

A commercial software company will attempt to keep its source code secret so that others can't use it, or learn any "tricks of the trade" from it, just like a restaurant chain might guard its chicken recipe.

By contrast, open source programs have their source code deliberately released so that others can see it, work with it, and even change it for their own purposes. The code is usually released under a general public license (GPL), which allows anyone to change or improve the software as long as they release their changes back to others who might be interested. It's a bit like a team of chefs all working together and pooling their ideas so they can make a better piece of chicken for all. It's not about money. It's about results.

For the average user, though, the GPL doesn't matter. Most just want to use the software, and they wouldn't have a clue how to make changes to its source code anyway.

Why do Open Source enthusiasts consider it superior?

Because it is so easy to "look under the hood," so to speak, peer review tends to happen naturally. Any bugs, flaws and vulnerabilities are found and announced by the open source community, and somebody then comes up with a fix. In proprietary systems, all the code is secret, so a lot of good natured experts that could find flaws don't. If the bad guys find the flaws before the good guys (as frequently happens), they can use those flaws for their own evil purposes such as creating effective viruses or programming malicious web sites, and they certainly won't work towards getting them fixed. Open source enthusiasts tend also to be an idealistic lot, often believing that if everyone helps each other, we'll all be better off, even financially.

Forecastfox - Get international weather forecasts from AccuWeather.com, and display them in a customisable toolbar. (http://forecastfox.mozdev.org/)

Adblock - Block things like images and flash so that pages load faster. (http://adblock.mozdev.org/)

PDF Download – Allows you to choose if you want to view a PDF file inside or outside the browser. (http://www.rabotat.org/Firefox/)

Colourful Tabs – Shows each open tab in a different colour and makes them easy to distinguish. (http://www.geocities.com/replysn/
firefox.htm
)

MeasureIt - Draw a ruler across any web page to check the width, height, or alignment of page elements in pixels. (http://www.kevinfreitas.net/extensions/
measureit/
)

SiteAdvisor – Warns you about web-based security threats including spyware, adware, spam, viruses, browser exploits, phishing, online fraud and identity theft. (http://www.siteadvisor.com/)

IE Tab - Embeds Internet Explorer inside a Firefox tab. This will allow you to run Windows Update, something you can't normally do with Firefox. (http://ietab.mozdev.org/)

StumbleUpon - Shares with you the best-reviewed sites on the web that you may not have thought to search for.
(https://addons.mozilla.org/extensions/
moreinfo.php?id=138&application=Firefox
)

Bork Bork Bork! - View web pages or mail as spoken by the Swedish Chef. (This and other humorous plug-ins available at http://firefox.en.vicdir.com/extensions/
Humor-0.htm
).

Exponents of the proprietary method argue that keeping their source code secret makes it harder for hackers and virus writers. Even without access to the source code, hackers continually find exploitable flaws in Windows and Internet Explorer. Imagine what they could find if they could see into the very heart of the recipe! They also argue that the profit motivation works just as well in the software arena as it does in any other commercial sphere. Better software is developed by the motivation to be better than your competitors, and that can't be achieved as easily if we're all sharing ideas.

Linux Desktops

By far the most popular open source software would be Linux desktop operating systems. These alternatives to Windows will run on any PC. They’ll do pretty much anything Windows will do, but they’re free to install, use, update and add to.

Because so many developers have worked on the basic Linux source code to produce their own versions, there is plenty of choice. Linux comes in all sorts of flavours which are called “distributions”. They’re all reasonably similar, though some are definitely better-geared for newcomers. Mandriva (www.mandriva.com) and Ubuntu (www.ubuntu.com) are easy to install, and resemble Windows pretty closely in the way they work.

The real Linux power-users swear by more advanced versions such as Debian or Gentoo. These are a lot less similar to Windows and probably aren’t the best for new comers to open source.

There’s also an endless supply of programs that can be downloaded to run on Linux, and the most you’ll ever pay is a distribution charge of a few dollars. A wide variety of programs are included with the install, and others can be freely downloaded later as needed.

Moving to Linux

Moving to Linux is a big step. Unless you're clever enough to partition your hard drive, it's going to mean a re-format, and erasure of all your Windows stuff. It's something you might want to think about before rushing into, and a smarter move might be to first experiment with Linux on an old second-hand PC before you make any permanent changes to your main machine.

Knoppix Linux (http://www.knoppix.net/get.php) is designed to run from a CD and will temporarily take over your PC and run it as if it was a Linux system without altering anything on your hard drive. This makes it an ideal starter option. If you don't like it, remove the CD and re-start your machine. Everything will be back to normal.

There are lots of avenues of support open to novice Linux users. LUGs (Linux User Groups) exist all over the country, and are pretty good sources of free advice as well as free copies of Linux and open source programs. Linux users tend to want others to join them, and will happily talk "newbies" through solutions to the problems they faced themselves. Information about Linux in New Zealand and LUGs around the country can be found at http://www.linux.net.nz/.

You'll probably also find that someone at your local computer store is a bit of a Linux expert who may be able to help you with advice and copies of open source software on CDs. This could save you a fair bit of download time.

Open Source under Windows

You don't have to go the whole hog and move to Linux before you can benefit from open source software. A number of programs have been developed that will happily run under Windows. The most famous of these is the web browser Firefox which is becoming a very popular alternative to Microsoft's Internet Explorer. Because it's open source, the flaws in Firefox tend to get found and quickly fixed. It's also less of a target for hackers because it's much less commonly used than Internet Explorer. But what's really great about Firefox is that because the source code is available, it's easy for developers to come up with enhancements (called plug-ins or extensions) that you can download and install. This makes it a whole lot more customisable and fun than the browser you might be used to right now. Some of these plug-ins are mentioned in the callout box to the right.

Another open source program that is very popular and runs under Windows is Open Office, a fully working but free alternative to the more expensive suites of office programs commonly available. You can download it for no cost from www.openoffice.org. It comes with a word processor that can open, work on and save documents in Microsoft Word or other proprietary formats (so you can swap documents with someone using WORD). It has a spreadsheet like Excel, an HTML editor like FrontPage, a drawing program, and more. It can be a little clunky at times (there's still some room for development) but it's fine for everyday use.