Buying computer software need not necessitate a second bond on your house. In this column, which ran in a weekly South African newspaper, The Weekender (22-23 September 2007), I looked at at a few open source alternatives to popular commercial software. It looks much better in print, with pictures and everything. You can subscribe here.

IN A world concerned with material goods it is typically true that quality is linked to price. However, in the computer software world, quality is not determined by the volume and cost of input.

The father of IBM’s landmark OS/360 operating system, Fred Brooks, explained this in his seminal text: The Mythical Man Month. His account of his team’s failings while developing the system put down on paper for the first time the pitfalls that lie in wait for development teams working on large-scale software projects.

Brooks discovered that programmers are more like poets than engineers: treated well and left alone, free of micromanagement and meetings, they produce the goods. He wrote that development time is not “fungible” as in any physical engineering project — adding programmers to a late project only made it later.

Geoffrey James illustrated this satirically in The Tao of Programming, a series of short anecdotes. One such anecdote reads: A manager went to the master programmer and showed him the requirements document for a new application. The manager asked the master: “How long will it take to design this system if I assign five programmers to it?”

“It will take one year,” said the master promptly.

“But we need this system immediately or even sooner! How long will it take if I assign 10 programmers to it?”

The master programmer frowned. “In that case, it will take two years.”

“And what if I assign a hundred programmers to it?”

The master programmer shrugged. “Then the design will never be completed,” he said.

The lesson here is that greater resources and more money do not make better software. By the same token, commercial software that ships in a pretty box is not necessarily superior to software you can download at no cost from the internet. But this battle is not about price, not really.

The best thing about open source software is that it is just that: open. Open to the extent that you can download it, copy it and distribute copies, all without incurring the wrath of the software police. There are usually only two restrictions: you can’t sell it; and if you make changes, you must share those changes with the community supporting the project.

The difference between open source and off-the-shelf software is partly explained by the process of writing software. Computers read and write binary (ones and zeros). Most humans don’t and they develop programs in something approximating human language. That’s the source code. When it is compiled, it produces the zeros and ones computers

need to execute the program.

With open source, both the source code and executables are freely available; with closed, or proprietary software, only the executable is provided. With open source you’re encouraged to make changes to help improve the program; with closed software, making changes is forbidden. But this doesn’t mean open source cannot support a commercial model. You may not be able to sell the modified program but you are free to develop and sell add-ons to that program, if you can find a market.

The single most commonly used class of software is the operating system. Most people use Microsoft Office because that’s what they use at work and they’re fooled into believing alternatives are inferior. If you choose to use Microsoft Office at home you have three options: the basic, standard and professional editions. Basic has Word, Excel and Outlook and will set you back at least R1 600 for the full version.

Unfortunately, if you want to be able to open and edit PowerPoint presentations you will need the standard edition, pricing for which could not be found at any of the retail outlets I tried. The other option is to go for the professional edition (at least R2 900) which gives you all sorts of applications.

 

I N FACT, if you look at Microsoft’s website there are eight different versions to choose from. However, where you can get these — if they’re even available in SA — is unclear.

Alternatively, look at the WordPerfect Suite — yes, it is still around (http://www.corel.com) — but it will set you back about the same. Another option would be Sun Microsystems’ StarOffice, which operates on a shareware basis: you can download a trial version free but when the period is up you need to fork over some cash, in this case about R500.

And then there is Open Office (http://www.openoffice.org). It’s completely free and available for Windows — or any of a number of other operating systems. Like most alternatives to Microsoft, Open Office offers a word processor, spreadsheet program, presentation application and database program. However, you should note that while these applications can save documents in the formats owned by Microsoft, they don’t do so by default. Instead, they typically use the Open Document Format (ODF), which is the only document format certified by the Industry Standards Organisation.

U NDOUBTEDLY among the most successful open source products is the Firefox web browser — an alternative to Microsoft’s Internet Explorer. Available during its development phase as a beta product — in other words you expect problems and report them to be fixed — the first version was released in 2004. Since then it has been downloaded more than 400- million times. While this doesn’t necessarily translate into 400-million users, it does translate into significant market share.

Independent web analytics firm Janco Associates indicates that in January 2005, Firefox had already captured just over 4% of the global browser market. At the time Internet Explorer enjoyed a dominant position with almost 85% of the market. Today, the picture has changed. More recent figures from Janco indicate that Firefox holds a 17,49% share while Microsoft’s share has tumbled to less than 64%.

Other sources indicate the erosion has gone much further. For example, www.w3schools.com publishes monthly statistics of web browser usage among software developers. The statistics in July give Firefox 34,5% and Microsoft 58,5%. The picture also varies widely when you look beyond the global average. In some Asian and European countries, Firefox usage has surpassed 50%.

The reasons for this success are many and varied. It was among the first web browsers to provide tabbed browsing — meaning you don’t have to open a new browser window to go to another page, just a tab. It should be said that Microsoft has included tabbed browsing in Internet Explorer 7. But w3schools seems to indicate that most Windows users are sticking to Internet Explorer 6 or moving to Firefox — only 20% of web developers use Explorer 7.

Another reason people prefer Firefox is the added functionality provided by a raft of “plug-in” applications. This is certainly very high on my list of reasons for using it. For example, with friends and contacts all over the world it’s useful to me to have instant access to the time of day in various places. The Foxclocks plug-in for Firefox gives me that in the status bar at the bottom of every browser window. At a glance I can see the time in Austin (Texas), London and Los Angeles, but it could be Tokyo, Moscow, Paris and Berlin. It’s fully customisable.

Then there is Ad-Blocker, which, as the name implies, blocks advertisements. Of course, not everybody is thrilled about this one but there is not much they can do about it. And they have tried. There’s even a campaign to block Firefox users from websites just in case they have the ad-blocker installed. That works for me since I don’t want to go to those sites and I obviously don’t want whatever products they’re selling.

There are many more extensions; at last count, there were 1 870 plug-ins on the official Firefox website alone.

These are just some examples of open source software. There are many useful utilities and applications in a variety of software categories, from security to office productivity, graphics to multimedia, browsers to e-mail programs.

IF YOU don’t believe free software can be comprehensive, consider Open Office: the

Windows version is a 100MB download. You will need a decent internet connection to get it — I downloaded it recently using my ADSL line and it took about 45 minutes.

Alternatively you could go to File Hippo’s website (http://www.filehippo.com) for a selection of open source software organised by category. Or visit Tucows (http://www.tucows.com), but be warned this site has a lot of shareware (à la StarOffice) as well as free software (or freeware). There is even a solution if Telkom can’t provide you with a decent internet connection at home — you can order OpenOffice on CD (R35) or even a collection of open source software such as the OpenCD (R45) from Iam development (http://www.iamdev.com).

So why doesn’t everybody use open source software? Most people don’t know that there are alternatives or think open source software is inferior.

This perception is often perpetuated by vendors who feel threatened by the prospect of free competition. Then again, how would you compete with something that is free?

 

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