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Tue 23 Dec 2008 04:00 AM

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Open to all

Thanks to the advent of Open Source you no longer have to go out and buy expensive software if you want to get work done at home or in the office. Gareth Van Zyl explains all...

Thanks to the advent of Open Source you no longer have to go out and buy expensive software if you want to get work done at home or in the office. Gareth Van Zyl explains all...Open what?

Open source software (OSS) had its first public outing in the form of a marketing campaign for free software. OSS is now defined as computer software that has its source-code - used to develop the program - available under a copyright license that meets the Open Source Definition.

The definition is used by the Open Source Initiative to decide whether or not a particular piece of software can actually be considered Open Source.

Open source allows any user to use, modify, upgrade and redistribute the software as he or she sees fit. Generally open source programs are developed in public groups where numerous people contribute to the software's development.

The adoption of OSS has picked up steam over the last few years. Venezuela, 2004: President Hugo Chavez issues a decree to adopt OSS in Venezuela's public administration sphere. Along with Venezuela, Brazil and many other South American countries have pushed for OSS to be used in government ministries and state-run entities for years now.

Questions and answers

The question arises. Is this ‘push' for open source software in these countries just a leftist leaning towards avoiding commercialised software, or is it a suggestion that the rest of the world is a missing a trick? Should more people consider becoming ‘Linux-converts' for instance? In this feature, Windows examines as to just how practical it is to make the change-over to using a Linux-based operating system and other open source programs.

Before establishing whether it is practical or not to make the change-over, an initial consideration involves thinking about what most of us are actually using our computers for. Most people purchase computers that have a few commercial program products that are the ‘common denominators' of our digital lives.

We all use an operating system such as Microsoft Windows. We all typically also need an office program such as Microsoft Office to type up those work documents or to keep track of our budget in an Excel spreadsheet document. And what would a computer be without Microsoft Internet Explorer or Microsoft Outlook.

Then there are our digital photos that we store on our computers' hard drives. Sometimes we just want to crop or touch up a photo, and sometimes we just want to play around a bit and add text to photographs. More often that not, this prompts people to go out and purchase image manipulation software, such as Adobe Photoshop.

Once we've done with editing our photos or saving our work documents, there could be the task of sometimes ‘zipping' those files into compressed formats so that we can save them onto disk or even email them to others. Purchasing a program such as WinZip is a good option for this purpose.

Veering away then from all these commonly used programs results in altering a computer's ‘personality'. But if you are keen on traversing this open source course, you could start with the all important ‘brains' of your computer: the operating system.

When it comes to open source operating systems, there is one word: Linux. The kernel, the heart of all Linux systems, is developed and released under the General Public License (GPL) and its source code is freely available.

The kernel forms the base around which a Linux OS is developed, and there are numerous companies, organisations and even individuals who have released their own versions of operating systems based on the Linux kernel.One of the most popular forms of the Linux kernel is Ubuntu (www.ubuntu.com). Ubuntu is an open source Linux OS that works with laptops, desktops and even servers.

Ubuntu comes bundled with some useful applications as well, from word processing and email applications, to web server software and programming tools. Because you also don't need to pay any licensing fees for Ubuntu, you can share Ubuntu with anybody you choose.

Ubuntu issues a new desktop and server release every six months and you get free security updates for 18 months on the desktop and server. The Long Term Support (LTS) version gets you three years support on the desktop, and five years on the server. The best part is that there is no extra fee for the LTS version and, moreover, upgrades to newer versions of Ubuntu are free from then on.

You can download the software online or order an Ubuntu CD. Ubuntu has a graphical installer and a standard installation that should not take more than 25 minutes to complete. After you've installed Ubuntu, your system is ready-to-use.

One of the key founders of Ubuntu is South African IT billionaire Mark Shuttleworth, and therefore it is no wonder that he has named the open source OS ‘Ubuntu', an African word meaning ‘Humanity to others', or ‘I am what I am because of who we all are'.

The differences

While Ubuntu in many ways has the look and feel of Microsoft Windows - with Ubuntu having windows, icons and so on, it also has some differences, and these can be off-putting to those who are long-time Windows users.

For example, if you want to change the ownership permissions of a file or run a local server such as LAMPP on your computer, you would need to be familiar with using the command line in the terminal window on the Ubuntu operating system.

Even if you want to install a Linux-compliant program that you've found off the internet on your Linux-based PC, you will often need to install the program using the command line.

But the Ubuntu developers have attempted to divert users from this process with the developers' mplementation of a program installer in the OS that allows you to choose from a list of programs to download; programs that are rated by Ubuntu users.

If your desired program or programs are not on this list though, it can still be problematic to download a program you want.

Another issue is that if a file is read-only and you try to delete it, it will result in the deleted item being placed within your trash folder, but then, you could find that you are unable to delete the file from the trash folder. Again, this requires the use of a specific command line to fix this problem.

http://ubuntuforums.org is an online forum that provides help and support for Ubuntu Linux. You'll find a mix of novice, savvy and expert users on this bulletin board.

Much of the time you will find yourself scanning the Ubuntu forums in search of command line solutions to what are seemingly simple technical issues, similar to the issues mentioned above.

One logistical downside regarding Ubuntu is the fact that it is actually quite difficult to get hold of. You can download Ubuntu from the internet, but it can take long depending upon your connection speed.

And if you have limited bandwidth, it could result in a hefty chunk being used out of your data usage. Your alternative is to get an Ubuntu CD installer shipped to you, but depending upon where you are in the Middle East or anywhere else in the world, this could take some time.

A great feature about Ubuntu is that it is safer to use because viruses and other malicious software are predominantly designed to affect Windows based machines.

A week also doesn't go by that Ubuntu gets security updates (you would obviously need to be connected to the internet to be able to get these updates).

A useful feature of Ubuntu is that it is bundled with a number of Open Office programs, such as a word program, a spreadsheet program, a database program and a calculator program. ‘O' for open source apps

Open Office (www.openoffice.org) has had a surge in popularity in recent years. Its word processor program, in particular, has become very popular because it is really not too different from Microsoft's Word.

The Open Office word program even has an interesting feature that allows you to convert a word document into a PDF document by simply clicking on a PDF icon.

When you export a file and make it a PDF document, you will then want to view that file with a PDF reader. You can download Adobe Acrobat Reader and run the program using WINE, but Ubuntu has a program associated with it called KPDF that allows you to read your PDF documents.

This program is useful, but it is by no means an Adobe Acrobat competitor; KPDF is limiting in its look and feel. On the other hand, a program that is establishing itself as a competitor to the Adobe stable is the image manipulation software GIMP, which also comes bundled with Ubuntu.

GIMP (www.gimp.org) allows one to manipulate images with a variety of functions such as cropping images, scaling images, changing the hue and color of photographs and so on.

Once again, Adobe currently offers better software than its open source competitors in the form of Adobe Photoshop, which has a greater variety of image manipulation functions. However GIMP, as well as other OSS, continue to evolve so the differences between these applications will likely get smaller and smaller.

After you've finished cropping or scaling those photos, it is time to email the photos to someone. The Ubuntu kernel comes packaged with a mail client, but there is another open source email client that is more widely used: Mozilla's Thunderbird (www.mozilla.com/thunderbird).

Mozilla Thunderbird is open source's answer to Microsoft Outlook. Thunderbird has an organiser, mail client and feed reader, and it comes off the same production-line as Mozilla's internet browser Firefox, which is faster and more secure than Microsoft's Internet Explorer.

Once you've created an email using Mozilla Thunderbid, you can use 7-Zip to create a zip file (which you can attach to the email). You can of course use a shareware version of WinZip or WinRAR however 7-Zip is completely free and also allows one to save files and folders in other compressed formats such as tar.gz for instance. The Ubuntu operating system itself allows you to compress files as well by simply right clicking on a folder and choosing the ‘compress' option.

If you decide to use all of these programs or even just some of these programs, it will obviously save you costs on software. Some of the above-mentioned OSS even has features that other programs do not have, such as the Open Office word program's ability to save documents as PDF documents, a function not available with Microsoft Word.

The downsides

While many of these programs have their advantages, they all rely on one thing - the operating system you use. If you plan on using a Linux-based operating system, such as the Ubuntu OS, keep in mind that it still does not have some of the user-friendly attributes associated with Microsoft's Windows.

That said, the Ubuntu developers have come a long way in developing a Linux-based OS that is as close to being as user-friendly as is possible at this stage, but it still has some way to go before reaching the same user-friendly level that Windows or the Apple Mac OS are at presently.

Another negative regarding open source software in general is that if something goes wrong with the particular software you are using, you will have to scan and search online forums for solutions to your problems, which can be very frustrating.

That's not to say that one doesn't need to do this with commercial software, but with commercial software there is usually a helpline you can call to get your problem solved.

But if you admire those South American countries pushing to rid their country of what they might view as the neo-colonial capitalistic grip on their country's computers, or if you consider yourself an early and able adopter, then the open source route is a feasible, cost-effective choice.

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