Open Source Software for Your Mac – Save Big / Loose Little

What Is Open Source Software?

You just purchased your new Mac, and now it’s time to add software.  Gulp!  Sticker-shock, software is expensive.  Here are some examples (Note:  These are full version prices, not upgrades or student prices):

Microsoft Office 2011                            $148.99
Adobe Photoshop CS6                          $413.99
Quark Express V 9.0                           $1024.14

On the other hand, there are alternative Open Source Software (OSS) solutions that you can get for free with little, if any, loss in functionality.

You might be saying to yourself, “Free software, what’s the catch?  How can it be any good?”  To be honest, I am sure in some instances, some OSS is not good.  On the other hand, I have also purchased software that wasn’t good.  One obvious advantage is that you can try OSS, if you don’t like it, you can always delete it.  This differs greatly from paying for the software, breaking the package seal, installing it, not liking it, and trying to get your money back.

 The best definition I found for OSS is from Webopedia:

(1) Generically, open source refers to a program in which the source code is available to the general public for use and/or modification from its original design free of charge, i.e., open. Open source code is typically created as a collaborative effort in which programmers improve upon the code and share the changes within the community. Open source sprouted in the technological community as a response to proprietary software owned by corporations.

(2) A certification standard issued by the Open Source Initiative (OSI) that indicates that the source code of a computer program is made available free of charge to the general public. The rationale for this movement is that a larger group of programmers not concerned with proprietary ownership or financial gain will produce a more useful and bug -free product for everyone to use. The concept relies on peer review to find and eliminate bugs in the program code, a process which commercially developed and packaged programs do not utilize. Programmers on the Internet read, redistribute and modify the source code, forcing an expedient evolution of the product. The process of eliminating bugs and improving the software happens at a much quicker rate than through the traditional development channels of commercial software as the information is shared throughout the open source community and does not originate and channel through a corporation’s research and development cogs.

So in a nut shell, OSS is software that is free to use, modify, and distribute.  Rather than being designed “for profit”, OSS is designed, often from a collaborative effort, to be useful and bug-free, – it is product driven.  “How do I find an OSS alternative?”  Do a Google search, for example:  Adobe Photoshop Alternative.  You will get 1,940,000 results.  There are also websites dedicated to OSS.  My favorite is opensource.com

How About Support?

The range of support is from “none” to “over the top”.  Little is verbal.  The amount of written documentation really varies from source to source.  In addition, the fact that written documentation is supplied does not automatically lead to it being totally usable.  Remember, OSS is created by software engineers and enthusiasts, not procedure writers.   Additionally, depending on the product, and the number of contributors, changes can come fast, and the documentation process may not be able to keep up.  Of course, the complexity of the software will also determine the amount of documentation needed to support it.   All that being said, on the average, if the software has been consistently developed for “awhile”, and you see consistent releases of the same product, the documentation will be adequate to excellent.  Tip:  Always read the documentation before you decide to download and install the product. 

Some Examples of Very Good Open Source Software

Open Office Spreadsheet Example

Open Office Spreadsheet

Apache Open Office and LibreOffice Two office suites are listed because they are branches of the same developement fork.  Sun acquired the Star Office Suite from a German company, in 1999.  It then became Open Office, and later Oracle Open Office after Oracle acquired Sun.  In 2010, Oracle announced it would stop development on the office suite.  As a result, The Document Foundation began working on its own version of Open Office, LibreOffice.  Oracle donated the Open Office code to Apache Software Foundation in mid 2011.  Which is the better version?  I have both on different computers, and it’s a coin toss.  It is worth noting though that LibreOffice is the default office suite in Ubuntu, Suse, Fedora, and many other Linux distributions.

Both office suites include a:  Word-processor, spreadsheet, presentation software, database, and templates.  The software can load and save work in a number of formats, including those used by Microsoft Office.  The functionality is very similar to Microsoft’s product, and as a result the learning curve is minimal.  Both variants are well documented.  I started using Star Office in 1999 and quit using the entire MS Office suite, and I am using the Star Office descendants today.  Though I had no real issues with the Word-processor and Spreadsheet of Open Office, I found the database program lacking, so I kept a copy of MS Access installed on my computers.  As Open Office improved the database, two years ago, I quit using Access.  You can get the software at:

http://www.openoffice.org/

http://www.libreoffice.org/

Gimp Interface Example

The Gimp Interface

GIMP (GNU Image Manipulation Program).  Though this software is not a “knock-off” of Adobe’s Photoshop, it is a very good alternative.  If you are new to Gimp or Photoshop, you will not find either of their interfaces user-friendly.  On the other hand, if have some familiarity with Photoshop, the transition to Gimp will be only a minor leap, – both programs share many of the same tools, just the locations on the interface are different.  Over the years, Photoshop has become very web-design oriented, and now has some 3-D modeling as well.  Gimp too has grown in these areas, to me Photoshop is further developed.  Gimp has a large following.  The software is well documented.  There are loads of plug-ins for Gimp that broadens the core program’s functionality and versatility.  I have done a lot of digital photography, both personally and professionally.  Gimp is an excellent tool.  I don’t use it as a Photoshop replacement, though for most users it well could be; I use it in conjunction with Photoshop. Like LibreOffice mentioned above, Gimp is a default photo/graphic program in most Linux distributions.

You can find out about Gimp, and Mac installations at:

http://www.gimp.org/macintosh/

Do you need a desktop publishing program, and Quark Express is too expensive for you?  Try Scribus.  This software is used by amateurs and professionals alike.  It is very versatile.   Scribus is very well documented, and it has a well done and free tutorial.  You can find it at:   http://www.scribus.net/canvas/Scribus

But Wait, There’s More….

Is your Mac slowing down a bit?  There is an excellent program called Yasu (Yet Another System Utility) that should help a lot.  Ok, it’s not OSS, but it is so good, it’s worth of mentioning here, so I am going to “sneak” it in.  In the author’s own words, “Yasu is a Universal Binary Macintosh utility that allows system administrators, as well as standard users, to conveniently run various system level Unix shell scripts which run maintenance routines and clear the many cache files used by OS X. Yasu is a simple, first line of attack for a workstation that has started acting up.  More often than not, a thorough purge of the cache files of a Mac will bring its behavior back into line.”  I have been using Yasu since I bought my first Mac.  It’s donationware, and worthy of your donation.  You can find Yasu at:  http://jimmitchell.org/yasu/

Summary

Open Source Software has been around for along time.  It has some real quality software under its license, developed by people who for the most part benefit only from the satisfaction of making a contribution.  The psychologist Gestalt discussed a premise where the whole became greater than the sum of its parts.   OSS exemplifies that theory.  Here we have a lot of people working together, often in different locations around the world, to make something good.  A wonderful idea.  The product is out there.  It is free.  What do you have to loose?  Seek it out and enjoy……….

— Larry

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