Open Source software: a free alternative
Choosing Microsoft for standard applications is still a very easy option and the computer support world is dominated by Microsoft-accredited technicians who know Microsoft products inside out and are adept at dealing with some of the known shortcomings. There is an alternative, however, which is gaining popularity among public, private and not-for-profit organisations across the world.
Open Source software represents the fruits of a new kind of liberation movement, descended from the Free Software movement of the 1980s. Its founders wanted to continue the tradition of co-operatively developed software and so created an Open Source licence that gave two specific types of freedom: the freedom to copy and redistribute software, and the freedom to modify it.
Getting software for free means not only getting the initial program for free, but will usually mean that you get updates and improvements as they are released.
Among the best-known Open Source products are the Linux operating system, Open Office and the Firefox web browser.
- Linux can run on your computer instead of your current operating system, such as Windows XP or Windows 2000. Once installed it could look and act exactly like Windows and will let you work with your most common programs, such as Microsoft Office.
- Open Office is similar to Microsoft Office and will run on an Apple Mac, a PC or a Linux machine.
- Firefox will browse the internet in exactly the same way that Internet Explorer does.
- Open Source software can be downloaded from the internet, found on CDs on the front of magazines, or can be supplied to you for the price of the CD they are burned on to.
Open Source has always been an integral part of the way the internet works, using server software such as the Apache web server and specific applications such as Sendmail, which handles email traffic. Big companies like Boeing, Amazon and Google have already switched to Linux on their server networks. Now Open Source is becoming a viable option for desktop computers, supporting everyday tasks and reducing costs by being free to use.
Free software is a matter of liberty, not price. To understand the concept, you should think of 'free' as in 'free speech', not as in 'free beer'.
Better use of old equipment
Older hardware and a limited ICT budget are a fact of life for many VCOs, but older hardware can be freed up by the low-tech benefits of Open Source. Some Linux operating systems are designed to run web browsers, email and office software on old hardware. This is a deliberate and very positive way of re-using old hardware and counters the trend towards ever more powerful systems, when basic functions can be carried out on existing hardware.
An easy way to try Open Source software
Linux is an Open Source operating system, equivalent to Windows XP or Apple OSX. Some versions of Linux can run from a CD, which means you don't have to replace your existing system or reformat your hard disk to give it a try. The CD includes the new operating system plus some of the most common software applications, so this is an excellent way of trying it out.
One example is a CD containing Ubuntu – a version of Linux popular in the UK voluntary sector – which also comes with Open Office and other useful programs. It is available on disk for about £5 from www.ubuntu.com or downloaded free from other websites.
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