The random endorsement, All About Linux 2008 edition: Open Source Software


Continuing with this week’s festival do Linux, I’ll be endorsing open source software today. Not so random, no. Only software that’s free as in freedom has been considered; freeware that I can’t futz around with the source code, not that I would know what to do, rightly, was ignored. Devastating, yes.

This endorsement is a twofer. First I’ll try to answer the tough question as to why, pray tell, you should give a damn about open source source, hereafter referred to as OSS. I write that sentence knowing full well that, oh, say, all of you already know what OSS is and why it’s worth your while. I’m merely following orders. Anyway, part two will be a few applications that you might want to check out… again, knowing full well that you’re probably aware of lots of them. Have you heard of Firefox? I hear it’s all the rage these days.

Anyhow, OSS. It’s cool. Use it.

You’re reading this, sipping your cup of coffee while, wondering, perhaps aloud (to the annoyance of your co-workers), just what exactly is OSS. And you should! The Open Source Initiative, sort of the BCS of OSS, has 10 criteria that a piece of software must meet in order for it to be considered, “officially,” open source. Wikipedia has all ten commandments, but the gist of it is that the software’s source code—the software’s blueprints, kinda—needs to be freely available for all to see and modify.

Firefox, arguably the most popular piece of OSS, has its source code available for all to see and modify. You can check it out here if you’re so inclined. (It’s the .bz2 file)

What are the benefits to you, the end user with a mortgage and kids who hog your big screen TV all day long? The community has your back.

Think of it like this. If a critical flaw is found in Internet Explorer—that’s happened once or twice I think—you’re at the mercy of Microsoft. If it takes one day or one month to release a fix, well, you’re waiting. Since Microsoft controls the source code of its wonderful browser, only it can alter it any way. Compare that to Firefox. Let’s say a critical flaw is found overnight tonight. Could happen. Theoretically, anyone with an Internet connection could help patch the security flaw. It all sounds very socialistic, people helping each other out. I don’t know, y’all get it, I trust.

Oh, also! If you read sites like Slashdot, digg, CrunchGear, etc. it’s pretty much a requirement to prefer OSS to closed source software whenever possible. That’s the sense I’ve gotten over the years, at any rate.

Would would someone want to make their software open source? Why would they prefer to give away their work, their labor, for free (under the GPL is many cases)? Part of it is that Craigslistian philosophy of wanting to help your fellow man. Real altruism. Real crazy, I say. (Not really.) Wired had a piece the other day talking about for-profit OSS, which just seems sorta weird. Not that the Mozilla Foundation doesn’t make money off Firefox—Google pays it every time you use the built-in search bar—but, to me, OSS always seemed to serve a higher purpose. OSS coders were the white knights, the good guys, riding in from the hills to save all of us from horridly written, horribly insecure (fast fact: I actually had written “unsecure” instead of “insecure” right there) software. They weren’t supposed to be in “it” for the money. Again, that was always the feeling I got.

So that’s my gross oversimplification of OSS. Back when I was 16 or so, I was way more into the whole “movement” than I am now. Something about having bills to pay and other real world issues to confront sorta sapped much of my interest in it. Same thing with video games.

Lo! the software! My God in Heaven, the software! There’s so much OSS out there for you to play with. SourceForge is a fine place to search, as is Open Source Alternative. Linux and Open Source Blog is a neat resource, too, as is ZDNet’s Open Source.

I recommend y’all check out the following: Firefox, VLC/MPlayer/Xine/XBMC, Adium/Pidgin, AIM Sniff, Gimp(shop), Audacity and Azureus.

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There’s no way to avoid mentioning Firefox, what I consider to be the epitome of OSS. The browser first gained mind and market share among the Slashdot crowd, a generic term I use haphazardly for people who heavily use the Internet. Now it’s the preferred browser of 17 percent of all Web users.

What first attracted me to it way back when it was called Phoenix was tabbed browsing. That it was inherently safer than IE and not made by Microsoft sweetened the deal. (Youth truly is wasted on the young.) Nowadays…

The browser is slated to hit version 3.0 in the coming months, but, in my opinion, Firefox just isn’t what it used to be. I had it open a minute ago, idle, and it crashed—did I look at it the wrong way? I’ve switched to Safari as my browser of choice, but Firefox is still worthy of praise.

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At least one of these three applications should be on your system at all times. They’re all based on FFmpeg, an open source Swiss Army knife of audio/video handling. They all support pretty much every file format known to man, save for the proprietary ones like WMV, which is only partially supported.

XBMC deserves a special mention. Back in the Xbox1 days, XBMC was what I used to watch movie rips on my impressive-for-a-dorm-room TV. Everything about it makes sense and everything works; it was my replacement Dashboard for quite a while. Note that it’s still in development, even though Xbox1 has long since passed the torch to the 360.

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Easily the best IM application(s) out there. Every time I see someone using iChat in class, I think to myself, in a football hooligan’s tone, “You don’t know what you’re doing!” Both are based on libpurple (formerly libgaim), an OSS implementation of the various IM protocols in use today. All of us here use at CrunchGear, except Doug (who uses AIM Pro), use it for our everyday, excruciatingly mundane AIM needs. Yes, I know they don’t support video chat, and that’s terrible, but I’ve video chatted maybe twice in the past year. For that, fire up iChat and call it a day.

Both are great because they’re customizable. I use a Mario sound set with Adium, so every time I get a message I’m reminded of happier days when all I had on my plate was figuring out how to get to Special World in Super Mario World.

Aim Sniff
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This application, as the name implies, lets you snoop AIM conversations, which I brought up during SXSW. Legal? I don’t know. But I do know that my dorm freshman year was filled with a bunch of dullards. The most interesting IM conversation I intercepted was one of my roommates having cyber sex. Big deal.

The program was a pain in the ass to setup on my PowerBook G4 since you had to compile the source and do all sorts of wizardry (MITM attacks on my dorm’s switch, etc.) to get it up and running. Maybe similar applications exist, I don’t know, but it’s what I used. Could make a fun little weekend project.

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Gimp is sorta like Photoshop, only it’s not as good. Gimpshop is similar, only it’s designed to mimic the look and feel of Photoshop a little more. It is free as in freedom, however, and will take care of most of your photo editing needs.

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She’s a fully featured audio editor. I use it when I’m editing my DJ mixes, but not for much else. Definitely one of those apps that, for me, sit on your hard drive for months at a time without being used. Still, it’s the OSS audio editor.
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Before Google Docs, was the best way to read and write for free on any platform. Along with Firefox, OO.og was the best example of what open source software could be. Writer, Impress and Calc are the standout components here.

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Azureus is a gigantic resource hog, but for whatever reason I find it seeds torrents much better than Transmission does. It could well be my imagination, but in my experience Azureus is bulletproof. It sucks that it’s all “Vuze this, Vuze that” now, but that can, and should, be simply ignored.

If you know of any “hot” applications I miseed, and I’m 100 percent sure I did, feel free to drop me a line and/or harangue me.

All About Linux 2008