Free and Open Source Software for Writers

Nothing is worse than an old cliché, but today more than ever the adage stands true: “the only constant is change”. We live in a world of constant change, surfing the rising wave of the Information Age. And no industry changes faster than that of computer technology and software development.

But constant change requires constant adaptation, and those who cannot adapt will fall by the wayside. Constant change means that everyday everything you own — be it an automobile, a telephone, a television, a computer, or thousands of dollars worth of software — are slowly and inexorably fading into that dark and dismal abyss of obsolescence. Who wants to spend several thousand dollars on software that will become obsolete in two or three years? Who would buy a car knowing it will not be able keep up with newer cars in a few years time? Probably no one. But this “planned obsolescence” seems to be the norm in the fast-passed world of computer technology.

Today, thanks to advances in manufacturing, the cost of computer hardware has dropped relative to the overall cost of software. As a result, while you may pay $500 for a new computer, the final cost may end up tripling after you add software. Additionally, newer versions of software packages are often released on a yearly basis, while some software giants even require annual subscriptions forcing you to pay every year to continue using their software. And what about when you buy that flashy new computer? You might think you can install the software from your old computer on your new one, but the electronic registration methods now being employed by many companies cripples your ability to freely use the very software which you purchased. In fact, the EULA (End User Licensing Agreement) on most commercial software is so restrictive and rigid that one might think you were signing a pact with the Devil simply to install the application.

So what does all this software ultimately cost? Let’s take a look at the numbers for some common software applications that might be found on a writer’s or artist’s computer (retail prices as of June 2008):

Microsoft Windows Vista Home: $129
Microsoft Office Professional: $499
Adobe Acrobat Pro: $449
Adobe Photoshop CS: $649
McAfee Internet Security Suite: $69

All told, that comes to over $1795! And expect to pay that every 2-3 years to keep up. Granted, you may not need Photoshop or Acrobat, and may get a “deal” for the other software if you purchase a computer from Dell, Gateway, or HP, but the cost of software, combined with highly restrictive EULAs, has simply become unacceptable.

…That is, especially when you consider that there are perfectly viable Free and Open Source alternatives for all of the above mentioned software… and more.

What’s All the FOSS?

Did you say “free”? Indeed I did! But what is meant by free? We use the word “free” a lot in the English language: free speech, free lunch, free beer, free love… But what is free software?

The best definition which I have found comes from GNU.org: “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. Free software is a matter of the users’ freedom to run, copy, distribute, study, change and improve the software.”

But if the software is free, how can anyone make money at it? Quite frankly, many people involved in the Open Source community make no money from their contributions. If you are an artist or a writer, you’re already familiar with that inner Muse which compels us ever-onward, regardless of fame or financial gain. Likewise, those who develop Free and Open Source software do so because it’s what they love to do — this is their art. But corporations are also deeply involved in the Open Source movement: IBM, Sun, and Oracle, just to name a few. Their money is made not on the software, but on the support services they sell to other companies. As an individual, you can freely use such software, paying for the support services only if you need technical support.

Though the quantitative advantage of FOSS is clear (it’s free), less apparent, but far more important, is its open source nature. If you’re not a software developer, you won’t care that it’s possible to edit, modify, customize, and compile a particular software application in any way you want. But consider this: about 96% of all desktop computers run some version of Microsoft Windows, 3% are Macs, and less than 1% run GNU/Linux. Microsoft Windows and MacOS are both proprietary operating systems (though the latest MacOS is based on FreeBSD, a derivative of UNIX). This means the operating system is developed behind the iron curtains of the corporation’s fortified network firewalls, and thus cannot be reviewed or validated by 3rd parties for auditing. Furthermore, you automatically agree to the EULA restrictions the instant you install the software (whether you read the EULA or not) — such restrictions as: you may only install one copy; you cannot modify, customize, or adapt the code in any way, shape, or form; you agree to allow the company and its affiliates to collect and use technical information gathered from you; and they may restrict your ability to copy, display and/or play movies and music (all restrictions were paraphrased from the Microsoft Windows EULA).

Even worse, relying on proprietary software tends to lock one in to a specific vendor with no alternatives. Software compiled for Windows only runs on Windows. If you want to switch to Apple or Linux, you must either buy all new software or do without the software you need. Even if the software is released for two different operating systems (such as Microsoft Office for both Windows and MacOS), you must buy the version compiled for MacOS if you make the switch (and, of course, Microsoft does not develop software of for Linux). But what about your data — all your documents, pictures, animations, and videos? If you move to a new OS, or decide to use a different software application, it is possible that your old data files will be unreadable by the other programs on the new operating system.

One of the great features of Open Source Software is its cross-platform compatibility. This means an application can be complied to run on many different operating systems — Windows, MacOS, GNU/Linux, Unix, AIX, FreeBSD… the list goes on. It also means that an open source operating system (such as GNU/Linux) can be complied to run on any sort of hardware — PC, Apple, Sun, IBM, even PDAs, DVRs, and wrist watches. Yes, there is indeed a digital watch that runs Linux! And if you have two or three computers at home, it is perfectly legal for you to install the open source software on all the computers.

Free and Open Source Software is all about freedom: freedom to use, freedom to change, freedom to give, freedom to move, and freedom to choose. And freedom is the greatest liberty of all.

For more information on open source software, visit the following websites:

http://www.gnu.org (GNU and the Free Software Foundation)
http://opensource.org (the Open Source Initiative)
http://www.stallman.org (Richard Stallman’s website)

Free and Open Source Alternatives

The following is a list of Free and Open Source software that can be used as alternatives to expensive, proprietary, and restricted close source software. If you are a writer or artist (which is to whom this essay is targeted) you will most likely be interested in the sections on Office Suites, References, and Graphics.

Free Operating Systems

The fastest growing open source operating system is GNU/Linux (and the various incarnations there of). Many derivations of GNU/Linux (usually just called Linux) are sold for money by companies such has Red Hat, Mandrake, and SUSE, but even they offer free downloads or inexpensive versions on CD.

Ubuntu Linux
http://www.ubuntu.com

“Ubuntu is an ancient African word meaning “humanity to others”. Ubuntu also means “I am what I am because of who we all are”. The Ubuntu Linux distribution brings the spirit of Ubuntu to the software world” (from the Ubuntu website). Ubuntu Linux is a very popular distribution, and is distinguished by its emphasis on community support and ease of use. Two spin-off projects also exist, Kubuntu, which is uses the KDE desktop environment instead of GNOME, and EduBuntu, which is a grade school/educational version of Ubuntu Linux designed for children. Ubuntu Linux is the OS which I personally use every day at home. In my opinion, this is the best Linux distribution.

Fedora Core
http://fedora.redhat.com

Fedora is the Free and Open Source distribution of Red Hat’s famous Linux distribution (Red Hat itself is now primarily for corporate servers). The goal of The Fedora Project is to work with the Linux community to build a complete, general purpose operating system exclusively from free software.

KNOPPIX
http://www.knopper.net/knoppix/index-en.html

KNOPPIX is a bootable CD with a collection of GNU/Linux software, automatic hardware detection, and support for many graphics cards, sound cards, SCSI and USB devices and other peripherals. KNOPPIX can be used as a Linux demo, an educational CD, or can be adapted and used as a platform for commercial software product demos. It is not necessary to install anything on a hard disk. Due to on-the-fly decompression, the CD can have up to 2 GB of executable software installed on it. Simply download, burn to CD, and boot it on your computer to give Linux a try today.

SUSE Linux
http://www.suse.com

SUSE is another popular version of Linux which can be freely download from their site. They also offer larger packages (on CD or DVD-ROM) with additional software and manuals included. You can also buy technical support subscriptions.

Free Office Suites

Like Microsoft Windows, Microsoft Office has the lion’s share of the market — about 93% on desktop computers. Wouldn’t it be nice to have some choice in the matter? The primary open source contender to Microsoft Office is OpenOffice.org, but there are few other choices as well. Some of these other open source office suites are actually re-branded versions of OpenOffice.org and will not be listed here. It is perfectly legal to rebrand and even sell open source applications, but there is little point in doing so when the original application works just as well.

OpenOffice.org
http://www.OpenOffice.org

The newest incarnation of OpenOffice.org (OOo 2.4) is so complete and feature-full there is virtually no need for Microsoft Office any more. Period. Though earlier versions of OpenOffice.org were limited, lacked important features, were a bit clumsy at times, and did a spotty job importing and converting Microsoft Office documents, that is certainly not the case with OpenOffice 2.4. OOo 2.4 now has all the features of Microsoft Office, and the new interface makes it easy for old Microsoft Office users to adapt. OOo is a complete office suite and includes Writer (word processor like Word), Calc (spreadsheet like Excel), Impress (like Powerpoint), Draw (a line art tool), and Base (a database application like Access). OOo does an excellent job converting Microsoft Office files, and the native OOo file format has been adopted as a standard open document format (the OASIS file format) by many other organizations and open source projects. What this means for you is that, unlike Microsoft’s proprietary file format (which is closed), OOo documents are fully compatible with any program or application that implements OASIS — and since OASIS is an open standard, it may soon become “the HTML” of the document world. If you are a writer, you should never, ever let a corporation (like Microsoft) have proprietary control over your documents. Furthermore, OOo is the only office suite that can run on every operating system and platform: Microsoft Windows, GNU/Linux, Solaris, other Unix systems, OS/2, and Mac OS X with X11 installed, and many more. And did I mention it’s free?

StarOffice
http://wwws.sun.com/software/star/

StarOffice is the Sun Microsystems branding of OpenOffice. StarOffice is exactly the same as OOo (except that it may run a version or so behind OpenOffice.org’s development), and Sun also adds a few additional features. Because of these proprietary features, StarOffice is not free, but is sold commercially. It costs $70 for home users, but it is free for students. It is only worth mentioning here because Sun helps support OOo development. Also, many companies are more comfortable purchasing StarOffice (which has the Sun Microsystems name behind it) rather than the free and unsupported OpenOffice.org.

Scribus Desktop Publisher
http://www.scribus.net/

Scribus is and open source desktop publisher program, similar to QuarkXpress and Microsoft Publisher. It was original developed for Linux, but has recently been released for Windows. It performs most of the desktop publishing functions which QuarkXpress and Publisher perform, but is free to distribute and use, instead of costing the exorbitate price which its commercial competitors cost. Scribus can also export files as PDF, PS, and EPS formats, but requires that Ghostscript (also open source) also be installed for this functionality.

Free Internet Applications

The Wild Wild Web of the Internet has forever change the world we live in. Governments, corporations, and individuals depend on the Internet everyday, and the global economy itself would collapse if it suddenly cease to exist. But the Internet has also become a battleground — viruses, terrorist, aggressive advertisers, theft, junk mail… In short, it’s just like the real world. And just as you would protect yourself in the real world, so too must you protect yourself in the virtual world. Most people today use Internet Explorer (IE) to browse the Internet, and either Outlook or Outlook Express for email (though web-based email, such as Yahoo and Hotmail, are becoming more common). Both IE and Outlook are highly vulnerable to viruses and other attacks thanks to Microsoft’s complacently smug self-severing attitude. The solution, of course, is not to use IE or Outlook. But what other options are there? For a free, open source alternative to IE and Outlook, look no further than Mozilla.org.

Mozilla Firefox Browser
http://www.mozilla.com/firefox/

The Mozilla Firefox browser is quickly becoming the preferred Internet browsers for many users. It is small (less than 8 MB), fast, and simple, yet excels well beyond IE’s meager capabilities. Firefox comes with a built-in Pop-Up blocker, a built-in search tool for Google, Amazon, eBay and other sites, features “tabbed browsing”, and allows for the integration of countless plug-ins called “Add-Ons” and new graphical themes to change its look and feel. Firefox is not vulnerable to the many security flaws that affect IE, and the fact that it can block Pop-Up advertisements is great (it also thwarts some spyware that can auto-install to your PC through IE). Best of all, Firefox runs on all operating systems — Windows, Mac, Linux, and many others. Once you start using Firefox, you’ll never want to use IE again. Although it does not come with an email client, be sure to check out Mozilla Thunderbird.

Mozilla Thunderbird Email Client
http://www.mozilla.com/thunderbird/

Thunderbird is a free and open source email client by the same people who created Firefox. Thunderbird makes email safer, faster, and easier than ever before with the industry’s best implementations of features such as intelligent spam filters, a built-in spell checker, Add-On and Theme support, and much more. Like Firefox, Thunderbird also lacks the many security flaws that plague Microsoft products. The built-in spam filter is great, and the filter actually learns to automatically detect spam as you use it. Best of all, just like Firefox, Thunderbird can run on many different operating systems.

KompoZer HTML Editor
http://www.kompozer.net

KompoZer is a powerful and fully featured HTML editor, similar to FrontPage or Dreamweaver. Unlike Microsoft FrontPage, however, it doesn’t suck. KompoZer allows you to build a complete web page in either WYSIWYG (“what you see is what you get”) form, or in straight HTML if that is what you wish. It can also be used to build style sheets, table of contents, and other special features. And, of course, it’s free and open source.

FileZilla
http://filezilla.sourceforge.net

Casual web users generally have no need for an FTP client, which is needed to upload or download files to a web server. However, if you are developing a website for yourself, you must have an FTP client to get your pages and pictures to the server where your website resides. The most popular FTP program for Windows is CuteFTP, which sells for about $39 and is not open source. FileZilla is a free, open source FTP program which is just as good as CuteFTP (and most other FTP programs, for that matter) in that it does what it needs to do: transfer files to web servers. Though it is only available for Windows, most distributions of Linux come with one or more excellent FTP programs alreday built-in. If you have need for an FTP client for Windows, this is the one to get.

Free Security Applications

Security for your PC is all important, especially if you are running a Microsoft Windows based system. If you are running Windows, you should always make sure you’re system is up-to-date (browse to http://windowsupdate.microsoft.com, but you must use Microsoft Internet Explorer to use the site). Security for MacOS and for Linux is important as well, but there are not as many vulnerabilities for these systems and very few, if any, viruses and spyware. MacOS, and most Linux distributions, come with good firewall software, and as virtually no Mac or Linux viruses exist, there is no need for Mac or Linux antivirus software. As a result, all the software in this section is for Windows. Additionally, though all the software reviewed in this section is free, none of it is open source, and in most cases a “pro” versions exist for an additional charge.

Avast! Antivirus
http://www.avast.com

Currently, there are no open source antivirus programs, except for Open AntiVirus, which by their own admission seems to be a research project. However, Avast! Home Edition, from Alwil Software, is a great alternative to McAfee and Norton. It is free of charge for home users for non-commercial purposes. I use Avast! on my Windows machine, though I don’t have a problem with viruses since I use Firefox and Thunderbird (I do get emails with viruses, but they have no effect on Thunderbird). If you have a Mac or Linux machine, you really have no need for an antivirus program, but if you do want an antivirus program on your Linux box, perhaps you should check out Open Antivirus (http://www.openantivirus.org). Otherwise, Avast! Home Edition is all you really need.

Comodo Persoanl Firewall
http://www.personalfirewall.comodo.com/

As more computers become permenantly linked to the Internet through broadband services (such as cable or DSL), the threat of intrusion by hackers or Internet worms becomes all the greater. To protect yourself from such attacks you must have a good firewall installed on your system. One of the best free personal firewalls today is Comodo Personal Firewall (PC Magazine Editor’s Choice December 2007). Comodo Personal Firewall is free for personal use and like all firewalls, it protects your PC from hackers, and blocks open ports to prevent intrusion. There is also a Pro Plus version (which costs $39) also protects your PC from malicious code, trojan horse programs, and some spyware. Before you install any firewall, you should make sure the pathetic firewall which ships with Microsoft Windows is disabled (otherwise, the two could interfere with each other). Also, if you have a broadband router (to network more than one PC to your broadband connection), such as a Linksys, D-Link, or Netgear, chances are you already have firewall built-in to the router’s hardware (and thus, your PC should be protected). Consult your router’s manual for help and instructions on setting up the hardware firewall, which should be sufficent for most needs.

Spybot Search & Destroy
http://www.spybot.info

Recently, there has been a lot of talk about spyware. Spyware, which includes trojan horses, keyloggers, and adware, are programs similiar to virus, but which you may unknowingly install when you load a program from the Internet or use a seemingly “free” program that sneaks in a malicious spybot or tracking program. However, not all spyware removal programs are worth their weight in gold (or maybe they are, since programs have no weight). A recent PC World review was fairly harsh toward most commercial spyware removers: “Following complaints from several PC World readers, we tested seven heavily advertised spyware-removal tools — MyNetProtector, NoAdware, PAL Spyware Remover, SpyAssault, SpyBlocs, Spyware Stormer, and XoftSpy–and found that none were as effective as reputable free products such as Spybot Search & Destroy.” See the complete PC World article here. In fact, some spyware removers are so bad they can actually corrupt your operating system. For this reason, I am recommending Spybot Search & Destroy.

Free Reference Applications

Everyone should have a good set of reference books, be that an encyclopedia, dictionary, or thesaurus–writers especially. I have yet to find a good on-line thesaurus (I do not like Lexico’s Thesaurus.com or Dictionary.com as they are commercial ventures supported by ads and paid user subscriptions), but the following section includes excellent free encyclopedias and dictionaries. These “applications” are not applications at all, but rather websites.

Wikipedia
http://en.wikipedia.org

One problem with traditional encyclopedias (i.e., “books”), as well as products such as Microsoft Encarta Encyclopedia, is that they are static. True, Microsoft allows you to update Encarta for a year after purchase, and you can always buy new editions of printed encyclopedias or new versions of Encarta (or whatever PC based encyclopedia you buy). But here’s a new idea: an encyclopedia modeled on the open source principle as an “open content encyclopedia”. That is exactly what Wikipedia is — a dynamic, every-grown encyclopedia of knowledge! Even you (yes, you) can contribute to this encyclopedia, adding your own entries or expanding existing ones (subject to community approval). If you are a writer, you can appreciate what Wikipedia is–a collaborative encyclopedia where both the authors and the readers are the entire world. It is, of course, available in many different languages. Like anything on the web, however, one should not rely 100% on the accuracy of the information in Wikipedia. Wikipedia should never be used as a definitive source, only as a quick reference. It is always advisable to cross-reference any questionable information found in Wikipedia before blindly accepting them at face value.

Wiktionary
http://en.wiktionary.org

Wiktionary (wik-shun-nary) is a sister project of Wikipedia, being a dictionary instead of an encyclopedia. The project is not as large as Wikipedia, but it is never-the-less an impressive online dictionary. Conceptually, Wiktionary is far better than such shamelessly commercial websites as Dictionary.com. Though synonyms many be listed on some entries, it does not have a true thesaurus capability. It would be nice to have a “Wikisaurus” (but see Aiksaurus, below).

Hyperdictionary
http://www.hyperdictionary.com

Hyperdictionary is another on-line dictionary which is free and without ads, but it is not open to public contributors to my knowledge. It has more entires and is more complete than Wiktionary, and although it has a thesaurus, the feature is still lacking. Nevertheless, Hyperdictionary is a good alternative to commercial dictionaries.

Aiksaurus
http://aiksaurus.sourceforge.net

Aiksaurus is an applications which provide a thesaurus (currently English only, based on the Moby Thesaurus) using native GUI on several platforms: UNIX , Win32, and MacOS X. This appears to be a very nice thesaurus with at least several hundred thousand words (but I’m not sure exactly how many). It is unfortunate, however, that this project appears to be abandoned. You can get the files for various operating systems like Linux, Max, or Windows at the websites listed below. For the windows file, look for the one called “aiksaurus-win32-setup” here: http://sourceforge.net/project/showfiles.php?group_id=32017

Free Graphics Applications

It’s always good to have a few graphics programs on your computer. If you are an artist, the need is obvious, but even if you’re a writer you may need to draw (or scan in) character sketches, design maps, or make images for your website. But while commercial graphics programs are extremely expensive (hundreds or even thousands of dollars), you can get most of the same capabilities from free and open source alternatives.

GIMP
http://www.gimp.org

GIMP (the GNU Image Manipulation Program) is a powerful graphics and photo editor. Think “Photoshop”, but free and open source. Earlier versions of GIMP were limited and difficult to use (having a clumsy interface) but the latest version is easy to use, very intuitive, and has all the capabilities of Photoshop. It can even import Photoshop files (as well as dozens of other image formats). GIMP was initially designed for Linux, but Windows and Mac versions can now also be downloaded from the official website. If you want GIMP for Windows, *do not* buy WinGIMP from the WinGIMP website (I will not link to them from here). Instead, go to the http://gimp-win.sourceforge.net site and download “Gimp Windows Installer” from there.

XnView
http://www.xnview.com

XnView is one of the best free image and photo viewers available today, and supports over 400 different image formats, and is similar, in some respects, to older versions of the popular ACDSee image viewer (ACDSee now costs about $49). While GIMP and other graphics editors may also support a large number of image formats, a graphics editor should not be used for casual browsing, viewing, and slide showing of photos and images. XnView is simple to install and easy to use, and features the ability to easily convert one image type to another (such as JPG to PNG). While not open source, XnView is free for non-commercial and non-profit use. XnView is available for Windows, Linux, MacOS X, and a veriety of other platforms.

Blender3D
http://www.blender3d.com

Blender is the only free 3D graphics creation suite that allows modeling, animation, rendering, post-production, realtime interactive 3D and game creation and playback with cross-platform compatibility. I personally know very little about 3D rendering and animation, and this program is so baffling to me I can’t even begin to use it. However, it looks fully featured and extremely powerful. If you are a 3D animator, and don’t want to spend $7,000 for Maya, then perhaps you should look into Blender as an alternative.

Other Useful Free Tools & Utilities

These are various other tools or utilities that do not fall under any other category.

7-Zip
http://www.7-zip.org

7-Zip is an alternative to WinZip. Though WinZip is shareware and “free”, it constantly nags you to register and pay. For some people this may be tolerable — for others it is not. 7-zip is a free, open source file rompression and decompression tool, fully compatable with PKZip and Winzip. Furthermore, FilZip handles many compression formats which WinZip does not, including ARJ, RAR, GZ, and others. The interface is similar to WinZip’s and it will integrate with your Windows Explorer shell just like WinZip. It is also available for Linux and MacOS.

PDFCreator
http://sourceforge.net/projects/pdfcreator

For any writer, the ability to create PDF files is invaluable. However, until now, about the only way to create PDF files was to install the full version of Adobe Acrobat which retails for about $300 (the Acrobat Reader is, of course, free from Adobe). But why do that when a perfectly viable free and open source alternative exists? When installed, PDFCreator will add a “virtual printer” on your system which allows you to print any picture or document (or anything you could print to a normal printer), resulting in PDF file. Admittedly, PDFCreator is more limited than Adobe Acrobat Pro, as PDFCreator cannot create internal weblinks, indexes, or form fields. Nor can you use it to edit existing PDF files. But if all you need to do is convert a document to PDF, this is a great solution — and it’s free. Note: if you are using OpenOffice, you can already print to PDF without PDFCreator (or Adobe Acrobat) installed, but only for OpenOffice files. PDFCreator is only available for Windows, but there are alternatives for Linux as well.

Ghostscript
http://www.cs.wisc.edu/~ghost

Ghostscript is an open source interpreter of Adobe’s Postscript and PDF formats. It is not a software application which can be used by itself, but rather, for the code base for many other programs that view or convert PS and PDF files, such as Scribus, OpenOffice, PDFCreator, GSView, and others.  Ghostscript can also be used as a file format converter, such as PostScript to PDF converter and is often combined with a PostScript printer driver in “virtual printer” PDF creators.

GSView
http://www.cs.wisc.edu/~ghost/gsview

GSView is an open source PDF and Postscript viewer. To use, you must also install the latest version of AFPL Ghostscript. Though Adobe Acrobat Reader is free to download, GSView is open source and allows for the viewing and version of PS files, as well as PDF files (unlike Acrobat Reader, which can only view PDF files).

For more Free and OpenSource software listings, check out these site:

http://www.opensourcelist.org
http://freshmeat.net
http://www.sourceforge.net
http://www.framasoft.net/rubrique259.html

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1 Response

  1. July 23, 2008

    […] Of course, I’ve only scratched the surface here. For more free software see my blog entry, Free and Open Source Software for Writers. […]