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Open Source

If you want computer software, you buy it - right? Not necessarily. There's a (legal!) alternative. It's called open source. And, while there's much more to the idea of open source than the price, it is usually, blessedly, free.

A little history's in order here. (Stick with us for a paragraph or two, and then we'll give you the skinny on what's free and where to get it).

Once, back in the ancient mists of computing history, lots of software was free: programmers and researchers shared each others' work, learned from it, built on it. But in the early days of the personal computer, some folks (we're looking at you, Bill Gates) realized you could make a fortune from software. But only if nobody could copy it for free - or even read the 'source code' that revealed how it actually worked.

Some folks chafed at that. To put it (very) mildly. How could anyone learn how to write better software if they couldn't read or share code? So those folks began writing software of their own: software with source code that would be 'open' for anyone to read, share, use, and improve. Hence: 'open source.'

Open source advocates like to say that their software is "free as in speech, not as in beer." And open source projects live or die based on their ability to attract volunteers who'll help out (including non-programmers to handle crucial tasks like writing manuals). But, let's face it, you can't beat the price - and if you have more than one computer, you can put this software on all of them, without buying extra copies or worrying about "activation hassles." (One thing to be aware of, though: you're not paying for support, so it won't always be there if and when you need it. Many popular open source programs are supported by volunteers online, through Web forums - but there's no guarantee you'll get the answer you need. And it helps to ask politely!)|

So, what's free? Here's a sampling of the best. (These programs run on Windows, and most have versions for Macintosh and Linux, too.)

OpenOffice.org Almost as good as the pricey Microsoft Office at 0% of the price, OpenOffice.org comes with its own word processor, spreadsheet, PowerPoint-style presentation program, and nowadays, even a database (but, unfortunately, no equivalent to Microsoft Outlook).

Mozilla Thunderbird 2
Email software with some nifty "get organized, get productive, stay secure" features you just won't find in Windows' built-in Outlook Express. (While you're at it, check out Mozilla Firefox. Yes, you already have a free browser, but lots of folks think Firefox is faster and better.)

GIMP Graphics software for editing and retouching photos, and working with virtually any image. GIMP does much of what Adobe Photoshop does, and can be extended with plug-ins that do everything from creating duotones to generating photo contact sheets.

If you record or edit sounds, this tool isn't just free: it's surprisingly powerful.

Plus, a few more specialized programs... the handy notetaking tool Keynote... the podcast receiver Juice... the 3D modeling and content creation tool Blender (the alternatives cost a fortune)... and, last but not least, the free anti-virus tool ClamWin.

The open source approach is beginning to catch on even outside the software industry. Some engineers are experimenting with open source hardware designs. There are now freely available 'open content' textbooks. And, proving that what goes around comes around, there is now (drumroll, please)...open source beer.

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