Sunday, July 18, 2010

Our Times Column on Open Source Software

Ever wonder why you’re using Microsoft products on your (and probably your union’s) computer? There are some good reasons for it, I guess, but likely it’s just because they came that way. But are they right for the job? Overall, I remain unconvinced. It’s always felt like what I imagine shopping at Wal-Mart would feel like. Kinda creepy.

There are alternatives. Free. Fully-featured. And eating away at Microsoft’s marketshare. They’re the “open source” class of software. This is software whose innards, the code that makes it work, are made available to anyone who wants to add features or tweak the way the software works, making it better or faster.

At the top of the open source heap are the Mozilla family of Internet applications. They’ve been around for a while and a non-profit company has grown up around the software so that you know what you’re getting, and what you’re getting comes with no surprises.

Until recently there was still a reason for many of us to stick with the Microsoft Monster: the online and voice support that has been available. No more.

Open source products have always had an edge in cost (most were free) and, believe it or not, features. Internet Explorer, for example, is definitely following in Mozilla Firefox’s footsteps. And Firefox is recognized for being the features leader. Despite the “stigma” of being non-commercial, Firefox now holds about 20 per cent of the browser market worldwide. The recent release of Version 3 may very well increase its share significantly.

Less quantifiable than a features comparison or marketshare has been the perceived security issues surrounding Microsoft products. Whatever your thoughts on Microsoft and their security and privacy problems, one of the nice things about open source software is that you can look at the innards of the software you’re using and see if it is doing anything it shouldn’t. Well, maybe not you, but lots of other people who would shout from the rooftops if they found anything.

Plus, because this stuff has literally tens of thousands of enthusiastic amateur and professional coders out there, when bugs or new security threats appear, the fix is generally available quickly.

Support isn’t the issue it used to be either. Free online support has always been there. And, as the support and advice often comes from within the community of users, you’ll find its available 24/7. There’s not just advice on problems, but ideas for doing things in new ways. So, for example, you’ll find all kinds of free add-ons for products like Firefox that either automate tasks for you or make it possible to do things you didn’t know you needed done. In the latter category are products like Foxmarks Bookmark Synchronizer, which allows you to synchronize your bookmarks (“Favourites” to you IE users) across several computers and even to access them remotely from someone else’s computer.

A more recent development has been the appearance of computer techs and consultants who specialize in open source systems. Making a living at this or at least making it a big part of a tech’s business is now possible: the installed base of open source software is now big enough to support it. Chances are you can now buy support if you need it, but the chances are you won’t need it: this stuff is that good.

So if the support is there, the stuff is free, it does everything the commercial stuff does and perhaps more in some areas, and it’s the product of a collaborative, non-profit approach to building applications for your computer. . .you’re running Microsoft products on your system for why?

When the next upgrade to one of your Microsoft applications comes out and you’re looking to make a change anyway, consider some of the open source stuff out there.

You won’t be sorry. Love it or your money back. 

To download a complete office suite a la Microsoft Office visit http://why.openoffice.org. To download Firefox (web browser) and Thunderbird (e-mailer) visit http://www.mozilla.org. If you decide you want to strike a blow against Microsoft in a big way, consider installing Linux, an open source operating system, by visiting http://www.linux.org/.

UNIONBOOK

If Microsoft is the Wal-Mart of the software world, Facebook has a similar lock on social networking, which has been a problem for unions that have tried to use it. The major issues have been privacy, and a distinct lack of union-friendliness.

Now there’s an alternative: Unionbook. It won’t replace Facebook for staying in touch with the grandkids or trolling for organizing contacts. But it will do a lot of other things we now use FB for, better, and without the risks associated with being dependent on a commercial site we don’t control.

Unionbook, unlike FB, belongs to us. It’s a project of LabourStart, and has been designed specifically to meet the needs of trade unionists. It aims to feature most of the tools we use on Facebook – and more. As it's an open source system, we can customize it as much as we want. Need a feature? Describe it and we might just be able to build it. For example, UnionBook offers free blogs to every trade union member, every steward, every shop steward and every union committee. You can create groups and the groups themselves can have blogs, documents and discussion forums of their own. In other words, mini-websites, and highly interactive ones at that.

There are groups for a number of unions around the world, several global union federations (GUFs), groups for issues like health and safety, one for lapel pin traders, and even one (started by yours truly) for trade unionists who build model airplanes.

All free, all union. www.unionbook.org.

2 comments:

Georgie Pie said...

Another free office suite you could also consider is SSuite Office.

It has no need for Java or .NET, which makes it very small for download. :)

The gui is also very nice. :D

Derek Blackadder said...

Cool! Thanks.