Free and open source software for beginners


Nowadays what most people use on computers is freely available, including browsers, media players, office software, and operating systems. But you don't have to leap in to free and open source software all at once. You can try things out bit by bit to see if the culture resonates with you.


How to kick the tires

For office software, download and install LibreOffice on your PC or Mac and see whether using it freaks you out compared to using Microsoft Office. If it does, read no further and leave this site now. If it doesn't, have a look at other alternative software in the table below.

Kicking the tires harder

If you want to be more daring, your next step is to try Linux, an open source operating system.

Historical aside: Linux is named after UNIX, an operating system first released in the early 1970s by AT&T Bell Labs, and Linus Torvalds, who wrote the kernel of a UNIX-like operating system in 1991 because he liked UNIX but felt it was too expensive. (The kernel is the software closest to the hardware.) No single human, not even Linus -- who is a notorious self-confessed egotist and who still today shapes the evolution of the kernel -- has the prowess to write an entire modern operating system, so others, especially the GNU Project, contributed the rest of what was needed to create a free UNIX look-alike. The totality could therefore properly be called GNU/Linux, but nearly everybody simply says "Linux." By the way the name GNU is a circular witticism; it stands for "GNU's Not Unix." 

UNIX's influence is everywhere; it doesn't end with Linux. For example, Apple's OS X contains a variant of UNIX at its heart, which explains the X in OS X, and Google's Android is derived from Linux, so it too descends from UNIX. If you've ever opened a terminal window on a Mac or an Android device and typed in a command, you're using raw UNIX or Linux, respectively.

  1. Download Ubuntu (a popular Linux variant), put it on a CD or DVD or USB stick, then boot it “live” from any PC. This lets you try it without installing it on the PC. Even though it's not actually installed, you'll be running a fully functioning operating system, including internet connectivity, which will survive until the next time you reboot.
  2. You can also run Linux as a guest operating system on your native (Windows or Mac) operating system by setting up a virtual machine (VM) environment. This approach removes the risk of messing up your existing system. One good (free) VM product is VirtualBox. You would install VirtualBox on your Windows or Mac system, then install Linux on a VirtualBox VM.
  3. Or, if you feel like committing, use the same CD or DVD or USB stick to install Ubuntu on an old, unused computer. Linux is less resource hungry, so even if Windows doesn't perform satisfactorily on the old computer, Linux might.
  4. Alternatively, with a little care you can install Linux in addition to your current operating system on your favorite laptop or desktop computer. This way you can "dual boot" or "multi-boot" the operating system of your choice. (Don't proceed with structural changes like this unless your data are backed up.)


Some ideas to get you started


Category Typical software                                                                                           My favorire free alternatives
Office Microsoft Office (Word, Excel, Powerpoint) LibreOffice on the desktop, Google Drive in the cloud. These don't pretend to be 100% compatible with their Microsoft counterparts so your satisfaction will depend on how much you need that compatibility.
Image editing Adobe Photoshop Gimp. Also consider cloud-based photo editing tools; they're evolving rapidly
Ripping CDs various Asunder CD ripper (Linux only)
Playing movies various VLC media player
Conference calling   See phones
Personal finance Quicken Yodlee and Mint are similar. Compared to Quicken both are cloud-based and handier, but both update erratically and are weak for reporting and analyzing. My nod goes to Mint for being less unreliable.

Small business accounting

Quickbooks GnuCash but unfortunately you can't convert your Quickbooks data file to GnuCash format 
Engineering analysis Matlab Octave (and enhanced front end QtOctave)
Statistical Analysis S-Plus, SAS, SPSS R (and enhanced front end RStudio)
FTP (File Transfer Protocol) various FileZilla
Database Access, Oracle, SQL Server SQLite for simple applications; otherwise MySQL. I haven't used PostgreSQL but that is a well-regarded alternative to MySQL
Operating system Windows, OS X Ubuntu Linux, the leading consumer Linux variant


Linux considerations

If you want to look more into Linux, where the number of variants (so-called "distributions") can be daunting, here are a few things to consider:

  • Expect any Linux distribution to install more smoothly and quickly than any Windows installation you've ever done. There's also a good chance that built-in drivers will recognize and enable all of your hardware, so for example you should find yourself up and running on the internet before you know it. (However, these drivers are unlikely to support specialized functions that proprietary Windows drivers provide, like how the extra purple button on your gaming mouse can defragment your hard drive while whistling Dixie.) 
  • You're already familiar with the Windows desktop and/or the Mac OS X desktop. That's two desktops. The Linux world offers dozens. An example of a Windows-like desktop is Kubuntu; an example of a (somewhat) Mac-like desktop is the Unity desktop which is built into the latest Ubuntu. Reminiscent of their Windows and Mac cousins, these desktops are nevertheless decidely not dead ringers. By the way, Linux desktops are largely interchangeable, so if you don't like the one that came with your Linux, you can generally plug in another one. 
  • If you want to install Linux on an old and underpowered computer, have a look at lightweight Linux distributions. In the Ubuntu family are Xubuntu and Lubuntu. These are fine for email and web browsing and much more, but don't expect them to be as fulfilling as their beefier counterparts.
  • For a Linux first-timer, a safe bet is to try something in the Ubuntu family, most likely Ubuntu itself, but also Kubuntu, Lubuntu, Xubuntu, ...
  • When you install Linux for the first time, accept as many defaults as you comfortably can. The one consequential decision you'll have to make is whether to install Linux alongside your existing operating system(s) or wipe your hard drive clean and give it all to Linux. Up to you.

The utlimate Linux sophisticate

Suppose you've come this far and are feeling some positive Karma, but can't imagine living without your favorite Windows or Mac program. You also find dual booting between operating systems disruptive and time-consuming. Then for Windows (but not Mac) programs, you can first consider installing Wine on your Linux system; Wine emulates Windows so well that most Windows programs run fine on Wine.

Or you can install VirtualBox on your Linux system, then install a full Mac or Windows operating system as a guest operating system. You can now boot Windows or OS X inside a window, and then install your favorite program or programs as you normally would. This is the opposite use of VirtualBox above, where Linux was the guest operating system; you're now overcoming that early trepidation and forging boldly onward with Windows and OS X as guest operating systems and Linux as your host operating system.


Will everything proceed smooth as silk? Probably not. Be realistic and try to enjoy the journey.


--- Updated 1 October 2012