A beginner’s guide to open-source software

open_sourceThe day PCs started coming factory loaded with trial software, I made the switch—after draining my bank account to buy a computer, the notion of also paying for software was almost offensive. It wasn’t hard at all, because I discovered a parallel universe of free, open-source software—which is collaboratively developed and modified by users rather than licensed by a single company—that you don’t have to be an IT guy to figure out. In recent years, open-source alternatives to bread-and-butter applications like Microsoft Office have become novice-friendly and in some cases, better than their commercial counterparts.

Where do you start? It’s as simple as download, install, and run. For the techno-timid, there’s no need to tinker with source code to use a program. The software and all the updates come from an established developer, so there’s no fear of anyone else effecting your version.  Nearly all the programs are designed to co-mingle with their commercial counterparts, meaning an Open Office word processing file can be saved in Microsoft Word’s .doc format, and so forth.

But beware: with open-source, there is no 800 number to call. The community of users become your tech support, and any problem you’ll encounter has likely already been solved by someone else on the program’s website or forum.

Over the years, I’ve saved thousands by using open source, and never had a problem that wasn’t easily solved with a little sleuthing around the internet. Before making your next big software purchase, consider one of the following, free alternatives (prices are MSRP).

Open Office = Save $250 (Microsoft Office)
The premiere Open Source office suite, Open Office offers word processing, spreadsheets, presentations, drawing, graphics, databases, and basically every other function of Microsoft Office.  It’s multilingual and works on a MAC, PC, or Linux operating system.

GIMP = Save $700 (Adobe PhotoShop)
GIMP is PhotoShop’s free twin, capable of photo retouching, image composition and image authoring.  It can work as a basic paint program or handle the most sophisticated image manipulation functions.  If you’re particular or already well versed in PhotoShop, Smashing Magazine even offers some tips for making GIMP feel more like PhotoShop.

ClamWin and Winpooch = Save $40-80 (Norton Antivirus)
ClamWin is free Antivirus for Microsoft Windows.  It features high detection rates, scheduled scans, and automatic updates. Couple it with Winpooch, and get protection from spyware and the like, along with real-time detection.

InkScape = Save $600 (Adobe Illustrator)
The leading 2-D vector graphics editor, or put simply, drawing program.  Inkscape has many of the features of the commercial products, and its capabilities are similar to Illustrator, CorelDraw, or Xara X using the standard Scalable Vector Graphics (SVG) file format.

JGnash or GnuCash = Save $40-100 (Quicken)
And of course, in tough financial times, who wants to pay just to keep track of it all? JGnash and GnuCash are open- source personal finance managers.  Both help you monitor and keep track of your accounts, including investments.  All financial data is encrypted for added security. The programs are complete with customizable interfaces and support multiple currencies with current exchange rates.

These are a small sampling of all the open source programs available. The best resource for finding an open source program to replace pricey software is, an online directory pairing commercial products with equivalent or similar Open Source programs. Wikipedia also offers an extensive categorized list of open-source software.

In some cases, the best alternative program available (such as Cinelerra, the alternative to Final Cut Pro) only runs on an open source Linux-based operating system.  But even so, there is a world of developers competing for widespread use of their product, so it’s easy to find a similar PC or MAC friendly program (see Virtual Dub for Final Cut Pro).

Converting to a Linux operating system is the ultimate freedom from pay software, but it’s far from a matter of download, install, and run.  Linux converts are usually knowledgeable hobbyists who devote hours to their operating system.  If you’re stuck in the land of the unemployed, it could be entertaining to toy with, but use a little caution and try it on a partitioned disk before wiping out Windows.  Linux.IE offers a helpful beginners guide to converting, and you can find the newest and most popular versions at

On the horizon, expect a lot of buzz around converting to a Linux operating system as Google takes on Open Source.  If Microsoft started to sweat over the introduction of the web-based Google Docs, Mr. Gates may be in for a panic attack in the second half of 2010 when Google releases its Open Source operating system Chrome.


  1. or if you go to school in a visual arts (graphic design) field or know of someone they would have it downloaded, cracked, or unlimited usage software and also if you and a group of people get the unlimited suite and pitch in on it that’s a great way too.

  2. Re: “The day PCs started coming factory loaded with trial software, I made the switch— after draining my bank account to buy a computer, the notion of also paying for software was almost offensive.”

    Um, forgive me, but am I to understand that previously (when PCs didn’t come with pre-loaded software, which was…?) you *did* buy software when needed? And now, the switch is that you don’t buy such software?

    Or is there a time you’re referring to when Windows PCs came with full (non-trial) software installed? (And that was…?)

    Speaking of which, in Apple advertising campaigns “switching” is used to refer to dropping the Windows PC in favor of Macs, which do, in fact, already have a lot of pre-loaded, non-trial software installed– though of course not the higher end programs you reference. So I assume that’s not the “switch” you mean…

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