The biggest challenge for the Open Office team is making people aware of their software, and aside from the efforts of marketing volunteers like McReesh the best way to get the message out is by word of mouth. “Everybody who’s downloaded and used the software, and there are tens of millions around the world now, is potentially an ambassador for the product. They know it works, they know it is good, they know they can read Microsoft files, they know they can create PDF documents and all sorts of stuff. They also know that because it is open source they can take their CD and pass it to friends, and small businesses can give it to people that work for them so they can use it at home, schools can give it to pupils to take home with them. That is a very powerful recommendation.”
If a full blown office suite is more than you need, the popular AbiWord (www.abisource.com) word processor package provides all the features that most users are every likely to require, including a UK English spellchecker, in a relatively compact 5Mb download. Both Open Office and AbiWord are as easy to get to grips with as any of their commercial counterparts, but if you should get stuck with any of the more advanced features you will find plenty of help in the documentation and on the associated web sites.
One of the most talked about open source packages over recent months has been the Firefox browser (www.getfirefox.com). Rising dissatisfaction with Internet Explorer due to online security issues has driven many users to look for an alternative browser, and, much praised by the specialist press, Firefox has presented itself as an impressive offering. The software offers features such as a built in pop-up advert blocker and the ability to view multiple sites in a single window. Firefox is developed by the Mozilla Foundation, which also offers an open source email client called Thunderbird which provides an equally impressive feature set. Like most open source software, both Firefox and Thunderbird are completely free packages with no usage restrictions – you can download and make as many copies as you like without any kind of end user licence.
If your work involves creating and editing digital images it could be worth looking at a piece of software somewhat bizarrely titled The Gimp (www.gimp.org). Although packages such as Adobe Photoshop are firm favourites with imaging professionals, The Gimp provides similar features and is a good alternative for those who cannot afford to spend hundreds of pounds on commercial image manipulation packages.
Organisations looking to create a professional web site can choose from a massive selection of open source packages that can deliver highly polished, feature rich web sites with very little effort. There are many free content management systems available but the Mambo (www.mamboserver.com) content management server is one of the most respected. Mambo is relatively easy to set up on a standard web-hosting account and allows non-technical users to manage a powerful web site without any kind of programming.
No discussion of open source software could be complete without a mention of Linux (www.linux.org) the leading open source operating system. Linux is essentially based on the long standing Unix operating system and there are now many variants of the software designed to run on everything from web servers to desktops and handheld computers. Most commentators believe that the complexity of Linux means that it simply is not ready to replace Windows on most business desktops just yet, but if you are really averse to paying Microsoft licence fees then Linux is your best option.
The osCommerce (www.oscommerce.org) online catalogue system is a free shop-in-a-box solution that allows businesses to set up an ecommerce site quickly and easily. Although the software requires an above average degree of technical know-how, it can be fully installed and configured by somebody of moderate technical ability within a couple of days and is compatible with a wide range of online payment systems.
We have covered some of the most popular open source packages here, but there are thousands more. You can get more information about the open source philosophy, and the many packages available at sites such as the Open Source Initiative (www.opensource.org), Sourceforge (www.sourceforge.net) and open source news site, News Forge (www.newsforge.com).
It is understandable that those unfamiliar with the concept of open source software will approach it with some trepidation – the idea that quality software can simply be given away for free goes against most people’s sensibilities. But McReesh’s message to potential users of Open Office might well apply to open source software as a whole “Give it a try, people can download it for free or get hold of a CD for a couple of pounds. They can use it with their existing documents and if it works for them that’s absolutely fine and that’s the end Microsoft licences and worries about software piracy and having the thought police round to inspect what’s on your network – all those licence hassles can be a thing of the past. Try it, what have you got to lose?”