Open Source Software

October 2004

The Internet seems to bring out both the best and the worst in us. Lately in this column we've been focusing on the bad guys -- the sniveling wormy lowlifes that create viruses. But there's a much larger cadre of good guys.

These unsung heroes create "open-source" software. They represent humanity at its best. They want nothing more than to give you -- for free -- absolutely the best software available. You can download free Internet browsers that are better than Internet Explorer, a free office-productivity suite that is compatible with Microsoft Office and that some say is just as powerful, a free photo editor that competes with Photoshop -- and more.

This worldwide army of expert programmers working in concert is getting so powerful that Microsoft is scared. How will it compete with free software? A number of computer manufacturers now ship computers not with the Windows operating system but with the open source Linux. In fact, Linux is so popular and widespread in areas of the world such as Asia that Microsoft recently introduced a low-cost version of Windows XP intended to compete with Linux.

Why haven't you heard more about this? Since it's free, no one's spending a lot of money marketing it. Also, open source software used to be a geeky sort of thing, limited to Unix-type environments.

Why the name "open source"? It refers to the "source code" of the software -- the computer language code used to create it. Microsoft, for example, doesn't let anyone see its source code, because that's its bread and butter, and they don't want anyone stealing it.

Open source software programs, on the other hand, make the source code available to everyone to look at -- and to tweak. So you have thousands of programmers around the world studying the code of the Linux operating system, for example, figuring out ways to make it better.

Many feel that open source is the future of computing -- that it's better, more powerful, and more reliable. In fact, when you use the Internet you're relying on open source software. Far and away the most popular software for Internet servers is Apache, which is open source.

We recently mentioned some open source web browsers. Visit the Mozilla web site to download a free Internet suite that includes browser, e-mail software, address book, and web page creation software. Mozilla has advanced features such as tabbed browsing, which lets you have multiple web sites open at once without having to have multiple windows. Firefox (www.mozilla.org) is also very popular. It has all the features of Mozilla and more, but excludes the other non-browser components because many people don't need them. (It's still in a test phase, so may not be as stable as Mozilla.)

You can find the Open Office suite at www.openoffice.org. It includes a word processor, a spreadsheet, and presentation software and runs on Windows, Mac OS X, Linux, and other operating systems.

Another popular program is The Gimp, an image-manipulation program that competes with Photoshop and that runs on Windows, Mac OS X, and Unix.

You can find a list of downloads of free open-source programs for Windows at JAirlie.com, including games, Internet software, media software, utilities, and educational software. In each category, one program is identified as being exceptionally good software and highly recommended.

On the Macintosh side, it's not quite so simple. In order to run open source software you first need to download a new interface for your Mac called X11, which only works with OS X. This article explains how to find, run, and install open source software. Some open source programs, such as Open Office, include X11 as part of their installation download.

All in all, pretty awesome. The good guys -- the open source programmers -- make you believe in humanity again. But in the big picture, the bad guys -- the virus writers -- also play a role in making the Internet strong.

The Internet is becoming a highly complex system, like a living organism. Both are structures of intelligence based on a fundamental code reducible either to the two binary digits of computers (0 and 1) or the four nucleotides of DNA (adenine, cytosine, guanine, and thymine). And both have evolved or are evolving mechanisms that recognize and destroy the renegade bits of intelligence called viruses that can damage the integrity of the system.

Health is not the absence of invaders. It's the successful structuring of intelligence that in self-referential fashion maintains its integrity. So live right, keep your immune system strong -- and install virus protection software.

© 2004 by Jim Karpen, Ph.D.

E-mail Jim Karpen