Open Source - A Collaborative VentureTraditional software solutions have been based around proprietary "closed" products. The user buys a licence to use the product on one or more machines, but has no access to any of the software source code. The source code is the blueprint for the software and is required in order to fix bugs or add new features. Without the source code the end user can only wait for the developer to produce fixes and feature upgrades, and may be charged for this. Open Source packages are built by collaborative groups and provide the source code to all users with open licences.
GNU/LinuxIn the 1980s' the Free Software Foundation released a set of tools under the "GNU" banner under a General Public Licence (GPL). These tools were freely available and allowed developers all over the world to write software without having to pay licence fees. A further bonus was the class leading performance of these tools. These tools led directly to the release of several key packages, one of which was Linux.
Linux was originally developed by Linus Torvalds in the early 90s' as a Unix like operating system that would run on '386 compatible Personal Computers. The program was made available for download and rapidly became popular with deelopers around the world. Torvalds rapidly organised a significant development effort and Linux was born. Since then a steady pace of development has seen the program progress from a relatively simple operating system to a true multi-user high performance operating system - worthy of any multi-national.
Linux and asosciated applications are normally only provided as source code, and require a degree of skill and knowledge to build a working system. This has led to a burgeoning industry of "Distro" providers, competing companies who bundle a ready built system on a CD that can be bought. The price reflects the time taken to provide an easy installation experience, the software itself is free of charge. For other applications a Linux based system provides the underpining of a more significant product - for example an EPOS System.
However whatever the use, the fact that the source code is always availalble means many companies can and do compete to support Linux. The non technical end-user is no longer tied to only one supplier.
Open Office & FirefoxLinux is only the core of an operating system, it doesn't even include a Windowed environment. A whole array of other Open Source projects started up soon after Linux arrived, all developing supporting applications that sat on Linux. The applications rely on Linux to work and Linux relies on the applications to be useful - a virtuous circle.
Two Projects stand out as excellent value for the average business user - Open Office and Firefox.
The Open Office project, supported by Sun Microsystems, is an Office like package with Word processing, Spreadsheet, Presentation and Database tools. It reads and writes most well known Office file formats, and is suprisingly robust when importing complex documents with multiple levels of formatting. The program is not just a clone of other packages, but introduces its own features, like writing PDF files. the program can be found at Open Office and has versions that run on Linux and Windows.
In the space of only a few months the Firefox web browser has secured a significant number of users. It has a number of features not found in other browsers, including better security options, tabbed browsing and a very efficient rendering engine. Firefox can be downloaded here, and also supports most major operating systems.