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  • Open-Source Software
    Free software—in more ways than one
    Here's what Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, has to say in its entry on OSS:

    "Open source software refers to computer software available with its source code and under an open source license to study, change, and improve its design."

    Now, take away the techno-babble and read: It's free and you can do what you want with it!

    If it's free, why is it so few people are taking advantage of it? Well, in some ways, you're actually using it right now. If not for OSS, the Internet might not have developed as we now know it.

    OSS—a brief history
    Since we'd like you stay awake while reading this article, we won't start at the very beginning, because the history of OSS predates the personal computer. But it really heated up in recent years through the efforts of programmer Richard Stallman, who strongly believed that software should be open and available to everyone. This doesn't necessarily mean free of charge, but the vast majority of OSS is in fact free. Stallman's intentions for the development and
    licensing of OSS were all spelled out in the GNU General Public License. This is sometimes called the rule of "copyleft" software, since its intentions are to ensure freedom, directly opposite to the restrictions of "copyright" software.

    From there, things took off—other developers wanted to contribute to the cause. The results were the formation of organizations like Open Source Initiative, which sees to managing and promoting the definition of OSS; Free Software Foundation, founded by Stallman to help promote computer users' rights to use, study, copy, modify, and redistribute computer programs; and Open Source Technology Group, which strives to provide unbiased content and commerce for open-source communities. And, of course, along came the development of boatloads of free software.

    Yes, the history lesson has been edifying—but where are the free goodies?

    Cool software downloads
    For developers, the fun is in writing new software. For typical computer users like you and I, the fun is in using that browser, IM program, or word processor. The range of free open-source software is vast, from games as simple as clones of Pacman to complex desktop office suite productivity tools. Where can you find all this? Here are a few good places to browse for open-source software:
    • SourceForge provides, among other things, downloads of free games and tools for everyone from desktop users to system administrators.
    • Freshmeat also provides free OSS downloads for Windows, Mac, and Unix-based systems like Linux (more on that later).
    • Tucows provides downloads of OSS software along with freeware and shareware programs (downloadable on trial basis, totally free, or requiring a small payment).
    And here's a handful of popular programs to get you started:
    • Jabber—a secure, ad-free instant messenger program
    • Celtx—screenwriting and TV & film production software
    • AbiWord—a free high-end word processing program
    • OpenOffice—a complete office suite (including word processor, spreadsheet, presentation manager, and drawing programs), and it's compatible with all other major office suites

    Linux distributions & forums
    Certainly one of the biggest OSS achievements is the development of the GNU/Linux operating system, often simply called Linux. Unlike Windows XP or Mac OSX, Linux comes in many different flavors, called distributions. Most Linux distributions are free—and they can run on just about any PC, and even some Macs.

    When Linux came onto the scene in the early 1990's, it was tough for everyone but serious computer geeks to use. But these days many Linux distributions (or distros) have evolved into sophisticated desktop operating systems, complete with sometimes hundreds of software packages, and just about as user-friendly as Windows XP or Mac OSX.

    One of the most popular distros today is called Ubuntu, which is strongly supported by a rich community of users and developers that anyone can join in on UbuntuForums. Another favorite is Fedora, also supported by a worldwide forum. If you're willing to pay a little bit of money, you can also get some pretty advanced distros like SUSE or Xandros. There's even a type of distro called Live CD, which leaves no lasting effect on your computer hard drive by running entirely from your CD-ROM. One of the most popular of these is called Knoppix.

    A good way to acquaint yourself with more Linux distributions (and discover how much weirder their names get) is to check out Distrowatch, which keeps a current list of the 100 most popular distros, in addition to providing information and downloads for each one. Or, for some general information and education on Linux, check out or Linuxtoday, an online magazine and forum.

    Coming soon
    For a final word on OSS and Linux, we thought you might like to know about a couple projects that are in the works. First, there's BarbieOS—a Linux distribution for Barbie fans (yes, they appear to be serious). And last, but not least, there is the $100 Laptop—a philanthropic plan to distribute low-power, Linux-based laptops to millions of poor kids all over the world. Now, that's embracing the spirit of open-source!

    We hope you learned something new...and found something fun to use.