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Open Source: Incredible Apps For Every OS
Date: Jul 26, 2012
Author: Jesse Litton
Intro and Web Browsers

Open Source InitiativeAs the resident open source zealot, I thought it might be nice to have a quick rundown of some of the best apps that are free, open source, and cross-platform available to our readers.  Experienced users may find fault with me for leaving out their favorite app, but hopefully they will agree that the ones I’ve picked here are deserving of recognition.  I especially hope this is useful to those that are unaware of the existence of these applications due to the long shadows cast by the proprietary icons of their respective categories. If you feel I did miss an important app, please let us know in the comments and share your favorites with everyone.

Since all of these applications are open source, they have been ported to a variety of platforms.  If you’re a Linux user, you’ll find them a click away in your software center.  If you’re a Windows or Mac user, installers for your operating systems are freely available on the appropriate maintainers’ website.  If you use BSD, you’re probably smarter than I am and can figure it out for yourself.

Does Open Source mean free?

While there are many intricacies to the terms “Open Source” (which doesn’t necessarily mean ‘free’) and “Free” (which doesn’t necessarily mean “libre”), rest assured that all of the options listed here are licensed such that you may use them and redistribute them at no cost.  You even get to read and modify the source code if you like.

If you really want the long explanation, Wikipedia has some wonderful information on Open Source, Free Software, FOSS, FLOSS, and other pedantic quagmires. Also, be aware that there are usually conditions to redistributing *modified* versions of open source applications. So, you will want to consult the individual application’s license for the exact details of how a particular program/source may be redistributed should you make changes to it.

I’ve broken the list here down into the most common categories and picked at least one of the better-known free and open source applications in each category.  In some categories I’ve picked more than one, particularly where the function of the applications offer significantly different features or target different users.

As the zealot responsible, the opinions and anti-Microsoft swipes here are my own - so don’t blame the rest of the HotHardware team.  And, again, do feel free to suggest any free and open source software I was so blind as to overlook.

Web Browsing:

We’ll practically skip this category for two reasons:  1) Browser preference has been known to start holy wars, and 2) because nearly everyone is long familiar with the best known option:  Firefox.  Chrome does not quite meet the criteria of this list as it is not completely open-source.  However, the Chromium browser, with which it shares most of its code is both free and open-source.

The beauty of web browsers is that for 99% of the functionality your personal preference doesn’t matter.  That’s because they are all written to implement open standards.  Very seldom do browsers extend these standards in proprietary ways that break a site's compatibility with other browsers and operating systems (*cough-ActiveX-cough*), except for one closed-source solution that is available on only one operating system.

Graphical Content Creation/Manipulation

Graphics and Image Editing:

The GiMP
When I was younger, there were two kinds of people:  Those that had pirated a copy of Adobe’s $700 masterpiece “Photoshop”, and people that used MS Paint. Today we’re lucky to have a free piece of software that does pretty much everything most of us would want to do with Photoshop:  The GiMP.

From their website: “GIMP is the GNU Image Manipulation Program. It is a freely distributed piece of software for such tasks as photo retouching, image composition and image authoring. It works on many operating systems, in many languages.“

Is it as good as Photoshop?  No. Adobe’s talented Photoshop developers have invested a lot of time and money into creating THE #1 image editing program, and The GiMP has yet to close the gap.  The incredible thing is that TheGiMP is good enough that, unless your profession revolves around image editing, it’s probably way more than you will need.

As with Photoshop, the learning curve for The GiMP can be quite steep.  However, there are many online tutorials available to get you on your way, and there’s a Gimp magazine launching in the fall.

Inkscape does for vector graphics what The GiMP does for bitmaps.  That is, it stops us hobbyists from going to jail for copyright infringement when all we want to do is dabble with vector graphics and not shell out $250 for Adobe Illustrator.

From the Inkscape site: “An Open Source vector graphics editor, with capabilities similar to Illustrator, CorelDraw, or Xara X, using the W3C standard Scalable Vector Graphics (SVG) file format. Inkscape supports many advanced SVG features (markers, clones, alpha blending, etc.) and great care is taken in designing a streamlined interface. It is very easy to edit nodes, perform complex path operations, trace bitmaps and much more. We also aim to maintain a thriving user and developer community by using open, community-oriented development.”


3DS Max and Maya may have once been better known, but there is a free 3D creation alternative that is incredibly powerful and becoming more and more pervasive: Blender.  It supports modeling, rendering, animation... it even includes a 3D game engine. This is a professional level tool, that can generate professional results.

Audio and Multimedia

Audio Production:

Back when Microsoft was preparing audio files for Windows 95, they used a pirated version of Sound Forge 4.5 (true story!). Apparently even Microsoft employees couldn't stand the $500 price tag... and it was really the only high-end solution.

Luckily for Microsoft, there’s now a great free feature-filled alternative: Audacity.

From the Audacity web sire: "Audacity is a free, easy-to-use and multilingual audio editor and recorder for Windows, Mac OS X, GNU/Linux and other operating systems. You can use Audacity to:

  • Record live audio.
  • Convert tapes and records into digital recordings or CDs.
  • Edit Ogg Vorbis, MP3, WAV or AIFF sound files.
  • Cut, copy, splice or mix sounds together.
  • Change the speed or pitch of a recording.
  • And more! See the complete list of features."



“VLC is a free and open source cross-platform multimedia player and framework that plays most multimedia files as well as DVD, Audio CD, VCD, and various streaming protocols.“

The wonderful thing about VLC is that it is amazingly consistent across the supported platforms (no dependence on OS-level codecs).  If you’re looking for a media player that can play anything, and whose UI is not cluttered with a bunch of HTML advertisements trying to sell downloadable content, this is the best player available at any price.

Productivity and Development

Productivity Apps:

The one true successor to OpenOffice (which is still in existence, but was largely abandoned by its primary developers and users when Sun was acquired by Oracle), LibreOffice is the most powerful of the free office suites available.

Or, as their website puts it:
“LibreOffice is the power-packed free, libre and open source personal productivity suite for Windows, Macintosh and GNU/Linux, that gives you six feature-rich applications for all your document production and data processing needs: Writer, Calc, Impress, Draw, Math and Base. Support and documentation is free from our large, dedicated community of users, contributors and developers.”


In addition, Libre's compatibility with Microsoft Office formats is very good (and ever-improving).  


In the Windows development world, Microsoft’s Visual Studio has always been the proverbial 800-lb gorilla. But, what if you’re just learning, don’t have $3,800 dollars, or want to write software that can run on all operating systems (including Windows)? Luckily, there are some full-featured free alternatives.

Spun out of an IBM project, the Eclipse platform is an incredibly powerful IDE.  While it was primarily developed for Java, its modularity and plug-in framework has now seen the addition of support for C, C++, Ruby, Perl, Python, and many other languages.

Support for gcc (on Posix platforms and on Windows via Cygwin or MinGW) plus other cross-platform toolchains makes this a desirable environment for developers who want to target their output for multiple operating systems.

“MonoDevelop is an IDE primarily designed for C# and other .NET languages. MonoDevelop enables developers to quickly write desktop and ASP.NET Web applications on Linux, Windows and Mac OSX. MonoDevelop makes it easy for developers to port .NET applications created with Visual Studio to Linux and to maintain a single code base for all platforms.”

If you want to develop cross-platform apps in a CLR-compatible environment using C# and other .NET style languages, then this is the obvious choice for the development environment.  .exe files created with this will run on Windows, Mac, and Linux (because the exe is really ML code targetting the CLR, dependent on mono or .Net, and not native machine code) as long as the supporting libraries are installed.

The Mono platform hasn’t exactly been welcomed by all developers due to patent concerns and Microsoft’s recent maneuvers in that arena.  But, it is finding traction in several areas such as game development and game scripting (Sims 3 and Second Life).  Of course MonoDevelop also supports writing for Monogame, which is an open source implementation of the Microsoft XNA framework that runs on Windows, Mac, iOS, Android, and Linux.


Games and Final Thoughts

Free, Open Source Games:

It’s hard for free games to compete with the highly-financed triple-A titles on the market today.  However, if you're the kind of person who likes not only to play cool games but to be able to pick-apart their source code for educational purposes or customization, here are a couple of gaming picks:

0 A.D.
0 A.D. is a historical RTS game that features six unique civilizations, realistic maps and terrain, naval warfare, multiple play modes and a full-featured editor.  The game is still in development, but it is already a very nice (and graphically impressive) Civilization-style game.

Alien Arena
“Do you like old school deathmatch with modern features? How about rich, colorful, arcade-like atmospheres? How about...retro Sci Fi? Then you're going to love what Alien Arena has in store for you! This game combines some of the very best aspects of such games as Quake III and Unreal Tournament and wraps them up with a retro alien theme, while adding tons of original ideas to make the game quite unique.”

I myself was never much a fan of the Q3-style FPS games.  But that’s probably because twitch-kiddies always handed me my... er, hat.  However, if that sounds like something you would enjoy... you can’t end up with buyers remorse at a price of zero dollars.

The preceding list barely scratches the surface as to what’s available out there.  There are literally thousands of available apps and tens of thousands of libraries (and even many complete operating systems) in the FOSS ecosystem. 

If you know of one that’s worthy of recognition, jump in and tell us about it in the HotHardware Operating Systems and Software forum.

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