Open source software is everywhere, and it’s also a great philosophy to live by. However, there’s a perceived struggle that using just open source software is impossible, that there are some tasks for which open source software either doesn’t exist or inadequately does the job.
I’m not here to say that this perception is flat-out wrong, but you might actually be surprised with what you can actually get done with open source software. In fact, chances are pretty high that you can get by with just open source software.
Why Open Source
Before we start, we have to ask the question, “Why bother?” There are two main groups of reasons why someone who want to use open source software: technical advantages and philosophy. Open source is beneficial by the definition of the term — anyone can download and inspect the “open” code themselves. This means that people can look it over and check for bugs, security issues, or even backdoors. It also makes it easier for anyone in the world to contribute to open source software projects, as anyone can download the code and then start adding in their own. If a project has enough support, it can develop quite quickly and its code is trusted.
People are also free to make their own open source programs to tackle similar tasks, which also increases choice for users so that they can pick the best tool for the job.
People who use open source software for philosophical reasons usually believe that software should be freely available for anyone to use. Besides the technical advantages, their arguments suggest that software code is much like math; math cannot be copyrighted or patented, so why can software be?
Most people usually use open source software for the technical advantages, flexibility, and choice. A major step to using only open source software is by installing a flavor of Linux on your computer. Linux is an open source* operating system kernel, and there are various distributions out there that use the kernel as their base. Although you can try to install commercial software onto Linux, there aren’t many software titles available and it’s usually much easier to use open source alternatives.
*Although the vast majority of it is open source, the Linux kernel has closed-source binary blobs that provide functionality for certain hardware, such as WiFi cards. If you want a purely open source kernel, some distributions such as Trisquel provide this modified version of the Linux kernel, called linux-libre.
Now that we have the operating system covered, let’s take a look at open source software that’s available for various needs. In this article, we’ll be focusing on cross-platform solutions and excluding Linux-specific applications.
Web and Email
Firefox and Chromium (the project on which Chrome is based) are excellent open source browsers that can take care of your web needs. Thunderbird is a capable open source email client if you prefer to use one. If you are still into instant messaging, Pidgin is probably the best IM client there is.
Photo and Video
GIMP is the closest open source solution to Photoshop, and it can support all but the most advanced functions (although plugins are still being made to expand functionality). Audacity is a great audio recording and processing application that several podcasters use reliably and effectively.
Finally, Blender (yes, the application better known for creating 3D graphics) has become quite a capable video editor that may be daunting to use at first but will be a powerful companion once you learn the ropes.
Office, Productivity and Multimedia
For a fully open source office suite, LibreOffice is currently the most capable choice you can make as it has loads of features and great compatibility with Microsoft Office formats.
If you’re consuming any type of multimedia, VLC is the only application you need to play them all. Although it may not be the sleekest-looking media player out there, it’s among the most capable and reliable available. And best of all, it’s free and open source.
Finally, for note-taking you can either use a desktop application such as Tomboy or simply use a service such as Evernote and use your browser to interact with it. It has tons of features that can make your memory better while using your computer.
Gaming is the one area that is probably lacking the most when it comes to open source. While open source games do exist, none of the titles that you’ll regularly hear about are open source. Therefore, if you want to stick with just open source for gaming, you’ll have to make some sacrifices in terms of game selection. There are good games out there that are definitely entertaining, but don’t expect to (natively) play Call of Duty or NBA 2K15 or any other popular game.
And gaming will always be a gray area. Even Richard Stallman, one of the leaders of the free software movement who would probably yell at me for not saying “GNU/Linux” rather than just “Linux”, stated that while he thinks the code in games should be open source, the assets (artwork, music, and such) can be copyrighted.
If you make an exception for gaming, Steam does have a client available on Linux with an ever-growing library of Linux-compatible games. Are they open source? No. But do they run on Linux, an open source operating system? A lot of them now do.
Using Only Open Source Is Possible
Is there any software alternative that might be missing? Possibly, but for a good number of people, this is all they need to do on their computers. Of course there are still other open source solutions that are out there for more specific tasks, but they’re not as widely known specifically because they’re made for non-ordinary tasks. However, the above list should apply to the general masses.
Of course, you can go to the list of Best Linux Software to see even more open source software that could potentially be cross-platform.
What other software do you think is missing, or categories of software that you feel like a lot of people use? Let us know in the comments!