I manage a web site for a small veterans association and one of the biggest challenges I’ve had working with volunteers on organizational projects is compatible software. While most of my associates use Windows-based computers, I use a Mac [and now a Linux system, but that's another story]. They have any number of word processing systems on their machines and often their photo-editing software is the package that came with their digital camera. Just getting a couple of paragraphs posted on the web site can be a time-consuming effort.
Today there is a growing collection of open source software that is not only free to use, but easy to learn and many even are available for Windows, Mac and Linux systems. This article will introduce you to several applications that could be quite useful within your association.
The term “open source” describes a growing collection of applications that have been built by groups of people – many of them volunteers. These applications are licensed to users in such a way that you can use them at no charge. Yes, this is an over-simplified definition but it gives you an idea of how open source works. The Linux operating system (OS) is one of the largest open source projects. Anyone who wants to get involved can help in the development of Linux – from programming to project management to documentation. Because it is “open” to all, everyone [everyone who understands programming, that is] can see exactly how it’s built. As a result, problems with the application – bugs, security issues, etc. – are often found and fixed in a relatively short period of time.
Linux has been known as the “geek” operating system. Until recently you needed to be pretty experienced in computer stuff to do much with it. Things have changed – dramatically – and Linux now sports a pretty face and easy manner. There are more and more low cost computers in the marketplace today using Linux and other open source applications to help keep the costs down.
Regardless of the operating system, your experience is influenced more by the applications than the OS. You may already be using the Firefox browser and if you aren’t, you should take a look at it. An impressive office application suite is also available in OpenOffice.org. Both applications include versions for Windows, Mac and Linux.
Firefox is my browser of choice and a researcher’s dream. The tabbed browsing makes my online research efforts so much easier to manage. I also use OpenOffice.org because it works on both my operating systems and – even more important – it supports the open document format [see Let's Talk Standards at Family Matters for more information on open document format]. Other useful applications include GIMP, a sophisticated photo/image editing program; Scribus, a comprehensive desktop publisher; PDFCreator, which creates portable document format (PDF) documents [Windows only]; and ClamAV, an antivirus scanning tookit. Wikipedia maintains a comprehensive catalog at their Free Software Portal.
So, what is the down side? If there is one, it would be technical support. Some of these applications – like Firefox, GIMP and OpenOffice.org – are widely used and have significant support communities built around them. You’re quite likely to find books and magazine articles providing howto information for these apps at your local bookstore. For most open source applications, your best support options are online – at the application’s site or associated support sites you’ll find electronic manuals, video tutorials, user forums and blogs offering all kinds of technical support.
Finding software is the first step. Open source applications can help you overcome the “I can’t afford it” and “It doesn’t work on my system” hurdles. Sure, there will be other issues to address in your effort to get everyone working together on a project, but it’s sure nice to know you have some good, affordable options.