The best free open source software for Windows

To many, free open source software and Microsoft Windows seem to be mutually exclusive. After all, the open source development model is most closely associated with the Linux OS and, to a lesser degree, various Unix derivatives. So when you mention the two together, you often get some rather strange looks. This is a shame because there exists a growing landscape of compelling free and open source solutions just waiting for the intrepid Windows user.

Here’s the list of the best open source software for Windows.

Get well-connected with FileZilla
FileZilla is one of those essential Internet tools that you just can’t live without. A full-featured Windows FTP client, FileZilla makes interacting with FTP sites an efficient, productive process.

FileZilla’s main UI window is also a throwback, with a confusing four-panel directory tree and contents layout that’s reminiscent of the old Windows File Manager application. In fact, everything about the FileZilla UI feels a bit dated, possibly a side effect of its cross-platform heritage.

Bottom line: FileZilla isn’t going to win any Windows UI beauty contests. But if you can look past the ancient exterior, you’ll discover one of the most powerful FTP clients available on Windows, Mac OS X, or Linux.

Double your OS pleasure with VirtualBox
VirtualBox has grown from a scrappy unknown wallowing in obscurity to a serious contender in the classic desktop virtualization space. Much of the credit goes to Sun Microsystems, which plucked VirtualBox from its underfunded developer, InnoTek GmbH, and gave it the technical resources and attention needed to reach its full potential.

The UI is just window dressing, after all. VirtualBox covers the basics well and, as of version 3.0, outshines VMware Worsktation in terms of CPU and memory scalability per VM. It will be interesting to see how VMware responds to this potent threat to its desktop virtualization hegemony.

Bottom line: Unless you need the very developer-specific features of VMware Workstation (IDE integration, Easy Install, robust snapshots with real-time playback), there really is no reason ever to pay for desktop virtualization software again. VirtualBox 3.0 is that good.

Get down to work with OpenOffice.org
OpenOffice.org is one of the tools most closely associated with the free open source movement. Encompassing word processing, spreadsheet, presentation graphics, drawing, and database functions, OpenOffice.org is a full-featured office productivity suite designed to compete with commercial solutions from Microsoft and SoftMaker, as well as SaaS offerings from Google and Zoho. It also serves as the basis for a variety of derivative productivity suites, including IBM’s Symphony and the Novell inspired Go-OO.org.

Unfortunately, OpenOffice.org’s high profile has also made it a lightning rod for criticisms of open source development practices. A sprawling, sometimes top-heavy product, OpenOffice.org has been accused of succumbing to a kind of featuritis, with each new release trying to match or surpass Microsoft’s market-dominating commercial Office suite. Meanwhile, core deficiencies — like the lack of a reliable import/export capability for Microsoft-formatted files — has caused many IT organizations to take a pass on this free, yet fundamentally flawed, Office alternative.

But for users who don’t need to exchange data regularly with Microsoft Office, OpenOffice.org provides a capable set of tools for accomplishing just about anything a typical business user would require. The OpenOffice.org Writer application is comparable to Microsoft Word in terms of core features, and the Calc and Presentations applications are more than adequate for all but the most demanding usage scenarios.

Bottom line: OpenOffice.org provides a powerful business productivity solution for IT sh

Expand your horizons with Mozilla Firefox
Like OpenOffice.org, Firefox is another tool that’s almost synonymous with free open source. It’s also the movement’s greatest success story, with more than 30 percent of Web surfers running some version of the Firefox browser. The story is all the more remarkable when you consider that Microsoft effectively owned this category just a few short years ago, having captured 90 percent of Internet users by bundling the Internet Explorer browser with the Windows operating system.

Although Firefox is free, unlike Internet Explorer it doesn’t just fall into your lap; you need to consciously seek out, download, and install it — all tasks that have traditionally been beyond the pale for average users. That Mozilla.org has been able to reach past this kind of inertia and convince such a wide audience to try Firefox is testimony both to the product’s quality and to the power of public perception: All the cool, savvy users seem to run Firefox, while Internet Explorer is now considered the choice of newbies and the unsophisticated.

It also helps that Firefox is a darn good browser, chock-full of useful features and thoughtful touches, like one-touch bookmarking and an integrated search and address field. And if there’s something you don’t like about Firefox or a feature you think is missing, chances are the need has already been addressed by one of the program’s 6,000 or more add-ons.

In fact, it’s this active add-on community that makes Firefox so attractive to the tuners and tweakers of the global IT audience. Firefox truly is whatever you make it, and for many users, this is just the kind of customizability that’s worth seeking out.

Bottom line: Firefox is the standard bearer of the free open source movement and a shining example of what a community-oriented development process can achieve.

Show your creative side with Paint.net
Paint.net has a checkered past as a free open source solution. Originally released as a completely open source project, its developers were forced to scale back to a more restrictive Creative Commons License (still freely available, but without source code) after unscrupulous parties decided to rename the original and try to resell it for profit.

As currently constituted, Paint.net qualifies for only the “free” part of the FOSS acronym, which is a shame since the program itself is a hidden gem. Designed by a bunch of Washington State University students as a replacement for Windows’ anemic Paint accessory, Paint.net has evolved to incorporate a growing list of sophisticated image editing capabilities, including layers and a complete plug-in system for adding image effects and support for various file types.

The program’s fans like to think of Paint.net as a functional alternative to commercial tools, like Adobe Photoshop or Paint Shop Pro. However, limitations in key areas (brush selection, text manipulation) coupled with a lack of TWAIN scanner support, continue to relegate Paint.net to the amateur leagues. Furthermore, the program’s reliance on the .Net framework means that you need to factor that additional layer of complexity into your cost/benefit calculations (not to mention download time, considering .Net Framework 3.5 with SP1 weighs in at more than 200MB).

Bottom line: If your image editing needs are modest — and you don’t mind going outside of your image editing environment to fill the occasional features gap with another tool (such as scanning) — then Paint.net may be just the solution you’ve been looking for.

Media Player Classic
Media Player Classic is a tool that always causes me to do a double-take. After all, it appears to be almost identical to the original Media Player accessory that shipped with Windows 9x all those years ago. However, looks can be deceiving, and under the hood, MPC is a completely different animal, with built-in support for a wide variety of audio and video formats, an extensible architecture, and a seemingly inexhaustible supply of nifty hidden features.

All nostalgia aside, it’s the integrated playback support that makes MPC so popular. Simply download MPC from its SourceForge.net Web site and run the program (no installer is required). You are immediately able to play a variety of formats, including MPEG/MPEG-2/MPEG-4, DivX, Xvid, and CD/VCD/DVD media — all without installing any external codecs. In fact, many users rely on MPC as a kind of litmus test for media files: If MPC can’t play it, there’s probably something wrong with the file.

Bottom line: MPC is a must-have tool for anyone serious about their media. Even if you don’t use it regularly, just having a copy available to test/verify compatibility is a good idea.

TrueCrypt
TrueCrypt is one of those free open source utilities that fly under the radar of most Windows users. Not as flashy or controversial as Microsoft’s BitLocker, TrueCrypt nevertheless provides many of the same features — full disk encryption with separate key-based recovery — as well as some that BitLocker does not, like true pre-boot encryption of all volumes. (BitLocker requires that you create a separate, unencrypted pre-boot volume.) In fact, TrueCrypt is superior to BitLocker on many counts, with support for more encryption protocols, more varied encryption scenarios (such as hidden volumes), and more flexibility in how and when you can encrypt your data.

Bottom line: TrueCrypt’s flexibility, combined with its broad platform support and active development community, make it a terrific free alternative to Microsoft’s BitLocker.

Stick it to The Man with PDFCreator
For many years, the act of creating an Adobe Portable Document Format (PDF) file was either more complicated or more expensive than it needed to be. In the old days, you typically had one of two options: Spring for the full Adobe Acrobat product or take your chances with one or more third-party “print to file” solutions, many of which were overpriced or of dubious quality.

All of this changed with the emergence of GhostScript and its subsequent licensing under the GNU GPL. Suddenly, anyone with some programming chops could roll their own PDF creation and editing solution, using the GhostScript interpreter as their framework. Not a programmer? Not a problem — there are several prebuilt solutions that allow you to generate a PDF. And by far the most popular of these is the PDFCreator tool hosted on the SourceForge Web site.

PDFCreator installs as a virtual printer driver under Windows, allowing you to dynamically generate PDF output from virtually any Windows application. It supports a broad range of Adobe PDF options, including password protection (both for users and authors) and 128-bit encryption. In fact, if there’s a downside to PDFCreator, it’s the sheer number of configuration options available. Fortunately, these settings are hidden deep within the program’s Options dialogs. Novice users can simply print to the PDFCreator virtual printer driver and get good results with the default settings.

Bottom line: If you need to generate the occasional PDF file but don’t want to skimp on functionality or configurability, then PDFCreator is an excellent solution and a great alternative to Adobe’s pricey Acrobat product.

Tighten your belt with 7-Zip
7-Zip is another great example of a free open source project that takes over where many commercial solutions stop. Incorporating a wide range of decompression formats (from ARJ to ZIP, and virtually everything in between) and its own advanced LZMA-based compression engine, 7-Zip delivers performance on par with proprietary formats like RAR and ACE while remaining entirely open and extensible.

Bottom line: 7-Zip provides everything you could want in a basic file compression solution. It’s fast and reliable, and it supports a wide range of formats — a real no-brainer.

Thwart those evildoers with ClamWin
ClamWin is a free open source anti-virus solution that provides a (mostly) comprehensive shield against the majority of common malware threats. I say “mostly” because the product lacks real-time execution monitoring, a critical component of any modern anti-virus solution. To scan for a virus with ClamWin, you need to manually initiate the process by selecting a suspect file and choosing the ClamWin option in the pop-up context menu.

Bottom line: ClamWin provides a good basic level of protection, but its lack of real-time execution scanning makes it more appropriate for veteran users than novices.

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2 responses to “The best free open source software for Windows

  1. I use PDFCreator, OpenOffice, 7-zip,FireFox,Paint.NET and so on.

  2. I tend to favour SSuite Office’s free office suites. Their software also don’t need to run on Java or .NET, like so many open source office suites, so it makes their software very small and efficient.
    [www.ssuitesoft.com]

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