Open-source software tends to be most closely associated with Linux. However, many excellent open-source applications support Windows, and a significant amount of open-source software runs on Windows exclusively.
Linux distributions carry lots of freely licensed software along with them, and the relative paucity of proprietary applications that support Linux means that free alternatives take on a starring role.
On Windows, open-source options must sometimes be sought out, but organizations would do well to keep tabs on these application alternatives and work them into their environments where they make sense.
In some cases, companies taking an open-source route can save a lot of money on license fees.
For instance, the functional differences between the Microsoft Corp. Office and the OpenOffice.org productivity suites are minor, but OpenOffice.org (which is nearing a major Version 2 release) is freely available, whereas the Microsoft product costs a few hundred dollars per seat.
In other situations, the choice between proprietary and free isnt one of price but of selecting the best tool for the job. For example, major instant messaging providers such as Microsoft, America Online Inc. and Yahoo Inc. may never agree on interoperability among their services or clients.
The open-source IM client Gaim, by supporting each of those protocols (and seven others), offers that useful functionality today.
Whats more, theres a Gaim plug-in that provides message encryption—an important enterprise feature thats unavailable to users of proprietary messaging clients.
Similarly, the Mozilla Foundations Firefox Web browser and Thunderbird mail client have begun capturing the attention of Windows users—both in corporate and consumer quarters—based on the strengths of their feature sets and solid security track records.
Open-source applications for Windows also make life easier when working with other platforms. The compressed files tool that ships with Windows XP doesnt support archives compressed in the gzip or bzip2 compression formats (nor does WinZip), both of which are common on Linux.
However, eWEEK Labs found the open-source alternative 7-Zip a vital download for building Windows clients.
Along similar lines, Putty, a free SSH (Secure Shell) terminal application, and WinSCP, the secure file transfer client, are must-have utilities for system administrators and others who need to interact securely with machines running SSH.
Both GTK and Qt run on Windows as well, which is how applications such as Gaim and GIMP make their way onto Windows.
Weve not been accustomed to seeing much open-source software for Windows based on Qt. Until recently, Trolltech AS, the company that produces Qt and releases it under dual licenses—one for commercial software and one for open source—did not ship an open-source version of Qt for Windows.
However, now that Qt for Windows is available as freely as Qt for Linux has been, we expect this to change. In particular, were intrigued by the work of the K Desktop Environment on Cygwin project, which is working to bring KDE to Windows. This would further enlarge the scope of free software for Windows.
One of the best places to locate open-source software—whether for Windows or other operating systems—is SourceForge.net, which provides free hosting for open-source projects. You can browse SourceForge.net for software by platform, but a good way to weed inactive projects out of your search is to browse projects sorted by activity.
Another good option for locating open-source software for Windows is to seek out software distributions tailored for Windows. One of these is TheOpenCD project, which maintains a downloadable disk image of open-source Windows software.
In addition, an extensive list of open-source applications for Windows is maintained at osswin.sourceforge.net.
Microsoft and open source
Microsoft has what could become a love-hate relationship with open-source software. When it comes to open-source software, Microsoft has the hate part down pretty well already, but the company also has released as open source a project called Windows Installer XML—a tool set that builds Windows installation packages from XML source code.
Windows doesnt ship with a set of open-source applications out of the box the way that a typical Linux distribution does, which can present an initial barrier to open-source development. Nor can Windows users take advantage of the streamlined updates that characterize Linux packages.
However, open-source applications enjoy other benefits on Windows. For one thing, Windows users dont have to worry about the complexities that accompany the diversity among Linux distributions, which require applications to be packaged expressly for each distribution.
In addition, open-source applications for Windows often sport nicer installers than do their cousins on Linux. For instance, getting up and running quickly with the open-source content management system Plone is a far smoother proposition on Windows than on the other platforms on which weve used it, and the Windows distribution of Plone also comes with a handy service startup and configuration console.
Senior Analyst Jason Brooks can be reached at [email protected].