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Creating an Open-Source Desktop

Discover open-source alternatives to commercial applications and operating systems

Creating an Open Source Desktop 
Elliot Harmon - January 20, 2010

An introduction to open-source alternatives to commercial applications and operating systems.

Editor's Note: This article was based on content created by Graham Freeman, former Technology Analyst for TechSoup, in August 2006.

The phrase "open source" describes a variety of practices whereby software developers make their source code available for public use. While some open-source applications are developed by traditional for-profit software companies, many other open-source manufacturers are nonprofit organizations or even ad hoc networks of programmers. You may have only started hearing people talk about open source in the past few years, but open-source software has actually been around longer than commercial software.

You might not know it, but there's a good chance that you already use open-source software in your daily workflow; for example, open-source Mozilla Firefox is the world's second most popular web browser. Wikipedia is powered by MediaWiki, an open-source web content server. In fact, over half of all web servers are powered by an open-source application called Apache and many other web servers are adapted from Apache.

There are a number of benefits (both practical and philosophical) of open-source software, but there are also some considerations to keep in mind. Regardless of whether you choose to adopt a full open-source desktop, being more aware of the open-source alternatives available can help make your work faster, more efficient, and more adaptable.

This article is primarily about desktop software – that is, software for use on desktop and laptop workstations. If you're interested in open-source server software, start with A Field Guide to Servers.

Why Use Open Source (or Not)?

You likely already know the most overt benefit of open-source software: it's free, and if the project is well-supported by the open-source community, you can reasonably expect future updates and upgrades to be free as well. Many programmers offer customized versions of open-source applications to customers with particular needs, but for the kind of software we're discussing here, no custom coding is necessary for the typical nonprofit.

One common criticism of open source is that it's not really free software: its cost of adoption comes in the form of installation, training, and support. While that's true, those "extra" costs exist for commercial software too. When choosing whether to adopt any piece of software, open or proprietary, you should consider the total cost of ownership, not just the price tag.

While critics might sometimes overstate the learning curve of open-source products, it is true that you shouldn't ignore the need to train your staff and make sure that new implementations meet everyone's needs. You know your staff's level of willingness to try a new system better than we do.

Keep in mind, too, that open source isn't an "all or nothing" proposition. For example, you could switch some of your computers to the open-source operating system Linux while keeping other desktops running Windows for employees who need to use Windows-only software. Most of us here at TechSoup use a combination of proprietary and open-source software in our day-to-day tasks.

If you're thinking of switching to Linux, you'll need to make sure that all essential applications are available on Linux or can be replaced with alternatives that support Linux (see Open-Source Operating Systems below). In some cases, you may be able to run critical Windows-only applications on Linux with a utility like Wine or CrossOver Linux.

Open-Source Office Software

Web Browsing

Let's start with the easy stuff. With over one billion downloads to date, Mozilla Firefox – an open-source web browser that runs on Windows, Mac, and Linux – is the second most popular browser and comes highly recommended by many IT professionals as an alternative to Microsoft Internet Explorer (IE).

Firefox works essentially the same way on all three operating systems (OS) that it runs on (with some slight cosmetic differences appropriate to each OS), making it easy to switch among OSes. If you start using Firefox on Windows now and decide to switch to Linux in the future, you can even take all of your bookmarks and settings with you.

Developers around the world have built tens of thousands of extensions for Firefox. Extensions are downloads that change or supplement Firefox's functionality in some way. There are extensions for every conceivable need or whim, ranging from translation support to removing advertising from websites to Delicious integration to MC Hammer integration. Almost all Firefox extensions are free, and they're easy to add, remove, and experiment with.

One potential downside to Firefox is that since Internet Explorer is the most popular web browser on the market, some websites and web applications are optimized for IE. Fortunately, IE and Firefox can coexist peacefully on the same Windows computer, allowing you to switch back and forth between them. However, if your organization uses a critical web-based application (such as a donor management tool or a time-tracking solution) that requires Internet Explorer, a migration to Linux will be impossible unless you can resolve that dependency.

Email

Firefox's lesser known cousin Thunderbird is a respectable open-source email client that supports POP3 and IMAP for retrieving mail, SMTP for sending, and SSL/TLS security. Thunderbird's built-in spam filter has earned the program a good reputation for helping to keep junk mail at bay. You must train Thunderbird's spam filter by marking miscategorized email as Junk or Not Junk, but it learns quickly.

Like Firefox, Thunderbird works more or less the same way on Mac, Windows, and Linux. This means that once you transition from, say, Microsoft Outlook to Thunderbird on Windows, you'll have less trouble switching to Linux in the future.

Thunderbird isn't your only open-source email option. If your organization uses Microsoft Exchange for email, calendaring, and similar needs, open-source email client GNOME Evolution can serve as a satisfactory platform-independent alternative to Outlook that still works with Exchange. Evolution receives commercial support from Novell and community support from a well-regarded group of developers. Because Evolution runs only on Linux and Outlook runs only on Windows and Mac, you may have trouble switching from Outlook on Windows to Evolution on Linux.

Calendaring and Task Lists

Some critics have argued that Outlook and Exchange Server don't adhere to standards that would ensure compatibility with other email applications, calendars, and non-Microsoft web browsers. (For more about the common criticisms of Outlook, see the Email Standards Project's report as well as Microsoft's response). Be that as it may, Outlook's integration of contacts, to-do lists, and scheduling is an appreciable offering and the reasons for its ubiquity in the workplace are obvious.

It should come as no surprise, then, that the most popular open-source scheduling application would come from Mozilla and share many aspects of its look and feel with Firefox and Thunderbird. Mozilla Sunbird and Lightning are two closely-related Mozilla projects. Both offer similar functionality to Outlook's scheduling and task features, but Sunbird is offered as a standalone application and Lightning is an extension for Thunderbird. Sunbird can integrate with many different email applications, including Outlook.

Sunbird and Lightning let you send appointment requests to any iCalendar compliant application, including Exchange Server, Outlook, Apple iCal, and many mobile devices. For more information, see the section on Sunbird in our Microsoft Office vs. OpenOffice.org.

Word Processing, Spreadsheets, and Presentations

Even if you've been able to avoid using Outlook, chances are that you're tied to other major components of Microsoft Office like Word and Excel. Fortunately, there's an open-source, cross-platform alternative. Office suite OpenOffice.org runs well on Windows, Linux, and Mac, and carries out the same basic tasks as Word, Excel, and PowerPoint.

Although OpenOffice.org can open, edit, and save Microsoft Office documents, Office's proprietary formats leave 100% compatibility impossible. In most cases, it shouldn't be too difficult to port your Office documents to OpenOffice.org, but if you'll frequently be collaborating with Office users, a switch to OpenOffice.org might not be advisable.

Tangentially, web-based software has been steadily gaining popularity as a third option, an alternative to both proprietary and open-source office software. Examples of web-based office suites include Google Docs, Zoho, Microsoft Office Live Workspace, and Feng Office.

Databases

Databases are where open-source solutions can get tricky. The specialized software many organizations use for fundraising and other tasks can limit their choices in terms of which database they can use — often to Microsoft Access or another Windows-only solution. OpenOffice.org Base is designed as a work-alike to Microsoft Access, and should be fine for those with simple needs. Like Access, Base can connect to an SQL server, meaning that you could continue to use Microsoft SQL Server with Base as a front-end. Alternatively, open-source MySQL and PostgreSQL are two open-source, platform-independent database servers.

Open-Source Operating Systems

In all likelihood, switching to a Linux office will require some training for your employees. Depending on the systems you're currently using, it may also require a lot of time and effort reformatting your data. If you or someone on your staff doesn't have experience working with Linux in a business environment, you may need a skilled volunteer or consultant to help you out.

Before committing to a full switch for your office, it's a very good idea to start with a test drive. Install Linux on an extra desktop or as a virtual machine and get used to its interface and features. Familiarize yourself with the various Linux distributions available and learn which versions work best in different environments. The Nonprofit Open Source Initiative's Choosing and Using Free and Open Source Software: A Primer for Nonprofits is an excellent resource with numerous case studies of organizations who switched to a full open-source office.

Conclusion

Open source is an issue that elicits strong emotions in many people, and when you're looking for information about what open-source tools are right for your nonprofit, it's easy to get lost in all the noise.

It would be a mistake to overstate or understate the importance of open source. Like any technology, open-source tools have their pros and cons, and it's better to approach them on a case-by-case basis than to apply a blanket philosophy to them. Ultimately, open-source and proprietary software both have their place in the nonprofit world. Which tool is appropriate for you depends on your needs, your resources, and your organization's work culture.

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