Is Open Source Software Falling Short?

Tuesday Feb 21st 2012 by Matt Hartley
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Can free open source software compete with its well-funded proprietary competitor?

Open source software has managed to find its way into the minds and hearts of users on all three popular desktop platforms. I know of countless Windows users who enjoy free access to applications such as Firefox, LibreOffice, GIMP, Filezilla, among others. Users of these popular software titles know all to well the benefits of using open source software.

Yet, there's still the question of using open source software in place of proprietary software. Specifically: can open source software provide an adequate replacement for legacy software?

This is the question I’ll answer in this article. I’ll look at the open source applications I use, and how they differ from their proprietary alternatives.

Web browsing

For web browsing, I tend to lean on Chromium, Chrome and Firefox. Two of these are considered open source browsers, with the third being software that has some restrictions to it.

Lately, I've found myself using Chromium more, as it feels a lot like Chrome, thanks to having a shared code base. So on the browser front, I've found that using open source browsers is not a big deal.

Both Firefox and Chromium provide me with a vastly superior browsing experience when compared to the proprietary alternatives on Windows and OS X. With the available extensions, ease of import/export options, there's nothing to miss.

In this instance, open source browsing is a no-brainer.

Office Suites

If you are someone who relies on really large spreadsheets or MS Office documents with specialized formatting, then making the switch to LibreOffice might not be doable. But for most office suite users who don’t need to collaborate with a limited formatting issue, LibreOffice is more than enough to get the job done.

The biggest challenge for getting people to make the switch to LibreOffice is going to be the user interface, since it's dated and in dire need of a refresh. At the same time, I'm not a fan of the MS Office ribbon UI, either. Many people happen to like it, though I’m not among them.

Back on the LibreOffice front, we're still waiting for the UI to find its way to a refreshed appearance. There has been much talk of a new UI called Citrus, however it has yet to even appear on the roadmap.

Based on an examination of the issues explained above with LibreOffice, the real issue is going to be whether or not an office environment is using the software across the board. If everyone in your work group is using the same product for their office suite, there is no problem to be had with formatting. While on the other hand, mixing and matching office suites can lead to some frustration.

Specialized legacy applications

One of the easiest places to find yourself hung up is with legacy software. These are applications that you used to use on another platform, that you're now missing while running an open source operating system such as Linux on your desktop.

Applications such as Photoshop and After Affects, as well as other Adobe products, tend to be among the most sought-after software titles some users miss on the Linux desktop. In addition to Adobe products, there are various cad programs, plus different enterprise-specific apps that cause users to question whether open source apps can stand up to legacy software needs.

Now despite what some people might tell you, a lot of the time there's going to be open source applications that will meet most of your needs. And these days, the number of applications running under an open source alternative seems to be growing.

In fact, there are very few instances where an open source alternative can't be found easily. Even better is that if an application doesn't exist yet, it's likely it will in the near future.

Work-a-rounds for legacy software

As we've discussed above, sometimes open source applications aren't going to be a natural fit for all end users. This means if you're relying on the Windows desktop, you're not going to be swapping out that legacy software without some reservations.

If you're using Linux however, this may mean you're going to be looking at a virtualization option as your reluctance to dump legacy apps may have you on the ropes.

With many businesses, you'll likely be using a server that is designated for such things as providing you access to the software you need – regardless of your OS. If it's a standalone PC, however, then you might want to consider something like WINE for select Windows legacy software titles.

While it's doable, unfortunately running Windows software in WINE can be more of a hassle than a benefit. Therefore, it might be worthwhile to consider a locally installed virtualization solution such as VMWare or VirtualBox.

In either case, you'll be able to run "must have" legacy Windows software on your Linux installation, assuming your system resources have enough power to spare.

If possible, I suggest sticking with software applications that are native to the platform you're running. That means if you're needing to use more proprietary Windows applications than apps designed for both Linux and Windows, then switching operating systems could be a bad idea in some instances.

Getting your work done

As a general rule, most open source applications will give you the functionality needed even if the user interface isn't always as attractive as we might like it to be. Most challenges will be from end users thinking that the experience they had with the proprietary software will be similar to what they'll find with the open source alternative. For the most part, the end results will be similar, while the user interface and overall method of getting the work done will likely vary.

A classic example of this kind of software difference would, again, be with MS Office. The Microsoft ribbon interface was designed to make using their office suite easier. Unfortunately, if this is something you’re accustomed to, you will be in for a surprise when using LibreOffice.

Does this difference actually affect one's ability to accomplish a task? No, it doesn't do anything of the sort. But this difference may be enough of a hassle to create extra work for a new user.

Utilizing open source software to its fullest is best done by choosing applications that present users with only a minor learning curve. The less of a learning curve experienced, the better the switch to non-proprietary applications will feel to those affected.

Switching to open source the easy way

Making the leap to open source software usually starts with Firefox, as it's the gateway application for countless newcomers. And the best part is many people who have never used open source software before are likely already using this browser!

Once this is realized, the barrier to entry seems a whole lot less scary. The next step is to begin trying new open source applications that aren't designed to replace legacy software.

For example, if you needed a new FTP client, you could try Filezilla. This allows you to experience the application without the usual expectations of how it compares to proprietary alternatives.

It doesn't actually matter which open source software title you choose. What is important is that you try new software periodically as to break free from your comfort zone.

Once you make this a regular thing, the idea of trying replacements for legacy programs becomes a lot less invasive.

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