The best open-source alternatives to commercial and proprietary software – desktop edition

What is open-source or libre software?

Software is like food: to build it, you need a recipe and tools. Behind the magic that is happening when using your computer, there is a piece of code written in a specific language that is eventually transformed into a machine language your computer executes. When cooking, a recipe gives you the list of ingredients so that you can see and analyze if the content is appropriate for you. In case you have an allergy, you can choose not to cook it and choose another recipe. If you want to replace an ingredient (for example, because of an allergy) or use a better alternative (using organic ingredient for example), this is completely up to you. But to do that, you need something simple: get the recipe. If you do not have it, there is no way you can know what is inside.

Software is like cooking and the source code is the recipe. If you have the source code, you can rebuild the software or even improve it. You can study it, look at its defects and issues and fix bugs or improve the software. For sure, you need to understand the language, but this is the same issue if you receive a recipe in German when you speak only English.

In the software industry, we distinguish mainly two business model for software: open-source (also called libre- or free – I will not go into the details) and commercial. Open-source software gives you access to the source code while commercial software keeps it secret. In other words, with open-source or libre- software, you can analye if the software is good for you. With commercial software, you do not know what is inside.

How different it is from commercial software?

As a user, from a functional perspective, there is not so much difference. Same when going in a restaurant: you just consumer – you eat what is on the menu, without knowing exactly how it is made or cooked – the magic happens in the kitchen! But sometimes, you will be surprised how dirty and bad is the kitchen and you might better investigate what is happening behind the scenes. Same thing with software: investigating what is really done by the software would be helpful to you and understand what others do with your data.

As stated previously, you need to have the source code with the ability to understand it. But when exposing the source code to a large community of developers is alrady a major step forward: you can (at least) rely on a small expert community that will review part of the code (which is not possible with commercial software). Even if you are not a programmer and does not know any programming language, using open-source/libre software is of primary importance. In fact, there is a massive community of developers that review source code, fix issues and improve such piece of software on a regular basis. The main advantages of using open-source software are:

  • security
  • privacy
  • flexibility
  • stability

On the other hand, it can have some issue:

  • lack of support
  • use by experts only

In fact, using open-source or free software is necessary but not sufficient. This is a best-effort approach: it provides some protection and is (for sure) and better solution than commercial software. But it cannot proves and guarantees that it provides all the necessary protections you might expect. Having a total bulletproof system is not feasible, the best strategy is to try protecting yourself as much as possible.

Libre Software Alternatives

Web Browsing

Firefox is the open-source web-browser you need. Many of its features are totally unknown, such as sync (to sync your preferences and bookmarks over several devices) or the anti-ad extensions. Firefox has done a fantastic job to reboot the web and make it more often. They are also pretty good at innovating and introducing new features (such as WebGL).

The browser is available on almost all platforms (Windows, Linux, Mac OS, Android, iOS, etc.) so you can think your profile between many devices and also support a good organization that do its best to protect your privacy.

But … why not chrome or IE?

Chrome is a product from a company making money by selling ads (google). Do you seriously think their business is to make a product that protect your privacy? Internet Explorer (as Chrome) source code is not available so that none of these products can guarantee they will protect your privacy. As firefox is mostly as good as other browsers in terms of performance, stick with the one that is cross-platforms and protect your privacy.

E-mail

Thunderbird is Mozilla’s (editor of Firefox) brother (ah ah ah) for e-mail. It supports many features and can get e-mails from POP or IMAP servers. It is also privacy-savvy and can be used with encryption support. If you are looking for a good e-mail client, go for it!

But … why not gmail?

gmail is free and easy to use, so, why not using it, right? Well, gmail does not protect your privacy, either to spy on you or to propose you new ads. No matter the reason, I do not want anybody to read my e-mails. Some argue that it does not matter because if you send an e-mail to somebody, this guy has probably a gmail account so that they can already process your data. To this argument, I would oppose the following reasons:

  1. This argument is as saying you are not becoming vegetarian because people will not kill animals and produce meat. If you stop using gmail and encourage people to do so, spying activities will then be more difficult
  2. You can use gmail as a POP3 account and still use encryption. Sure, the service can still process the metadata (headers) but not the content, which is already a big step forward.

No matter what, keep your own shit, protect your data, your privacy and avoid gmail at all cost. Period.

What e-mail provider?

Having a good e-mail client is not sufficient, you also need to protect your data to be processed and analyzed by your e-mail provider. This is known that traditional service providers analyze your messages, even if this is only to show you accurate ads. Regardless the reason, they open your messages to analyze it. Actually, there are few e-mail providers that are privacy-savyy. While you pay traditional services by sharing your privacy, these one must be paid with real money. For about $50 a year, you can then have a good e-mail services that will also protect your privacy. Some names? startmail, runbox, etc. You can find a list of good services online. Instead of paying by giving away your privacy, you just give real money. Yes, everything comes at a price.

Text Editing

Yes, people still edit text files. It might sound weird but in fact, text files are probably the most efficient way to takes notes easily. Using the markdown format, it can be more than enough in most cases. Anyway, if you are running on Windows, I would recommend Notepad++, a pretty efficient tool to edit text released under the GPL. If you are running Linux, use vim (gasp) but if you are looking for a user-friendly soft, just use kate or gedit. And finally, if you are running Mac OS, just change your OS.

Chat

Chat is a difficult choice because what matters is not only the software you are using but mostly the protocol you are using. For example, you can use an open-source software for chatting online with your friends on MSN/gtalk but it will still use the gmail infrastructure to transport your messages. Yes, you are not using a proprietary piece of software on your machine but you are still relying on a massive infrastructure that will analyze and process your data.

So, you can use whatever you want but I would recommend not to use any specific chat program but rather stick to e-mail. If you are really looking to discuss with your friends, I guess that the best efficient way to do it would be to use IRC. On the other hand, many folks do not want to use IRC and rather use any crappy webservice. As Churchill said: ¬†“The best argument against democracy is a 5 minutes conversation with the average voter”.

Productivity

By “productivity” we means software to “produce” something. Using youtube or facebook is not being productive. One of the best software is just OpenOffice.org (or its brother LibreOffice.org). Yes, this is not beautiful but who cares? It works just well and offers almost the same interface from one version to another.

Sure, it does not have all the fancy extensions from Word. But who cares? For 99.999% of users, it does not matter at all. And each version of Microsoft Office tools has a different layout so that you end up by being totally lost from one version to another. In addition, formats between versions are not so compatible (the layout can be different) so you end up by exporting in PDF …

Sure, LibreOffice/OpenOffice might not be as fancy as Word. But it offers a simple interface that works. And that is all what we are asking when we want to be … productive!

Pictures

Basically, the number one software used to work on picture is Photoshop. But obviously, who knows how to seriously use all of its features? The soft is really complicated to use and, in addition, is really expensive! If you are looking for a cheap (free!) and open-source alternative, just use the gimp. Simple, efficient, you cannot be wrong with it. It runs on all platforms and is pretty stable.

Instead, just use The Gimp. This is sufficient for most of us – and may already have more features than you expect. The Gimp is available for free on several platforms under an open source license. No reason for not using it.

What about the other applications?

This list is just a start. But when looking for a software, try to find an open-source alternative. Not something that is free just as free of charge but free as in freedom. Check the license (GPL, BSD, etc) and make sure the software license is an open-source one. As of today, there are many open-source licenses and a lot of good open-source (or libre) software.

Also, for sure, you are probably using Windows or Mac OS, which are the two main proprietary/non open-source Operating Systems on the market (this can be discussed for Mac OS ). One big step would be to step away from Windows and use a libre alternative (such as Ubuntu for example). That would be more difficult and require more efforts – you will then need to learn again the basics of using your computer.

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The best open-source alternatives to commercial and proprietary software – desktop edition

Firefox is not dead, we need it more than ever

A recent post on slashdot argued that Mozilla has succeeded in its goal with Firefox by supporting choice and innovation on the internet. Before Firefox, there was almost no diversity in the browser world and the only choice was Internet Explorer, which was, from a developer point of view, a disaster. By bringing innovation in browser-land, Mozilla attracted users so that Internet Explorer became the outsider. Since then, Apple improved Safari and Google released their own browser, Chrome. So, one can legitimately wonders: is the war of the open-web promoted earlier by Firefox over? Do we still need Firefox? funny-cat-lolcat-browser-history In fact, we need Firefox more than ever. Before the war is not over. Firefox was initially the starting point of a major technical change that ended by promoting web-standards. Thanks to the hard work from the Mozilla foundation and its community, Firefox changed the browser landscape, which reboot the browser war. But now, the war is no longer about the support of standards or performance (they almost have similar performance – at least for the end user – some review put also Firefox first) but on the protection of user privacy. From a technical perspective, major browsers are built on an open-source engine (KHTML/Website for Safari, Chromium for Chrome and the next engine from Internet Explorer), but the full source code is not disclosed. Only the rendering engine is public, not the complete software and especially not the parts that process your data (thinking about people that synchronize Chrome with their google account?). For that reason, is almost impossible to check how each browser manages your data and if some of it is sent/used to/by an undisclosed third-party. Recent news show that many software have built-in backdoors as requested by various governmental or commercial authorities. On the other hand, the full source code of Firefox is available so that technology experts can precisely analyze what the software is doing and prevent any data leakage. This ensures to the user that the software can be reviewed by security experts. And that any potential defects or errors is fixed as soon as possible. Using such a browser on your computer or mobile phone is thus of primary importance. cookies-enabled.meme.stevepiper.net The war of making the internet free and open is still going on. The first battle consisted in taking back the internet from a technical point of view: promoting¬† standards and make the web inter-operable again between various devices and operating systems. This is one was a success for Firefox. The nest battle is to take back the internet from a legal and freedom perspective, ensure that the tools we use preserve our privacy and primary rights. That each of us we can use the web and express their opinion. Considering the actual political context, this is a big challenge, let’s hope Firefox will be one technical solution to this issue.

Firefox is not dead, we need it more than ever

How to use capitalone website with Debian/Iceweasel

Browser compatibility can be hard to manage sometimes. It seems that the website of capitalone, a credit card company in the US has some difficulties to make a website that runs on Iceweasel, the fork of Firefox from Debian. This post if not a discussion if Debian users should switch to Firefox but rather to explain how to use capitalone website with Iceweasel.

When you go on the capitalone website with Firefox or Internet Explorer, the homepage looks like the following with the login widget.

Capital One website with Firefox
Capital One website with Firefox

However, when trying to access using Iceweasel, the login widget does not appear and you cannot sign in. At first, this was really inconvenient because I was not able to use the website. I did not understand at first and this is just after browsing the website that I understood the root cause.

Capital One website with Iceweasel
Capital One website with Iceweasel

In fact, when going to some other page, it looks that the website is not sending data when the request is sent by special user agents. And it sounds like Iceweasel might be one of them. See below how the credit card login page looks like with Iceweasel.

The "Connection Reset" issue
The “Connection Reset” issue

Of course, you can choose to download and install Firefox on Debian but it might be more convenient to use the same browser and find a workaround. In fact, this can be solved by changing the user agent sent to the webserver. For the non technical people reading that blog, the user agent is a set of characters that identify your software. In the context of a web browser, the set of characters will indicate if the browser is Internet Explorer, Firefox, Google Chrome or Iceweasel. And depending on the user agent, the server can change and adapt the content. In the present case, it looks that the website is not sending anything when the user agent is Iceweasel.

The workaround is then to “trick” the server and send a fake user agent. To do so, install the User Agent Switcher in Iceweasel. Then, when going on the capitalone website, change the user agent to something popular (such as Firefox as shown below) and the login widget will magically appear.

Selecting the Appropriate User Agent
Selecting the Appropriate User Agent

For sure, this trick or hack is painful and the real solution will be to fix the website rather than to use dirty hacks. On the other hand, this issue is there since several months and has never been fixed by the company. This trick might also (unfortunately) help you when using other websites that provides browser-dependent content. If you are a web-designer, keep in mind that the content should just be compliant with the standards (such as the one from the W3C) and must not depend on a specific technology (such as a web browser).

How to use capitalone website with Debian/Iceweasel