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Business in Vancouver: News that works for you

Free software increasingly pervasive at the office

by Alan Zisman (c) 2002 First published in Business in Vancouver ,  Issue #668  August 13-19, 2002 High Tech Office  column
 

It's less confusing in French: they have two different words for it, libre and gratuit. Free Software Foundation founder Richard Stallman suggests free software be thought of "not in the sense of free beer, but in the sense of free speech." It's often referred to as "open source," since unlike typical commercial software, the underlying source code is open to examination and change (at least to people who are more savvy programmers than I). But while users may buy a CD with open-source software on it, it can also be downloaded for free (as in free beer), copied freely, and installed on multiple systems, in contrast to proprietary software.

Recent changes in Microsoft's corporate licensing that came into effect on July 31 (see High-tech office, April 16, 2002) have resulted in an increased number of longtime Microsoft customers looking at alternatives. Two-thirds of customers polled in the spring by Gartner and Giga Information research groups were either unwilling or undecided whether to sign on to Microsoft's new licensing plans. And an informal poll conducted by InfoWorld magazine reported that 42 per cent of respondents were unhappy enough to be planning to switch away from Microsoft's products.

But are you ready to trust your business data to free software?

You may already be doing so without knowing it. Fully two-thirds of the servers on the Web use open- source Apache Web server software while open-source Linux is the fastest- growing network operating system. E-mail is typically sped along its way using the free sendmail, found on an estimated 75 per cent of mail servers. The Internet itself runs on top of freely available software protocols such as TCP/IP and HTTP.

Free (as in free speech) software has been getting a lot of support from prominent technology companies including IBM, which has committed US$1 billion for Linux development. The company has realized it can save money by using Linux as a common operating system across its wide range of product lines. In 2000, IBM sold US$30 million worth of Linux-related servers. By 2004, it expects to sell US$3.4 billion.

While Linux and Apache remain free (both as in speech and as in beer) software, IBM bundles them with for-sale suites of IBM-developed software such as WebSphere. As well, IBM (and Red Hat, Caldera, and others) sell services and support to users of free software packages.

Open-source software packages underlie the Internet and are increasingly powering network servers, even in the largest corporations. But they've been less evident on most of our desktops. That may be beginning to change. Coincident with the change in Microsoft's licensing policies, two major open-source projects aimed at everyday users have released their first official versions:

OpenOffice 1.0 (www.openoffice.org) is a complete office suite, a potential replacement for Microsoft Office with which it has good (though not perfect) file format compatibility. Related, but with more features and support, at a price, is Sun's Star Office 6.0 (US$25-75).

Mozilla 1.0 (www.mozilla.org.) is an open-source Web browser, with a nice e-mail module plus a basic but usable Web page creation program. My favourite feature: tabs allowing multiple pages in a single browser window. It's related to recent Netscape Navigator versions, without that program's AOL commercial baggage.

While OpenOffice and Mozilla both have versions for Windows and other operating systems, the Linux operating system aims to replace Windows entirely. Recent Linux distributions such as Mandrake 8.2 (www.mandrakelinux.com) are easier to install and use on desktop computers than ever. Many current business Windows users would be surprised at how small a learning curve there can be in moving to a Microsoft-free Linux/OpenOffice/Mozilla system.

Are you or your business using or investigating open-source alternatives to Microsoft's products that are free as in speech and as in beer? Let me know.



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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan