A Survey of Free Software

One of the most vibrant areas of software development world is the free/open source software movement. A big reason to learn and use Freeware and Web 2.0 software is most of it is available free.

Most people think primarily of Linux when using this term but there is a much larger eco system. You have to do some research and trial and error since you won’t see a bunch of ads around (it’s free remember) Actually the “free” part is the biggest Ad.!

The movement covers most “normal” functional areas of software, from

Web 2.0 services,

  • E-mail, MSN, Gmail, Other Google services,
  • Web hosting, Blogs: WordPress.com, Blogger, others,
  • Regular web hosting, Microsoft Live. Microsoft live does not get much respect but is a very rich offering , now up to 25 GB of space and web site, automatic file backup/synchronization, blogs, picture storage, collaborative workspace and more.
  • Google app engine is so big and multifaceted I have not yet started to use it, and it’s free.

It is a bit hard to find the good and distinguish from the bad, many Google search results are pretty confusing. I generally have to poke around a bit in a regular Google search to find the host site as opposed to some fly-by-night site. You really want to “know” what you are looking for, find reviews and make sure that you are getting the “original” product. I am including links in this paper to most of the key products which I mention.

For instance I wanted to use Eclipse a major free Software development platform,. I figured I would need the Linux operating system. I downloaded and installed the Ubuntu version of Linux and configured it to “dual boot on my machine. One of it’s features is an automatic software installer, which is very cool, just click what you want and the operating system downloads and installs the software. Unfortunately, it did not work for Eclipse, I later found out that the version that Ubuntu had in it’s repositories was out of data. A direct download from the Eclipse site rand fine, in the process I also discovered that almost all of the freeware I was interested in was available in Windows, it was not just a Linux phenomenon! In fact most freeware is pretty platform independent, this is because the developers are very conscious of wanting to appeal to all audiences and since most of the software is built using freeware tools themselves which incorporated “cross-platform” libraries.

Some of the software and systems fall into the category of, “some assembly required”. While if you get everything from Microsoft, you can generally expect it all to work together right out of the box. Well, sometimes not quite that easy. In the free software arena you may very well be getting numerous pieces from separate vendors to work nicely together. In my case Mysql, JDBC driver, Birt report writer, query browser, Eclipse, Subversion, and Heidi SQL. In general the process is not too painful, and the online support community is very responsive, more so that the “Normal” vendors. You may often hear directly from the developer. Learning each products support methods is a bit of a chore but the more you do the more they all begin to feel very similar.

Sometimes documentation can be an issue a project called Floss manuals is a relatively new attempt to address the issue, check out the site free manuals for freeware.

I started to document my journey to the brave new software world. Wait! you say, its not new, and well you may be right! But it is new to me and from poking around in the process of learning it it seems that it is new to a lot of other people also.

I began by setting up a web site on Microsoft Live. Located at Http://TomBrander.com which hosts information about my real estate statistical consulting services. While Microsoft is not normally associated with great web stuff, this product is a wonderful exception. I got it when they were still handing out free domain registration, which sadly they have discontinued, now its something like $14.95 per year. However, the hosting remains free. You can get a free subdomain (like http://myname.live.com) and still get completely operational for free. Since, as some have pointed out, search is the most common way to find information now on the web. I don’t think the lack of a full domain registration is the handicap it once was, Google does index top level domains better, I hear, though.

I also incorporated a Blog hosted here at WordPress, a free service, http://tbrander.wordpress.com and incorporated into the main site via Iframes. I also maintain a Tech blog which will have this posted on it as well at https://tombrander.wordpress.com.

I’m now exploring Linux (Ubuntu), MySql, Eclipse, Open Office. I’ve got them loaded but I have a ways to go to get fully operational. I’m Using a dual boot Dell Win XP pro Machine with the newest Ubuntu Hardy. I’ll pick up some of that next time. I’m striving to create a solid free software development replacement to my entire Windows experience. I need a replacement for MS Access and eventually Photoshop CS3, although If I could get that in Wine I’d probably be ok with it.

Other neat tools/ services I’ve picked up are: Many Items in Google such as my new favorite: Google “reader” the Shared items page, Base, Mail, Docs, adsense, to do lists, portfolio, finance and a bunch of others, something new almost every day.

Metadot: A free hosted Wiki. My experimental site is here.

Mindtouch Wiki a hosted free service. My site is here.

PB wiki Is a hosted free service. My site is here.

Del.icio.us; A great way to keep bookmarks organized so I can get to them via any computer and not use my browser which keeps them stuck on one machine.

In fact one of my main goals is to move as much as I can into the “cloud” so that depending on a particular machine or location is no longer necessary. So this means giving up on Microsoft Outlook. So far no problem.

One last item for today is getting Firefox instead of Explorer, It has been a great improvement. I happen to be in Explorer at the moment, for no particular reason but I find myself most of the time in Firefox, which seems noticeably faster and much less crash prone, when running exactly the same stuff!


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