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Open Source, Free and Cross-Platform Software

This page addresses the issues of Open Source, Free and Cross-Platform Software. It is targeted at making the transition between operating systems, keeping options open for such a transition or just obtaining the enhanced security of Open Source software.


This page is about choices and was brought into existance by my starting the transition from Microsoft Windows to Ubuntu Linux. Many argue that they represent the opposite ends of the spectrum, the worst and the best in underlying philosophy. It was however the more mundane issue than philosophy that started my transition - it was simply that I could no longer trust Windows to keep my systems secure and for me to be able to contain my data costs whilst on the move. It has however made me increasingly question how my software choice have been made,  how they should be made in the future and what changes are important enough to make now. This has also brought me to re-visit my requirements. The holy grail is, arguably, good software, well supported, which is Open Source and Cross Platform. Before looking more at the  definition of these terms and other aspects it is worth noting that there will usually be compromises required and in many areas some of Microsofts own software holds the high ground and I think it unlikely they will ever be ported willingly to Linux!

What does Open Source Software mean?

The term Open Source Software is comparatively recent and was brought in to replace the term free software which often is not quite what it says, at best is ambiguous and a term the corporate world can not understand. In general all the source code is accessible and anyone can make their own modifications. Much of the best Open Source Software has good free support from volunteers and enthusiasts and often there is also commercial support for firms which employ it. A good place to start is the Open Source Software Wiki Page which this is based upon. Open-source software generally allows anybody to make a new version of the software, port it to new operating systems and processor architectures, share it with others or market it. The aim of open source is to let the product be more understandable, modifiable, duplicatable, reliable or simply accessible, while it is still marketable. Software developers may want to publish their software with an Open Source License, so that anybody may also develop the same software or understand how it works. There is a well specified Open Source Definition which presents an open-source philosophy, and further defines a boundary on the usage, modification and redistribution of open-source software. Licenses are often employed to grant rights to users which would otherwise be prohibited by copyright. These include rights on usage, modification and redistribution. Several open-source software licenses have qualified within the boundary of the Open Source Definition. The most prominent example is the popular GNU General Public License (GPL). While open source presents a way to broadly make the sources of a product publicly accessible, the open-source licenses allow the authors to fine tune such access.

Linux is probably the best example of Open Source Software, the Linux Kernel and almost all the software for Linux is provided under the GNU GPL . The huge user community and inspection of all the openly available code means that problems are quickly identified and fixed. There are however many firms which provide tailored  systems and the full backup and support that a commercial enterprise requires and they feed back into the code base. Debian, Suse and Red Hat are now almost as familiar names as Microsoft and Apple in the corporate world yet still put all their work back into the public domain. Ubuntu Linux, for example, is a distribution based on the Debian flavour of Linux which has the same Kernel as Red Hat and Suse. All benefit especially the end users whether they are a home user, a large corporation or a government organisation.

Free and not so Free software

Often free software is not what it seems. There are some excellent examples of true free software, mostly written by enthusiasts which do not have obvious or hidden limitations. The Arachnophilia web editor and the Irfanview image processor are two I use which count as true free software yet do not go as far as providing the source code or have a GPL. The author of Arachnophilia, Paul Lutus has writen a Thought Provoking Article on Free Softwarethat I commend to you it brings out all the ways that free software can be far from what it says and, at best, only avoids a monitory up-front payment. That said there are many excellent pieces of software which have resonable restrictions such as that they are not for commercial use - in some cases I use both versions to cover the occasional consultancy activity. I have been using the ZoneAlarm Firewall, the WS_FTP LE FTP  and the Free version of PGP for many years.  They are all light (cut down) versions of commercial packages which are adequate for home use and often better than the costly home versions of software from better known names and I can live with the occasional reminder that the full versions offer more facilities.

Cross platform software

There will, I believe, always be a need for software to run on multiple operating systems if progress is not to stultified and the users satisfied. It is unlikely that Microsoft will ever be completely replaced by Unix/Linux and Apple still has a strong following. What will hopefully happen is that some equalisation will take place and that Microsoft will be forced to sharpen up its act and provide secure software and software under less restrictive terms. If it was not abusing its stranglehold and throttling competition then there would be much less discontent. Much of the really good cross product software has come from the Linux end and is also Open Source. Open Office is an excellent example. Other first class cross platform softwareincludes the Firefox web browser and the Thunderbird email client. Some other software has identical facilities on both such as the Vnu web editor, the GIMP image processor and Google Picasa. It is now possible to select almost identical suites of software for Windows and Linux machines making mixed systems or future migration much easier within a corporate environment. 


It is now time to run a ruler over the requirements of an 'average' user and see how they can be satisfied by software selected by criteria including Open Source, Cross Platform and Free (but not Open Source), probably in that order of importance. The other important factors are functionality, ease of use, documentation, reliability, security, continuity, both long and short term support and initial/annual costs. Every time I look at the list it grows. There are also obvious dangers that such an exercise is not as objective as it should be. It is easy to write what seem to be requirements but are put in such a way they subtly define the solution - a favourite game of those employing consultants for an 'independent accessment'.   My requirements have gradually evolved and there is a trail throughout this web site which is too big to change completely. Here I am going to start by build on the table reflecting  my requirements and how they were being met and how they could be met in Linux which started in Fun with Ubuntu Linux and working back to how one should move forward in a way that covers existing platforms and future options for change. That is, looking much more  closely at what one should deploy rather than just renewing existing licenses or making upgrades to the same packages whilst taking into account the security and continuity aspects. This is difficult unless one has analysed the alternatives and system implications in advance.

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