Free and easy computing

Free and easy computing

There's a reliable, and legal, alternative to software that comes with a price tag, writes Alvin Yuen

When Shatin College student Jonathan Yue Shun-poon, 16, turns on his computer, he is not greeted by the familiar Windows interface and jingle that awaits most computer users.

As a fan of free and open-source software (Foss), Yue has instead installed Linux on his machine. Linux is a Foss operating system that dates back to 1991, when Finnish programmer Linus Torvalds wrote the first code.

"Most people have the illusion that if you pay for something, it must be better than something that's free," he says. "What they don't realise is the passion of open-source developers. They don't develop programs and applications for money, they do it for the sake of creating a quality product - and in many cases open source is better."

And Linux is not the only example of software that can be used on your computer free of charge. Open Office Suite is an open-source rival to Microsoft's Office package, while VLC media player is a free alternative to Windows Media Player (WMP). Many users appreciate VLC's ability to play almost any media format, and some even prefer it to WMP, which they say is fussy about what it will and will not play.

And new features can even be available on Foss products first.

Dominic Charles Thompson, 19, a student at Royal Holloway, University of London, quotes the example of free internet browser Mozilla Firefox.

'Firefox adopted the concept of tab-based browsing long before Internet Explorer did, and today, it's a feature that none of us can even think of living without,' he says.

Thompson has been using Foss for four years. His media players, graphics editors, office suites, Web browsers and operating system are all produced by unpaid programming enthusiasts.

He says this software can save students much-needed money - with little, or no, loss in efficiency. 'The vast majority of the user base will not notice any sort of difference.'

But can computer users survive on Foss alone? Yes, according to Thompson. 'Many people already use Foss exclusively: they use a Linux distribution instead of Windows; use VLC instead of Windows Media Player; use Mozilla Firefox instead of Internet Explorer; and use Gimp instead of Photoshop.'

Gimp is a free graphics editing program that fans say is getting closer to replacing Photoshop with every release.

And some experts note that all internet users are already using Linux in some way. If you search using Google, or watch a video on YouTube, you're accessing sites based on Linux technology. Thompson says this is because Linux tends to produce sturdier software.

'The Foss community produces programs all the time and they are constantly being updated and upgraded with newer and better features to match those that proprietary software possess,' says Thompson.

Thompson admits that proprietary software can have more features, but says many people don't use most of them. 'How many students need to mail merge in Word?' he asks.

Nathan Chan Hou-ying, a student at the University of Manchester, agrees. He says he uses very few of the features included in Microsoft Word.

'Most of the time I use Microsoft Word to write essays and take notes. I don't feel that I use all the features that Word has. I usually just change the font and the size of the text, and that's about it.'

Jonathan is optimistic about the future of open source. 'It is certainly heading in the right direction, and Android is a good example,' he says of the latest Google mobile operating system.

Additional reporting by Chris Taylor



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