The best free open source software for Windows

To many, free open source software and Microsoft Windows seem to be mutually exclusive. After all, the open source development model is most closely associated with the Linux OS and, to a lesser degree, various Unix derivatives. So when you mention the two together, you often get some rather strange looks. This is a shame because there exists a growing landscape of compelling free and open source solutions just waiting for the intrepid Windows user.

You probably already know one of them well. Firefox has long stood as a prime example of how the open source development process can work to deliver a first-class solution that rivals, and in many ways surpasses, the best that the commercial side has to offer. However, it would be a mistake to make that arduous (for novices) trek to Mozilla.com and stop there. Over the horizon are many more FOSS-on-Windows treasures waiting to be discovered, including tools that can improve your productivity, expand your lines of communication, and help keep you safe from threats along the way.

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So if your perspective on open source is limited to squat s00miling penguins and swooshing orange canines, read on -- and learn about some of the free open source gems that deserve your consideration. Who knows? You may find yourself developing a whole new perspective on the open source community.

See our slideshow summary of the 10 best open source apps for Windows.

[ Editor's note: If the screen images in the remainder of this story are not visible, go to InfoWorld.com to see them. ]

Get well-connected with FileZillaFileZilla is one of those essential Internet tools that you just can’t live without. A full-featured Windows FTP client, FileZilla makes interacting with FTP sites an efficient, productive process.

I’m particularly fond of FileZilla’s handling of batch transfers. I mostly use the program to update various remote Web sites I manage, and I find its ability to process large sets of modified source files to be especially helpful. Most operations are a simple drag-and-drop affair. However, when I need to exert more control over the transfer, I can tap into FileZilla’s dizzying array of configuration parameters -- for example, using a time zone offset to synchronize files from a distant location, a convenient feature when you live on a remote island that’s nine hours ahead of your servers.

FileZilla truly is a Swiss Army Knife of a transfer program, and that is ultimately its undoing. In their quest to cover every conceivable FTP scenario, the developers have created a bit of a Frankenstein product, with multiple mixed UI metaphors clashing with one another. For example, the program (now in version 3.1) sports an archaic-looking, Windows 3.x-era toolbar. However, most of the more powerful features and options are buried inside its old-school menus and tree-view-laden dialog boxes.

FileZilla’s main UI window is also a throwback, with a confusing four-panel directory tree and contents layout that’s reminiscent of the old Windows File Manager application. In fact, everything about the FileZilla UI feels a bit dated, possibly a side effect of its cross-platform heritage.

Bottom line: FileZilla isn’t going to win any Windows UI beauty contests. But if you can look past the ancient exterior, you’ll discover one of the most powerful FTP clients available on Windows, Mac OS X, or Linux.

FileZilla isn’t the prettiest Windows application. However, it gets the job done, providing a wealth of options to streamline and automate batch transfers.

Double your OS pleasure with VirtualBoxVirtualBox has grown from a scrappy unknown wallowing in obscurity to a serious contender in the classic desktop virtualization space. Much of the credit goes to Sun Microsystems, which plucked VirtualBox from its underfunded developer, InnoTek GmbH, and gave it the technical resources and attention needed to reach its full potential.

The net result is a solution that now rivals -- and in some respects, surpasses -- VMware’s category-defining Workstation product. For example, under Sun’s guidance VirtualBox has expanded its host and guest OS platform support to include virtually all 32- and 64-bit variants of Windows, Linux, Unix, and Mac OS X. And while it lacks the sophisticated IDE or stand-alone VM authoring capabilities of its commercial competitor, it makes up for this by providing more brute processing power, including support for up to 32 virtual CPUs and 16GB of RAM per VM. (VMware Workstation 6.5 tops out at two CPUs and 8GB of RAM. See my comparison of Workstation 6.5 and VirtualBox 2.0.)

Unfortunately, if there’s an Achilles’ heel in VirtualBox, it has to be the clunky user interface. Another victim of the cross-platform development process, the VirtualBox UI features a variety of non-standard conventions and custom dialogs that look like they would be a better fit on a Linux or Unix system than any edition of Windows. And though VirtualBox makes an effort to streamline the guest OS configuration process -- for example, by flagging seemingly incompatible configuration parameters and suggesting corrections -- it doesn’t hold a candle to VMware’s Easy Install mechanism.

Still, the UI is just window dressing, after all. VirtualBox covers the basics well and, as of version 3.0, outshines VMware Worsktation in terms of CPU and memory scalability per VM. It will be interesting to see how VMware responds to this potent threat to its desktop virtualization hegemony.

Bottom line: Unless you need the very developer-specific features of VMware Workstation (IDE integration, Easy Install, robust snapshots with real-time playback), there really is no reason ever to pay for desktop virtualization software again. VirtualBox 3.0 is that good.

Watch out, VMware! VirtualBox 3.0 now supports up to 32 virtual CPUs per guest OS session, making it the new class leader in desktop virtualization scalability.

Get down to work with OpenOffice.orgOpenOffice.org is one of the tools most closely associated with the free open source movement. Encompassing word processing, spreadsheet, presentation graphics, drawing, and database functions, OpenOffice.org is a full-featured office productivity suite designed to compete with commercial solutions from Microsoft and SoftMaker, as well as SaaS offerings from Google and Zoho. It also serves as the basis for a variety of derivative productivity suites, including IBM’s Symphony and the Novell inspired Go-OO.org. (See my review of OpenOffice.org 3.1.)

Unfortunately, OpenOffice.org’s high profile has also made it a lightning rod for criticisms of open source development practices. A sprawling, sometimes top-heavy product, OpenOffice.org has been accused of succumbing to a kind of featuritis, with each new release trying to match or surpass Microsoft’s market-dominating commercial Office suite. Meanwhile, core deficiencies -- like the lack of a reliable import/export capability for Microsoft-formatted files -- has caused many IT organizations to take a pass on this free, yet fundamentally flawed, Office alternative.

But for users who don’t need to exchange data regularly with Microsoft Office, OpenOffice.org provides a capable set of tools for accomplishing just about anything a typical business user would require. The OpenOffice.org Writer application is comparable to Microsoft Word in terms of core features, and the Calc and Presentations applications are more than adequate for all but the most demanding usage scenarios.

Bottom line: OpenOffice.org provides a powerful business productivity solution for IT shops that are looking to save costs and for which Microsoft Office compatibility is not a top priority.

OpenOffice.org is the quintessential free open source application, with numerous derivative works -- like the Novell-driven Go-OO.org variant -- providing an endless variety of custom-tailored solutions.

Expand your horizons with Mozilla FirefoxLike OpenOffice.org, Firefox is another tool that's almost synonymous with free open source. It’s also the movement’s greatest success story, with more than 30 percent of Web surfers running some version of the Firefox browser. The story is all the more remarkable when you consider that Microsoft effectively owned this category just a few short years ago, having captured 90 percent of Internet users by bundling the Internet Explorer browser with the Windows operating system.

Although Firefox is free, unlike Internet Explorer it doesn't just fall into your lap; you need to consciously seek out, download, and install it -- all tasks that have traditionally been beyond the pale for average users. That Mozilla.org has been able to reach past this kind of inertia and convince such a wide audience to try Firefox is testimony both to the product’s quality and to the power of public perception: All the cool, savvy users seem to run Firefox, while Internet Explorer is now considered the choice of newbies and the unsophisticated.

It also helps that Firefox is a darn good browser, chock-full of useful features and thoughtful touches, like one-touch bookmarking and an integrated search and address field (aka the "awesome bar"). And if there’s something you don’t like about Firefox or a feature you think is missing, chances are the need has already been addressed by one of the program’s 6,000 or more add-ons.

In fact, it’s this active add-on community that makes Firefox so attractive to the tuners and tweakers of the global IT audience. Firefox truly is whatever you make it, and for many users, this is just the kind of customizability that’s worth seeking out.

Bottom line: Firefox is the standard bearer of the free open source movement and a shining example of what a community-oriented development process can achieve.

Firefox is another standard bearer for the free open source movement, with features that surpass even those of commercially developed Web browsers.

Show your creative side with Paint.netPaint.net has a checkered past as a free open source solution. Originally released as a completely open source project, its developers were forced to scale back to a more restrictive Creative Commons License (still freely available, but without source code) after unscrupulous parties decided to rename the original and try to resell it for profit.

As currently constituted, Paint.net qualifies for only the “free” part of the FOSS acronym, which is a shame since the program itself is a hidden gem. Designed by a bunch of Washington State University students as a replacement for Windows’ anemic Paint accessory, Paint.net has evolved to incorporate a growing list of sophisticated image editing capabilities, including layers and a complete plug-in system for adding image effects and support for various file types.

The program’s fans like to think of Paint.net as a functional alternative to commercial tools, like Adobe Photoshop or Paint Shop Pro. However, limitations in key areas (brush selection, text manipulation) coupled with a lack of TWAIN scanner support, continue to relegate Paint.net to the amateur leagues. Furthermore, the program's reliance on the .Net framework means that you need to factor that additional layer of complexity into your cost/benefit calculations (not to mention download time, considering .Net Framework 3.5 with SP1 weighs in at more than 200MB).

Bottom line: If your image editing needs are modest -- and you don’t mind going outside of your image editing environment to fill the occasional features gap with another tool (such as scanning) -- then Paint.net may be just the solution you’ve been looking for.

Although Paint.net may not be ready to take on the best-of-breed commercial offerings, it still provides more than enough muscle to satisfy all but the most demanding artists.

Go back to the future with Media Player ClassicMedia Player Classic is a tool that always causes me to do a double-take. After all, it appears to be almost identical to the original Media Player accessory that shipped with Windows 9x all those years ago. However, looks can be deceiving, and under the hood, MPC is a completely different animal, with built-in support for a wide variety of audio and video formats, an extensible architecture, and a seemingly inexhaustible supply of nifty hidden features.

All nostalgia aside, it’s the integrated playback support that makes MPC so popular. Simply download MPC from its SourceForge.net Web site and run the program (no installer is required). You are immediately able to play a variety of formats, including MPEG/MPEG-2/MPEG-4, DivX, Xvid, and CD/VCD/DVD media -- all without installing any external codecs. In fact, many users rely on MPC as a kind of litmus test for media files: If MPC can’t play it, there’s probably something wrong with the file.

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