Free Software for Your New Christmas Computer -- Or Any Computer for That Matter
Mike Angelo -- 28 December 2001 (C)
Sun's StarOffice is a free and for sale graphical word processing and HTML (HyperText Markup Language) authoring program. What's more, StarOffice is a complete office suite, which also includes spreadsheet, database, presentation, graphics, and scheduling modules.
StarOffice runs on the Linux, Solaris, and Windows operating systems. It looks and feels the same across platforms.
Unlike AbiWord and GIMP, StarOffice is not open source. StarOffice belongs to Sun Microsystems which chooses to keep the source code closed and proprietary. However, Sun makes the StarOffice binaries available for free public downloading. Sun also sells StarOffice on CD for a nominal charge of $10 and as a boxed product, which includes the CD, the full printed Setup Guide and User's Guide, for $40.
The current StarOffice version is 5.2. StarOffice 6 now is in its final beta stage and is expected to be released in early 2002.
Figure 3 below is a screen shot of StarOffice version is 5.2 in file manager mode running on Microsoft Windows 98 SE. Figure 4 below is a screen shot of StarOffice version is 5.2 in word processing mode. The screen shots were reduced to two-thirds size to fit them in this Web page layout -- that's why they are somewhat fuzzy.
Composer is the free HTML editor and Web authoring module of the Netscape 4, Netscape 6, and Mozilla browser-suites. It helps you to create and to edit Web page and text-content-oriented documents easily. The Mozilla-based Composer is open source and you may download it at no charge by downloading the Mozilla or Netscape browser suites.
The Composer WYSIWYG desktop looks and feels much as a graphical word-processor desktop looks and feels. However, behind the scenes, Composer is formatting your Web page document in HTML for publication on the World Wide Web, for e-mail, or as an attribute-rich, text-content-oriented document -- or as plain text if you like. (Please see Composer, The Netscape & Mozilla Graphical HTML Editor & Word Processor, link in the Resources section at the end of this article.)
One downside to Composer is that there is no spell-checker with the Mozilla version. There is a spell-checker with the Netscape versions. Netscape 4 and the Composer module that comes with it is three-year old technology.
Another downside is that the Mozilla-based Composer is part of the controversial Mozilla Project. (Please see Learning from Mozilla's mistakes, link in the Resources section at the end of this article.)
When the Mozilla Project gets its act together, the Mozilla-based Composer likely will be a very nice and handy word-processing, text editing, and HTML authoring tool. However, as it stands now you might find AbiWord and StarOffice to be the better choices for word-processing, text editing, and HTML authoring work.
Obtaining Free Software and Open Source Software
AbiWord, GIMP, and Star Office are included in most, if not all, current major Linux distributions. Most current major Linux distributions also include Mozilla and Netscape -- therefore Composer is included with these Linux distributions too.
None of these programs are included with the Microsoft Windows distribution. So, if you want to try the programs mentioned here today, you will have to download them. Star Office is fairly large so you might want to purchase the CD.
Of course, if you already are into Linux you know about all the goodies that are packed into commercial Linux distributions. If not, there are some links in the Resources section of this article that have more information about all the stuff that is included with the four major Linux distributions. If you are a MS Windows user interested in trying Linux, please check our Linux for Microsoft Windows Users series.
There is lots of open source software available for downloading on freshmeat and SourceForge. These Web sites are part of the Open Source Development Network (OSDN). Another good source for free software and open source software information is the Free Software Foundation, which is part of the GNU Project.
Documentation and Support for Free and Open Source Software
Generally, free and open source software developers do not provide technical support. Nor do they usually supply printed manuals or user guides.
However, book publishers often provide books (for purchase, of course) about the most popular free and open source software. Please see the books listings in the Resources section below for books about GIMP and StarOffice.
Often free and open source software developers or interested users provide or sponsor e-mail lists, newsgroups, Internet forums, IRC channels, and so forth where free and open source software users can help each other to better use the software. For example, there are Mozilla and Netscape channels on the EFnet IRC network where you can discuss Composer.
There is lots of very good free and open source software. There is some pretty bad free stuff too. If you chose wisely among the available free and open source software, you can acquire a nice collection of good software without spending a single buck.
Some free or open source software is very similar to popular or well-known commercial software. For example, AbiWord (a Microsoft Word look-alike) and GIMP (functionally very similar to Adobe PhotoShop) are nice, free alternatives to the more expensive commercial software they emulate. However, even though some of these free look-alike programs (AKA clones) in themselves often are excellent, they generally are not quite as good as the original, commercial, software they mimic.
On the other hand, some free or open source software might be better than the comparable commercial-proprietary software. For example, many people consider the free, open source Linux operating system to be better than the commercial-proprietary Microsoft Windows software. However, comparing Linux and Windows is another story for another day.
In many cases, the commercial software is not available for all platforms. For example, Microsoft Office (including Microsoft Word) and Adobe PhotoShop are not available for the Linux platform. However, AbiWord, GIMP, and StarOffice all are available for both the Linux and Windows operating systems.
Adobe GoLive falls into this category too. WYSIWYG-wise, you cannot beat Adobe GoLive for creating and editing Web pages. Additionally, you generally cannot beat many Adobe products such as Illustrator, InDesign, PhotoShop, Premiere, and Illustrator -- unless perhaps you go to some very very high-end, super-expensive, products. Unfortunately, Adobe does not port its products to Linux. However, AbiWord and StarOffice, which are available for both the Linux and Windows operating systems, do a reasonably nice WYSIWYG job with creating and editing Web pages.
If you have a limited software budget, you can do pretty well with the free stuff. However, if you do not have budget limitations you can make your choices between free or commercial software products on a how-they-work-for-you basis rather than on a product-cost basis.
If you are a Microsoft Windows user that has not tried AbiWord, GIMP, or StarOffice download them and give them a test drive for yourself. If you already have Netscape or Mozilla installed, give Composer a try.
If you are a Linux user you likely already have these programs ready-to-install, installed, or included in your Linux distribution CD packages. If you have not tried them, give them test drive.
Learning from Mozilla's mistakes (By Robin "Roblimo" Miller on NewsForge.com)