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Five open source tools to rock your desktop

Adam Turner

You don't need to abandon Windows to enjoy the benefits of open source on the desktop.

Just as IBM's stranglehold on the hardware business succumbed to the attack of the clones, the stranglehold large software houses have on desktop apps is under threat from open source look-a-likes. Most people are familiar with Firefox and Open Office, alternatives to Internet Explorer and Microsoft Office respectively, but open source has a lot more to offer.

For some organisations, the initial move to open source applications is driven by cost. Considering business versions of Office 2007 retailed from $AU690 to $AU1150 when they first hit the shelves, small to medium enterprises are entitled to ask if it's time to break the Microsoft upgrade cycle - especially if they know they'll only use a fraction of the advanced functionality. A similar argument can be put forward for the adoption of open source alternatives to applications such as Adobe's Acrobat and Photoshop.

For other organisations, the real attraction of open source is the use of open document formats - again helping them break the vendor lock-in created by proprietary formats. While all software can suffer from security vulnerabilities, open source users benefit from the fact Microsoft products are more actively targeted by hackers.

Many open source applications are multi-platform, allowing organisations to break their dependence of Windows and consider alternatives such as Linux and Apple's Mac

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OS X where appropriate.

If your business is open to open source, here are five desktop productivity tools you should road test before you buy anything.

1. Email & calendar - Thunderbird & Lightning (Win/Mac/Linux)

Mozilla's Thunderbird is an email client with a similar look and feel to Outlook 2003. It supports POP3 and IMAP as well as LDAP address completion from a directory. Thunderbird's features include an RSS reader, adaptive junk mail controls, detailed pop-up mail notifications, fast index searching and saved search folders. Thunderbird includes an address book but lacks Outlook's Personal Information Management features such as calendar, notes and to do list. Mozilla's Sunbird offers a separate calendar application, while the Lightning plug-in integrates these features with Thunderbird. Lightning is an iCal compatible calendar offering features such as device synchronisation, shared calendars and the ability to accept meeting invitations and have them added directly to your calendar.

2. PDF - PDFCreator (Win)

Like Adobe's Acrobat, PDFCreator lets you create and combine Portable Document Format (PDF) files from any application by acting as a printer. Security features include the ability to disable printing, copying text or modifying the original document. Acrobat-compatible encryption can also be applied to files. Along with PDF, PDFCreator can generate PNG, JPG, TIF, BMP, PCX, PS and EPS files. Like Acrobat, users can select a compatibility level to ensure generated PDF files can be read by older readers. Fonts can also be embedded within a document.

3. Image editing - GIMP (Win/Linux)

An alternative to Adobe's Photoshop, GIMP is an image manipulation program featuring a full suite of painting tools such as Brush, Pencil and Airbrush. It also includes clone and healing tools for touching up images as well as red eye removal, background replacement and the ability to fix perspective distortion. File formats supported include BMP, GIF, JPG, MNG, PCX, PDF, PNG, PS, PSD, SVG, TIF, TGA and XPM. GIMP's advanced features include layers, alpha channels and third party plug-in support. The lack of support for CMYK and PANTONE colourspaces restricts GIMP's usefulness in a commercial printing environment, although third party plug-ins provide basic CMYK support.

4. FTP - FileZilla (Win/Mac/Linux)

FileZilla is a simple yet powerful application for transferring files to and from sites such as web servers. It supports FTP, FTP over SSL/TLS (FTPS) and SSH File Transfer Protocol (SFTP). It's intuitive to use so even beginners will be transferring files within a minute, by either double-clicking files or just drag-and-dropping them between the local and remote computers. Log-in details are stored in a drop- down menu so you can reconnect to a site with one click, while the site manager feature lets you bookmark sites and will remember which folder you want to access. The transfer progress window has tabs for displaying queued files, successful transfers and failed transfers, plus files can be opened for editing.

5. Compression - 7-Zip (Win/Mac/Linux)

An alternative to WinZip and WinRAR, 7-Zip can both create and open 7z, ZIP, GZIP, BZIP2 and TAR files. It can also open RAR, CAB, ISO, ARJ, LZH, CHM, MSI, WIM, Z, CPIO, RPM, DEB and NSIS files. Offering integration with the Windows Shell, 7-Zip features a file manager as well as a command line version. Supporting 256-bit AES encryption, 7-

Zip can create multi-part archives as well as self-extracting archives in its own 7z format. The command line version of 7-Zip has been ported to UNIX-like systems under the name p7zip. Mac OS X users can use the EZ 7z front-end to p7zip.