11 open-source alternatives

Free and open-source software (FOSS) is becoming more widely used in libraries as an alternative to proprietary software from commercial vendors. At their core, libraries and the open-source movement have the same ideological core: protecting freedom of information and the public commons. In other words, both libraries and open-source fight the commodification of information (Lawson et al., 2015). (1)

Using FOSS in your library doesn’t have to be led from the top down: rather than waiting for your library director, manager, or library systems team to implement some grand large-scale project, you can introduce it into your workplace on a small-scale by using open-source software on your desktop PC. As well as advocating for FOSS, using open-source alternatives can enhance your efficiency at work, improve your technical skills, better protect your privacy and security online, and give you more control over your computer.

This post provides eleven open-source alternatives to specific closed-source programs. All these programs have licenses that enable the sharing and reuse of their source code. Also all of these programs run on Microsoft Windows operating systems so if you’re not ready to install a full open-source operating system like Ubuntu or Debian on your home PC, you can still sneak open-source into Windows or Mac OS.

Most of these programs will require admin rights to install them so if you don’t have admin rights you might need to ask your IT team for temporary admin rights or ask them to install the software for you: all of these programs are safe and contain no malware, viruses, etc. (2)

Mozilla Firefox

alternatives: Internet Explorer, Microsoft Edge, Google Chrome, Safari
license: Mozilla Public License v2.0
link: https://www.mozilla.org/en-US/firefox/

Firefox should be your web browser. On a technical level, Firefox has better performance than its commercial opponents and offers all the same features. Google Chrome, for example, has steadily been getting worse over the product’s life with known memory usage issues and a buggy rendering engine (Limer, 2015). (3)

Firefox has a huge ecosystem of extensions and plugins developed by a community to customise it and enhance its functionality. Suggested extensions:

Tor Browser

alternatives: Mozilla Firefox, Internet Explorer, Microsoft Edge, Google Chrome, Safari
license: Tor license, Mozilla Public License v2.0, GNU General Public License v3
link: https://www.torproject.org/index.html.en

Even better than Mozilla Firefox, you should use the Tor Project’s browser. Tor (The Onion Router) is a network that routes your traffic through multiple nodes across the world. This disguises your location, defends against traffic analysis, and protects your web browsing. Tor Browser is a modified version of Firefox that automatically routes traffic through the Tor network (and contains some extra security plugins).

As well as offering more security from state and corporate surveillance, Tor Browser allows you to access parts of the web that may be blocked whether because of workplace firewalls, ISP blocks, or DDoS attacks on major UK Higher Education internet providers. Should you want to do this, Tor also provides a way in to the Dark Web and allows you to access .onion sites.

Tor Browser also has the advantage of not requiring admin rights to be installed on Windows or Linux.

Mozilla Thunderbird

alternatives: Microsoft Outlook
license: Mozilla Public License v2.0
link: https://www.mozilla.org/en-GB/thunderbird/

Given the amount of work time spent using email, and specifically using Microsoft’s Outlook program for email, switching to an open-source alternative seems more daunting than it is. Mozilla Thunderbird is no longer being developed by the Mozilla Foundation in the same way as Firefox (Lunden, 2015) but has a sizable user community behind it that, even without the Foundation, can ensure support for the program.

Like Firefox, Thunderbird has a great ecosystem of extensions that can more than replicate the functionality of Microsoft Outlook. Suggested extensions are:

To use Thunderbird for Gmail and Google Calendar:

Configuring Thunderbird to work with a Microsoft Exchange server or an Office 365 cloud server takes a bit of time and may require some knowledge of your workplace’s setup. Full instructions at (4). For your Exchange calendar in Lightning, you might also need:

LibreOffice

alternatives: Microsoft Office, Google Docs, Google Sheets, Google Slides
license: Mozilla Public License v2.0
link: https://www.libreoffice.org/download/libreoffice-fresh/

LibreOffice is a full office suite to replace the various applications in the Microsoft Office suite. Writer replaces Word; Calc replaces Excel; Impress replaces Powerpoint; Draw replaces Vimio; Base replaces Access; Math is sui generis and does… maths things. They’re fantastic programs free of the weird quirks of Microsoft Office programs and, like the other programs mentioned so far, have a range of community-developed plugins to extend their functionality.

Notepad++

alternatives: Notepad, Microsoft Word
license: GNU General Public License v3
link: https://notepad-plus-plus.org/

Notepad++ is a fully featured text editor specialising in editing source code. It’s particularly useful for large-scale editing of text with support for regular expression find-and-replace and plugins for other text operations. The XML Tools plugin also makes it a pretty sweet XML editor if you’re into that kind of thing.

VLC Media Player

alternatives: Windows Media Player, QuickTime Player
license: GNU General Public License v2
link: https://www.videolan.org/vlc/index.html

VLC Media Player is the most flexible multimedia player available. It natively plays dozens of file formats for audio, video, and streaming and can do so off files on your hard drive, on DVD, on audio-CD, etc.

GIMP

alternatives: Adobe Photoshop
license: GNU General Public License v3
link: http://www.gimp.org/

Adobe Photoshop is so synonymous with image editing that the best way to describe what GIMP does is to say that it photoshops images. GIMP (Gnu Image Manipulation Program) is a free image editor for tasks like photo retouching, image composition, or overlaying text on images. In a library context, you can use it to make marketing materials, posters, materials for web display, etc.

Sandstorm

alternatives: Microsoft SharePoint, Google Drive, Confluence, Evernote
license: Apache License v2.0
link: https://sandstorm.io/

Sandstorm is a platform for hosting of open-source indie web apps. Sandstorm provides a managed service for server hosting with an integrated platform to install open-source web applications that act as replacements for a load of proprietary web applications. It is available either as managed hosting on oasis.sandstorm.io or can be installed on a Linux server.

While Sandstorm’s App Market has apps for a whole range of tasks, it’s the apps for collaborative working that really fill a need. Etherpad, EtherCalc, EtherDraw, and Hacker Sliders provide collaborative editing of documents in the same way as Google Drive or SharePoint. FileDrop and Davros provide secure sharing of files and document management over the web. MediaWiki provides a wiki interface for shared documentation and knowledge management. GitWeb provides git hosting for version tracking of source code. There are apps for online chat, online forms, note-taking, polls, and a range of other tasks.

WinSCP

alternatives: FileZilla, any LMSs FTP function
license: GNU General Public License v3
link: https://winscp.net

WinSCP is an SFTP and FTP client used for transferring files over SFTP and FTP. If you need to send a large file to someone, you need to use FTP. Most library management systems have an FTP function built into them to allow sending of e.g. Marc bibliographic files to union catalogues’ FTP sites. But if you need more control over your FTPing, then you need a dedicated FTP client. (5)

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PuTTY

license: MIT license
link: http://www.chiark.greenend.org.uk/~sgtatham/putty/

PuTTY is an SSH and Telnet client. If you’re using a Unix operating system (i.e. any operating system except Windows), you don’t need it because the terminal handles SSH natively. If you’re using Windows, then you do need it because Windows does not handle SSH natively (7). SSH is a protocol to access Unix (and Unix-like) servers. If you’re accessing a Linux server from a Windows PC, you need PuTTY.

HeidiSQL

alternatives: MySQL Workbench, Microsoft SQL Studio
license: GNU General Public License
link: http://www.heidisql.com/

If you need to do any work with an SQL or a MySQL database, HeidiSQL is a great FOSS SQL browser. For library systems, it can be used to view and edit the underlying database of Sentry Isis, the unfortunately-named security gate and access management software. If you’ve got an open-source catalogue or LMS, it can also be used to view and edit their underlying MySQL databases too.

endnotes

(1) I’ll be more fully laying out the ethical case for libraries to use free and open-source software in a future blog post.

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(2) I realise I’m speaking from a position of sysadmin privilege. As a worker in a library systems team, it’s trivially easy for me to justify permanent admin rights and get the IT department to allow me them in any workplace. I recognise that this is not the case for all library workers.

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(3) Focusing on Google Chrome because it’s a widely used web browser and there are more than just FOSS-related reasons to move away from it. Principally that Google gives users’ metadata to the NSA and other state surveillance agencies. The Google ecosystem of software is not secure and does not protect your privacy. If you really can’t bear to move away from the Google ecosystem yet, at least consider using Chromium instead of Google Chrome. Chromium is the open-source base of Google Chrome and does more or less the same thing. (3a)

(3a) Google Chrome, in contrast to Chromium, contains code that allows the playing of proprietary formats in the browser: Adobe Flash, MP3, AAC, etc. You probably won’t be able to use Netflix natively in Chromium.

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(4) To set up Thunderbird to check your work email account, you’ll need to know the hostname of your workplace’s IMAP server and SMTP server. If your workplace is on Office 365, IMAP will be outlook.office365.com (port 993) and SMTP will be smtp.office365.com (port 587). If your workplace is on Exchange, follow instructions like https://support.sanebox.com/hc/en-us/articles/203094466-Outlook-2010-How-do-I-find-my-server-settings- to find out your email server settings. (4a)

To set up Microsoft Exchange email:

  1. In Thunderbird, go to File > New > Existing Mail Account.
  2. Enter your name, email address, and password to access your mail. Click Continue.
  3. Click Stop to prevent Thunderbird from auto-detecting settings.
  4. Enter the details of your workplace’s email server(s). See above. For incoming mail, the port should be 993 with connection security ‘SSL/TLS’. For outgoing mail, the port should be 587 with connection security ‘STARTTLS’.
  5. Click Done.
  6. Right-click the account in the left-hand column and select Subscribe. Add a tick next to all the folders you wish to subscribe to.
  7. Optional config things. Go to Tools > Options > Advanced > General > Config Editor:
    • Set mail.imap.expunge_after_delete to ‘true’
    • Set mail.strictly_mime to ‘true’
    • Set mail.server.default.check_all_folders_for_new to ‘true’
    • Iff your workplace uses Office 365 and you’re using an Ubuntu PC, set network.dns.disableIPv6 to ‘true’.

To set up Microsoft Exchange calendars:

(4a) Microsoft Exchange is an email server from Microsoft which you install on a local server: all email data is kept on that local server and all email traffic goes through that server. Because of the maintenance and staff costs of hosting local servers, lots of workplaces are moving to the cloud-hosted Microsoft Office 365 email service which means email data is kept on Microsoft’s servers in a datacentre somewhere.

tl;dr: if you’re using Outlook and you don’t know that you’re on Office 365, you’re probably on Exchange.

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(5) SFTP is secure but not anonymous. For anonymous file-sharing, try OnionShare (license: GNU General Public License v3) which offers anonymous sharing of large files through the Tor network.

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(6) The leading FTP client is FileZilla which is also FOSS-licensed under GNU General Public License v2. But the program’s hosting site, SourceForge, bundles malware and adware into the download and this malicious software is installed on the user’s PC without consent. It’s possible to download FileZilla without downloading the malware (see https://forum.filezilla-project.org/viewtopic.php?t=36728) but since SourceForge bundles the malware installer with the consent of the developer, it’s apparent that the FileZilla developers consciously chose to endorse this approach. Taking control away from the end-user is antithetical to the ethics of the free and open-source movement and so I recommend WinSCP rather than FileZilla.

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(7) Though Microsoft will be bringing OpenSSH integration into their Windows operating system in the future (Bright, 2015).

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bibliography

Bright, P., 2015. ‘Microsoft bringing SSH to Windows and PowerShell’ on Ars Technica, 2015-06-03 http://arstechnica.com/information-technology/2015/06/microsoft-bringing-ssh-to-windows-and-powershell/

Lawson, S., Sanders, K., & Smith, L., 2015. ‘Commodification of the Information Profession: A Critique of Higher Education Under Neoliberalism’, Journal of Librarianship and Scholarly Communication, 3(1), eP1182, http://dx.doi.org/10.7710/2162-3309.1182

Limer, E., 2015. ‘Fuck It, I’m Going Back to Firefox’ on Gizmodo, 2015-02-13 http://gizmodo.com/fuck-it-im-going-back-to-firefox-1685425815

Lunden, I., 2015. ‘Mozilla Wants To Split Off Its Thunderbird Email/Chat Client, Says Mitchell Baker Memo’ on TechCrunch, 2015-11-30 http://techcrunch.com/2015/11/30/thunderbird-flies-away-from-mozilla/

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