Open-source software is everywhere. Chances are you use it every day in such creations as Google, Android or Mozilla Firefox. Its source code is wide open – anyone can study, improve or modify it if they like.
Among the biggest reasons to use open-source software is price: It's usually free.
But specialized pieces of software – tools such as Photoshop – often have price tags that reflect their power. If you just want it for the occasional project, those prices can be hard to justify.
Many proprietary software products have excellent open-source alternatives, says Tony Wasserman, a professor of software management practice at Carnegie-Mellon University's Silicon Valley campus and board member of the Open Source Institute, a non-profit group that advocates for open source. But he adds that choosing software should depend on many factors besides price and an affinity (or not) for the open-source model.
"If I'm not in the technology business and I'm not a technologist," he says, "I'm just looking for something that works."
But in many cases open-source alternatives do all or most of what the brand names do. Here are a few examples.
Having your product name used as a verb is a sign of success in the tech business. The usual example is "to Google." But we've also grown used to talking about "Photoshopping" images – making changes to fix a flaw or completely altering a picture.
The term refers to Photoshop, a hefty and powerful piece of software from Adobe Systems Inc. that is an essential tool for people who work with images for a living. But at about $750, Photoshop is a big purchase for small businesses and individuals who only need its capabilities occasionally.
The open-source alternative is the GNU Image Manipulation Program, or GIMP. It can do most of what Photoshop can. It has its own file format, different from Photoshop's, but it will open and save Photoshop's PSD file format, though with occasional hiccups.
GIMP is a complex piece of software that takes a while to learn – but then, so is Photoshop. Gary Palmer, of Los Angeles, a systems security engineer who works for an aerospace company that he asked not be named, says he switched to GIMP and found it does everything he wants, and online help is more plentiful than with Photoshop.
GIMP is not the only money-saving alternative. If you want basic photo editing and aren't religious about open source, you can get Photoshop Elements, a stripped-down version, for less than $100, Mr. Wasserman says. If you want more power without the price tag, though, GIMP is the way to go.
Computer-aided design (CAD) is admittedly not something most business people do every day, or even every month. But from time to time some of us would like to have a way to sketch a new product idea or mull over an office renovation using software that understands things like dimensions better than an ordinary drawing program does.
The dominant proprietary software in this niche is AutoCAD, whose developer, Autodesk Inc., has managed to maintain its leadership for close to 30 years. But if you don't want to shell out $1,200 and up for AutoCAD, there's always LibreCAD, an open-source program that costs nothing and works with AutoCAD files.
LibreCAD illustrates an issue that sometimes arises with open-source software: There's no manual. That looks at first like a serious shortcoming for a software package with many functions (many of which won't be obvious to anyone who hasn't used CAD software before) and multiple layers of menus. But in fact there's a simple solution: YouTube. Search for "LibreCAD tutorials" and you can find many helpful videos.
PDF document creation
Adobe Systems has a knack for developing software that defines its category. Like Photoshop, Adobe Acrobat is widely known and used. Almost everyone has the free Acrobat reader, which can display files in the ubiquitous PDF format. But the full Acrobat software for creating those files sells for about $450.
Some popular software packages, including Microsoft Word, can save files in PDF format. To get added capabilities – such as combining documents created with different software and rearranging pages in existing PDFs – you can turn to an open-source tool such as PDFCreator.
To all other software, PDFCreator looks like a printer. Simply print from anywhere, choose PDFCreator in the print menu, and your document is made into a PDF file. Or you can send several documents to PDFCreator, then combine them into one file. A tool called PDFArchitect, included with PDFCreator, gives you limited editing capabilities.