Monday, 03 September 2007 10:00

Switching from Windows to Linux: an app-centric view

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Previously in ITWire we put forth the view that one reason people stick to Windows is because they have to run specific applications that only exist for that platform. We’d like to introduce you to two tremendous web sites which help find open source equivalents for proprietary Windows software.

One obvious example is Microsoft Word. This single piece of software could well be the #1 Windows app of all time but yet there’s no version of Microsoft Word for Linux. However, although Word itself does not come in a Linux flavour, the actual task Word performs – namely word processing – is effortlessly reproduced in several packages, the best-known being OpenOffice.

Another good example is dia, which serves as a tremendous open source diagramming and flowcharting tool for those who would ordinarily seek to use Microsoft Visio. Although dia has been available for several years and is completely free, it has not received significant publicity. Consequently, people who depend on this functionality possibly have not considered operating system alternatives to Windows.

We here at ITWire want to help anyone with this dilemma, and ensure people have all the information available that helps them determine which operating system is best for them, on the most level playing field possible.

Here’s two excellent web sites that help in this mission. The first, LinuxAppFinder, strives to make known new open source apps, categorising them by functionality. The second, osalt (“Open Source as alternative”) lists open-source apps according to the proprietary Windows application which is most similar.

We’ll discuss these two sites, then use them to find recommendations for switching from two very well-known and popular commercial programs: Adobe Photoshop and DreamWeaver.


LinuxAppFinder

LinuxAppFinder states its purpose is to catalogue useful GNU/Linux open source applications, and in so doing provide a resource for people to discover new apps.

Navigation is simple enough; click “Linux Apps” to browse entries by functional categories like databases, games, multimedia and office. Each category has a number of subcategories; “Office”, for example, has subcategories like calendars, project, reports, spreadsheets, word processors and others.

At each point, LinuxAppFinder shows the five most viewed entries matching the current criteria, as well as the highest-rated matching apps. As you traverse into category and subcategory these become more specific.

Only registered members of the site (with a quick and free signup process) may rate software. The ratings yield interesting results, however. For instance, the second most-rated word processor – after, of course, OpenOffice – is LyX, undoubtedly a piece of software that is not widely known. LinuxAppFinder provides a detailed description of each package, and in this case, LyX is described as being an almost-WYSIWYG frontend for LaTeX. Given the tremendous typesetting power LaTeX offers, it is unsurprising that LyX is then claimed as delivering professional quality documents, usually with more speed and less effort than through a conventional word processor.

Each app listing follows the description with links to further launch your investigations. A list of related and complementary apps is given, then direct 32-bit and 64-bit download sites for Debian and RPM repositories. Additionally, an “Install now” link appears if one of the Debian repositories contains the specific app being viewed. If so, and you have both apturl and Synaptic installed on your computer, clicking the link will actually download and install the app in one step then and there. This only works under the Firefox and Konqueror browsers but is a very nice touch and makes trying new software an absolute doddle with just one click. This is described in more detail on the site admin’s blog.


As well as browsing, LinuxAppFinder provides a search box on each page and above each list of apps, although this is not very useful unless you already know the name of, part of a name, for a listed package.

All this makes LinuxAppFinder a tremendous site for finding highly usable but otherwise unknown software packages. For Windows switchers, the best is still yet to come. Click the Alternatives link for ten pages of commercial Windows’ programs and one or more recommended open source options as determined by registered site users. These vary from somewhat obscure such as Oleo, recommended as an alternative to VisiCalc, to ten suggested options for replacing Apple iTunes.


Finishing the site off nicely, LinuxAppFinder provides RSS feeds, a discussion forum and a facility to upload screenshots and write reviews of software described on site.



osalt.com


In a similar vein, but yet having a unique style, comes osalt.com, which stands for “Open Source as alternative.” The unequivocal mission of osalt.com is to provide easy access to open source alternatives to well-known commercial products.


In this respect, osalt.com differs from LinuxAppFinder. Although both display alternatives, osalt.com makes this its chief aim.


The osalt.com home page lists the top 10 open source packages rated on the site and the top 10 commercial applications that people are seeking replacements for. At the time of writing, these are Microsoft Visio, Norton Ghost, Adobe Photoshop, Nero Burning ROM, Adobe/Macromedia Dreamweaver, AutoCAD, Adobe Illustrator, Microsoft Access, Adobe Premiere Pro and ACDSee.  For visitors to osalt.com, it is these applications which are proving to be critical and which have unique and essential functionality. It would be reasonable to suggest these software items are roadblocks for people wanting to switch from Windows to Linux. Happily, this is where osalt.com comes in.


Click any of the names in the two top 10 lists to jump right to the information page on that package. Or, osalt.com also lists a broad range of software categories; click any of these for alphabetical lists of commercial packages and open source software, and then click these application names. Additionally, the four most popular commercial and open source items in the chosen category are listed.


Once an application has been chosen, osalt.com describes what it is used for and the platforms it operates on. Descriptions, and links, are then presented for open source alternates – or, conversely, if you are viewing an open source app, the site displays descriptions and links for the commercial packages it is capable of replacing. Where available, vendor news feeds are also displayed giving current information at a glance, all combining to help make intelligent and meaningful comparisons and evaluations.


Where osalt.com stand out is that its descriptions go into more depth than merely a brief overview of the package’s basic purpose. Comments also discuss file types and versioning and other issues which are specifically of interest to potential switchers who will worry about whether they can work with an existing file library, or indeed, if they can still collaborate with others without necessarily requiring they also switch to the open source option.



Finding open-source alternatives to Photoshop and Dreamweaver


So then, if you were keen to consider Linux as a free replacement for your existing operating system, but absolutely had to retain the functionality provided by Photoshop and Dreamweaver, what choices might you have?


LinuxAppFinder recommends four options for Photoshop: CinePaint, The GIMP, Krita and Pixel Image Editor. osalt.com cites CinePaint, The GIMP and Krita, and also throws in Paint.NET and Gimpshop, the latter being a hack on top of The GIMP to reproduce the Photoshop menus and dialogs.


LinuxAppFinder recommends eight DreamWeaver replacements: Amaya, Aptana, Bluefish, KompoZer, Nvu, Quanta, Screem and TruStudio. osalt.com also advocates Aptana, Bluefish, KompoZer and Nvu and also throws in Mozilla SeaMonkey.


Obviously, each of these options will have their own share of benefits and problems. Some may be more or less compatible with the software they purportedly replace. Some evaluation and investigation is required – but nevertheless, it is absolutely and abundantly clear there is no shortage of open source software and definitely no compelling reason to let specific specialised software packages be an obstacle in considering alternate, and free, operating systems.

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David M Williams

David has been computing since 1984 where he instantly gravitated to the family Commodore 64. He completed a Bachelor of Computer Science degree from 1990 to 1992, commencing full-time employment as a systems analyst at the end of that year. David subsequently worked as a UNIX Systems Manager, Asia-Pacific technical specialist for an international software company, Business Analyst, IT Manager, and other roles. David has been the Chief Information Officer for national public companies since 2007, delivering IT knowledge and business acumen, seeking to transform the industries within which he works. David is also involved in the user group community, the Australian Computer Society technical advisory boards, and education.

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