Open-Source Your Internet Life

If commercial and proprietary internet software makes you nervous or just taxes your wallet, there are lots of open source options. This article details some of the best free software for getting things done online.
Published: Jan 29, 2008
Author: Jordan Running
Related OS: XP / Windows / Vista

Open source software, i.e. software whose source code anyone can view and change as they see fit, has many benefits from the financial (it's "free as in beer," they say) to the ideological ("free as in speech"). The open source movement has gained so much momentum that there is at least one high-quality open source competitor in nearly every market, from audio mixers to spreadsheets. Because open source collaboration takes place chiefly online, it's no surprise that some of the most mature open source projects are tools for using the internet.

While not all open source products are better than their proprietary cousins, many are, at least for some users. The great thing about free software is that it costs nothing to try them out. Below you'll find a list of excellent open source applications for using the internet that, at least, are worth downloading to check them out, and at most will have you never looking back to the proprietary software you used before.

Web browser: Mozilla Firefox and Flock

Mozilla FirefoxThe current king of open source web browsers--and alternatives to Microsoft's Internet Explorer--is Mozilla Firefox. Though market share figures are inherently slippery, Firefox now owns between 10 and 20 percent of the market, and IE is gradually on the decline. But market share matters less than the browser's capabilities, and Firefox has a lot to offer. It has all of the features you'd expect from a modern web browser--tabbed browsing, search box, password management, pop-up blocking, standards support--but also throws in extreme extensibility, allowing anyone to create add-ons that introduce new features to the browser. And they have: Hundreds of add-ons are now available, adding functionality for social networking, managing downloads, discovering cool new web sites, sharing and synchronizing your bookmarks, and much, much more.

FlockA newer entrant in the open source web browser arena is Flock, which is based on Firefox but comes with many extra features--particularly those for social networking--built in. Integration with sites like Flickr, Facebook, Twitter, del.icio.us is enabled out of the box. According to some, Flock can also be more reliable then Firefox and less prone to memory leaks which can slow Firefox down.

Email: Mozilla Thunderbird

Mozilla ThunderbirdIf you use a desktop email client, there's a good chance it's Microsoft's Outlook Express or its sister Windows Mail, which come bundled with Windows XP and Vista respectively. But Mozilla Corporation, the creator of Firefox, also has an open source alternative for your inbox: Mozilla Thunderbird. While not as popular as Firefox, Thunderbird is a capable email client that supports POP and IMAP protocols, includes an RSS reader, can accommodate an unlimited number of email accounts, filters spam, and has all the other features you expect in a modern email program. Though Thunderbird doesn't sport all of the productivity functionality of Microsoft's full-featured Outlook, like the calendar and to-do lists, it does have the same extensibility found in Firefox, and free third party add-ons integrate many of those features seamlessly.

Instant messaging: Pidgin

PidginA lot of people never discover that in order to chat over AIM you don't actually have to use the AOL's AIM program, and to chat on MSN you don't actually need the program from Microsoft, and likewise for Yahoo!, Gmail, and most other IM networks. Pidgin is an open source program that will connect you to all of your instant messaging accounts simultaneously and unify all of your contacts into a single buddy list. Pidgin lacks some of the more advanced features of some networks--like voice and video calls, for example--but has all of the essential ones like away messages and file transfers. It also adds a few features like the ability to combine multiple contacts in a single one (for that friend who has nine screen names) and "Buddy Pounce" which will automatically notify you, send a message, or perform another action as soon as a certain contact signs on, even when you're away from the computer. Pidgin also has a modest library of third-party plugins that add functionality to the program. Pidgin is not a perfect program, and lacks most of the eye candy and "wow" factor of the proprietary applications it replaces, but to me the ability to ditch three or four separate buddy lists in favor of a single one is priceless.

BitTorrent: Azureus and Miro

Azureus VuzeI'll level with you--my favorite program for BitTorrent file sharing is the free, but decidedly not open source uTorrent, for its tiny footprint, it speed, and its robust features. But that's not to say it doesn't have some heavy-hitting open source brethren. The most prominent is Azureus, whose latest version--"Vuze"--transformed the already featureful client into a "Next Gen P2P Application," which basically amounts to a lot of eye candy and a constantly-updating library of free and legal multimedia content. But behind that lurk all of the usual BitTorrent functionality for downloading anything you like. Like many of the programs I've already mentioned, Azureus also supports third-party plugins and a lot of added functionality is accessible through these.

If watching online videos is your thing, Miro bills itself as an "open source internet TV and video player," and is well worth checking out for that reason alone. And Miro excels at downloading videos over BitTorrent. It can automatically download videos from RSS feeds based on criteria you specify (a feature available in Azureus plugins as well) and you can manually start downloads as well. While Miro is overkill for basic BitTorrent tasks, for the video fiend it's fantastic.

File transfer: FileZilla

FTP is a term heard less and less among most internet users, but if you ever find yourself building a web site you'll probably use FTP (File Transfer Protocol), or its more secure cousin SFTP, to upload files to the web server. Whatever your use, FileZilla is a great open source client for transferring files over FTP and SFTP. It uses a two-pane view that shows your local files on the left and the remote server's files on the right, and its Site Manager lets you store and manage an unlimited number of site profiles. Its advanced queue lets you transfer files en masse, and pause and resume any transfer.

A few more

This article could go on and an, because there's far more to the internet than the web, email, IM, file transfer, and BitTorrent. But most people never have a need to dip their toes into the deepest part of the pool. Nevertheless, here are a few more useful open source internet products for those who need them:

Have a favorite open source internet program? Tell us about it in the comments!

About Jordan Running

Blogger since 1999, Jordan Running went pro in 2005 and never looked back. Sometimes programmer, occasional photographer, and serial tinkerer, he decided to to switch to Linux in 2001 but just hasn't quite gotten around to it yet.

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