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Chris Mostek [opinions]

The OS Agnostics [free-software] [cross-platform]

The annual choice awards are published in the December issues for many software magazines. A number of the winners were chosen because of their ability to use extensions or flexibility in configuring the software. However, an overlooked and increasingly important attribute to me is cross-platform support or what I laughingly refer to as OS Agnosticism.

Why is cross-platform support important? My personal reasons are:

First, I find the OS Agnostics are a good starting point for getting someone to TRY free software. Realistically, I’m unlikely to get my extended family members or friends to light-switch to a GNU/Linux or Unix based operating system. However, there is a good chance I can get them to try Firefox, Thunderbird or OpenOffice. Usually, any initial resistance is removed by the appeal of trying these programs for free (as in free beer) and without removing their current programs.

Second, since I’m frequently the guilty conspirator who helped switch my family/friends to free software, I usually find myself providing some level of technical support. The common response, if a technical issue arises, is “You got me into this, you can get me out”. The commonality of using the Agnostics allows me to provide better application support regardless of the OS. I can pull up my application at home and frequently resolve any issues over the phone.

Third, the Agnostics provide maximum flexibility in my computing environment. I primarily use a GNU/Linux Distribution at home. However, my various places of employment over the last decade used MS Windows. Despite this difference, I typically run at least Firefox and OpenOffice on both systems. I can still you my favorite programs regardless of the operating system.

Fourth, The price is right. I feel most strongly about the cost aspect in regards to OpenOffice vs MS Office. I’ve used both programs for years in both a business and home environment. No, OpenOffice is not perfect (slow on start-up, funky conversions on some MS Office files), but neither is MS office. However, for most home-users or small business users, I fail to see the need to shell out a couple hundred dollars for MS Office.

Here is a short list of cross-platform programs I have used. In full disclosure, I have not used ALL the programs under ALL the OS’s listed. The OS support information comes from the application’s website.

  • Firefox: web browser. OS support includes GNU/Linux, Mac OS X and Windows. Firefox was my first exposure to FOSS and still one of my favorites. Remains popular because it fits the needs for most users.
  • Thunderbird: email program. OS support is the same as Firefox.
  • OpenOffice: Office suite similar to MS Office. Supported OS's include MS Windows, GNU/Linux, Sun Solaris, Mac OS X, and FreeBSD.
  • Gimpshop: image editor. A hack of the GIMP intended to replicate the Adobe Photoshop interface. Usually an easier transition for anyone with exposure to Photoshop, but you can still use the original GIMP. OS support for Gimpshop includes GNU/Linux, Mac OS X and Windows.
  • Sunbird: calendar program from Mozilla. Same OS support as Firefox and Thunderbird.
  • LyX: document processor. Windows, GNU/Linux and Mac OS X are the supported OS's.
  • Scribus: desktop publishing. OS support includes Windows, GNU/Linux, Mac OS X.
  • Blender : 3D Graphics. Supported OS's are Windows, GNU/Linux, OSX, Solaris and FreeBSD.
  • GAIM : Instant messaging program for GNU/Linux, BSD, Mac OS X, and Windows.
  • Azureus: BitTorrent client running on Windows, Linux, and Mac OS X.
  • Audacity: Audio editor and recorder for Windows, Mac OS X and GNU/Linux.
  • Abiword: Word processing. Supported OS's are Windows, GNU/Linux and Mac OS X.

If you've been around free software for a while, you saw some of the usual suspects listed above. Go ahead and suggest your own additions to the list of OS Agnostics.

If you are a new to free software, give one of the listed programs a try. These programs remain popular because they meet the needs for most users. With the OS Agnostics, your barriers to exploring a new application are pretty thin. So jump in, the water's not too deep.


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