When you buy a computer, there are varieties of programs that come with it. These are normally basic, bare-bones pieces of software designed to give you the main functionality you desire but without all the bells and whistles. For bells and whistles, you need to buy the full or professional versions of the software, which can run anywhere from hundreds to thousands of dollars. So most of us make do with the basic, free software.

I don’t really need much more functionality than a Windows Movie Maker or Picasa can give me. And hey, you can’t beat free, right? Well, what if I told you that there’s a way to get safe, completely legal, professional grade software for FREE? It’s called open-source software and is becoming an increasingly popular choice among both developers and consumers. These aren’t the same brands you will buy in a store, but they often have the same functionality as the paid-for versions.

What is Open-Source Software?

Open-source software (OSS) is computer software that has the source code available for users to study, change, and improve. It’s developed in a collaborative manner, and the licenses allow anyone to modify the software, or simply view the code and study it. Open-source software is FREE and is often developed by top companies and developers.

There’s a variety of reasons developers may choose to release their software in an open-source format:

  • To encourage creativity and collaboration
  • To release them from liability if the software doesn’t work properly
  • They believe in giving people free access to professional software

OSS programs are not necessarily better or worse than their proprietary (paid) counterparts. They are simply an alternative that offers much of the same functionality. Sometimes it is better to shell out the big bucks for the proprietary software. Other times, you can be perfectly happy with the open-source version. It is always a personal choice that comes down to your needs, preferences and finances.

Things to be aware of when using open-source software:

  • You do not need to be a developer or even glance at the source code to use open-source software. You can leave all the work to the techies, and just enjoy the fruits of their labors.
  • Because it is constantly undergoing development, there is a higher probability of encountering software glitches when using OSS than if you were to go to your local computer store and purchase a box off the shelf.
  • As with anything you download off the Internet, there is always a chance of winding up on a shady site and downloading a virus (which is why you should do your research first).
  • Depending on the software, sometimes it can be more difficult to learn than its off-the-shelf counterpart.

If you are considering a major software purchase:

  • Try doing a Google search first to see if there is an open-source version available. If there is, always take a few precautions before downloading anything to your computer.
  • Do your research before downloading anything to make sure the software you are considering is safe and reputable.
  • Read reviews and comparisons of the software you are considering.
  • See if you can find a side-by-side comparison of the open-source version vs. the proprietary version. Oftentimes, you will find that the open-source version gives you the same functionality, while saving you all the money you would have spent on the paid version!
  • If you’re still unsure which version is better for you – open-source or proprietary – most versions of proprietary software will let you download a free trial to use for a little while. Download the free trial along with the open-source version, and do your own comparison to see which is right for you. Then, if you do decide to shell out the cash for the proprietary version, you won’t be left wondering if you had to spend that much money.

Here are some common professional proprietary software titles and their OSS counterparts:

These are simply some of the most popular ones; there are many more options out there for both OSS and proprietary software in each category.

Office Suite:

Proprietary: Microsoft Office Home and Business 2010 ($199.99 on Microsoft’s website)

OSS: Open Office

Financial Accounting:

Proprietary: QuickBooks Pro ($179.95 on Amazon)

OSS: GnuCash

Image Editing:

Proprietary: Adobe Photoshop CS5 ($618.95 on Amazon)

OSS: GIMP

Video Editing:

Proprietary: Adobe Premiere Pro ($389.00 on Amazon)

OSS: Lightworks

3D Modeling and Animation:

Proprietary: Autodesk Maya ($3,495.00 on Autodesk’s website)

OSS: Blender

Audio Editing and Recording:

Proprietary: Pro Tools 10 ($699.00 on Avid’s website)

OSS: Audacity

Do you use any open-source programs that you love? Let us know in the comments!

This has been a guest post by Lauren from Brentwood, TN
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