Open source websites: All change on the internet
Ana Kronschnabl and Tomas Rawlings pick the best open source websites where users can change the content
Monday 09 January 2006
Wikipedia is an online encyclopedia of more than 2.3 million articles in 180 languages. It is currently the most used reference site on the internet. What makes it all the more startling is that the site is built by and maintained by its volunteer readers. Anyone who uses the site can easily and quickly update the content on any entry. This has created one of the most vibrant, informative and accessible information systems in the history of human knowledge.
A web browser is the software you use to view a website. Most people use Microsoft's Internet Explorer, but it has been criticised for security flaws. There is an alternative; Firefox is an innovative piece of software created by a handful of people working in a non-profit foundation, but incorporating internet experience from users all over the globe. Their efforts have successfully created the main rival to the megabucks Microsoft - and it's free and easy to use.
Essential to any modern office are the dull but vital "paper-pushing" tools - office software. Open Office is a free, easy-to-use system that does what it says on the box. Its openness to different file formats makes it invaluable; for example, it can save and read Microsoft Office file formats, and save documents as PDFs. Given that the alternatives to Open Office are often expensive and feature-heavy office suites, this is a great tool that also saves you money.
Bittorrent lets you download files, be they music, electronic books, videos or anything. It is what's known as a "peer-to-peer application" - the kind that's scaring the music and film industries. It allows people to exchange files easily, and is an efficient method of using a computer network, such as the internet. Bittorrent breaks up larger files and makes use of every cranny of transfer space - which means that the greater the demand for a file, the quicker you can get it.
Wiki is a collaborative document system that allows lots of people to work on the same document regardless of geographical location. It's a powerful tool for enabling lots of content to be put in one place. It is a simple and fantastically useful ideas that after using you find yourself remarking, "Why didn't somebody think of this before?" MediaWiki is the name of one of the most popular bits of wiki software - and coincidentally is the one that powers Wikipedia.
Video, once it is transferred on to a computer, requires huge files. To make video useful, it needs to be shrunk down. Without some type of technology to compress it, video would be unusable on most computers and almost impossible to transport over the internet. Software called "codec" is needed to do the shrinking. This is what happened to music with MP3 technology - it squashed songs down by around 90 per cent with no appreciable loss of quality.
pHpBB Bulletin Boards
If there's one thing the internet excels at, it's communication. Bulletin boards are virtual noticeboards that allow users to exchange views - not always coherently, or politely. PHpBB powers thousands of such forums, including the one where Police Commander Brian Paddick ignited a media frenzy by posting: "The concept of anarchism has always appealed to me. The idea of the innate goodness of the individual that is corrupted by society or the system."
Outfoxed is a documentary rather than software, but what its makers are doing is an experiment in open source film-making. The documentary is a highly politicised look at Rupert Murdoch's Fox News channel. What is innovative is that, after watching the film, you find that if you disagree with its stance you can - with the film-makers' blessing - download the unedited interviews that make up the film and re-use them to cut your own version.
Most of the world's computers use Microsoft Windows as the operating system. Despite its popularity, Windows does have drawbacks - cost and security holes, for starters. There is a free alternative: the geeky Linux/GNU. In the past it was known as reliable but hard to use. Dyne:bolic is a multimedia studio on a CD that you simply pop into any computer and start it up, instantly turning it into a Linux/GNU system without affecting existing things on your computer.
Need to draw a logo? Crop a digital photo? Don't want to pay through the nose for software to do the task? Then Gimp is for you! The unfortunately titled Gimp is an acronym for GNU Image Manipulation Program. Behind all the letters there is an excellent graphics tool for drawing and manipulating pictures. It is the open source equivalent to software Photoshop, except that it's free (as in freedom, as the GNU activists say) and developed by volunteers.
If the internet is an information superhighway, you might wonder what the digital Tarmac is made of - the answer is Apache. Apache is a web server system developed by another open source community, and currently about 68 per cent of websites on the internet are powered by it. If you are ever asked what type of server is needed to host your website, just say Apache and sit back as others marvel at your technical knowledge.
If you need a piece of software, it's a good idea to check SourceForge first. SourceForge.net is the world's largest open source software development website, hosting more than 100,000 projects with the largest repository of open source code and applications. It provides free hosting to open source software development projects and sums up the ethos of open source projects; the model is the rapid creation of solutions within an open, collaborative environment.
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