Open Source Without TearsOpen Source Without Tears
Open-source software can save a small business loads of time, money and trouble. That's a good thing, because the process of finding the right open-source app to meet your business needs can be a royal pain in the butt -- unless, that is, you know where to begin your open-source software hunt.
March 6, 2008
Open-source software can save a small business loads of time, money and trouble. That's a good thing, because the process of finding the right open-source app to meet your business needs can be a royal pain in the butt -- unless, that is, you know where to begin your open-source software hunt.As you may have guessed, I'm not talking about Google. Everyone's favorite search engine will eventually cough up the answers to your open-source questions, but only after dragging you through enough dead-end ghost sites, half-baked vaporware, and shareware bait-and-switch scams to turn a grown adult into a blubbering basket case. Instead, begin your open-source software research at one of these Web sites:
osalt.com. Sites that organize software into neat and tidy categories are great, but let's face it: Most of us just don't think about software this way. Instead, it's much easier to think about software by naming well-known products that do a job we need to get done; when you're looking for software that reads PDF documents, for example, what you're really thinking is, "I need an app that does the same thing as Adobe Acrobat reader." This is why osalt.com is worth your time to check out. Look up Adobe Acrobat reader, for example, either by entering in in the site's search box or by drilling down into the "business software" category, and the site serves up a description of Acrobat Reader. More to the point, it also serves up a list of Acrobat Reader open-source alternatives, along with brief, to-the-point descriptions and a list of supported platforms for each application. Conversely, the detailed description for a particular open-source application will tell you exactly which proprietary applications are most similar to it; each app's detail page also includes user ratings and comments; a news feed with information about updates and other developments related to the software; and a list of comparable open-source applications. As software portal sites go, osalt.com is reasonably up to date, although it doesn't always deliver quite enough information about whether a particular open-source product is the real thing, a pretender to the throne, or just another puff on the vaporware pipe. Nevertheless, it's a great source for launching an open-source software search, since it does something that surprisingly few software portals manage to do: Provide simple, direct answers to simple, direct questions. ohloh.net Once you get a look at the open-source software landscape, it's time to tackle another obvious question: Which open-source applications are worth a closer look, and which are likely to waste your time? This is where a second open-source software portal, ohloh.net, comes into the picture. Ohloh.net is very much a product of the Web 2.0 content model, combining user-generated quality-control information with the ability to pull relevant, up-to-date information directly from open-source project sites. A quick-look summary delivers key information about a particular project, including notable strengths or weaknesses, the size of the project's developer base and user community, and what type of open-source license the software uses. Other sections of a product page include user ratings and reviews; tags that list similar apps, as well as which other software is most popular with the users of a particular app; a news feed (like osalt.com); and plenty of other useful tools designed to give you a holistic, context-rich view of an open-source application. As cool as all of this sounds, none of this is why I quickly fell in love with ohloh.net. That honor goes to the site's open-source software metrics, based upon constantly-updated information drawn directly from project sites on SourceForge.net and other sources. Among many other useful tidbits, the site provides a graphical view of how a project has grown over time, based upon lines of source code; the programming and scripting languages used to build an application, as a percentage of the total code base; information about individual contributors to a project, including how many lines of source code they have committed over time; information about a project's age and the frequency of updates gleaned from its source-code repositories; and much more. Chances are, you won't have to spend much time on Ohloh.net before you begin to wonder: Shouldn't this much information about this much open-source software, presented in such an elegant and usable manner, cost a lot of money to view? It certainly feels that way to me, but of course, ohloh.net won't cost you a penny to use. That includes, of course, access both to Ohloh Labs' own source code as well as to the project's API, allowing developers to create still more tools and widgets that exploit the project's data-gathering capabilities. Sometimes, you really do get what you pay for -- but sometimes, as this project so aptly demonstrates, you get a heck of a lot more.
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