Best Open Source Software for the Macintosh

by Devanshu Mehta May 18, 2006

Part philosophy, part community and mainly a smart development model, the open source model of building small and large scale software has made itself an indispensable part of modern computing life. The Macintosh community is particularly well served thanks to a Unix core, fantastic developers and on-again-off-again support for open source from Apple. There are many reasons from the standpoint of a developer or power user to use open source from the ability to tweak software to the ability to sledgehammer it.

The average user of Mac OS X may wonder what open source gains them and how it is different from any of the other software they use. Well, for almost any user the benefits of using open source software over closed is that it is usually free in cost, free to use as you please and never in danger of losing support.

The first point is obvious—free in cost is great—but this is true with all freeware. The second point is a lot more subtle—every time you install a piece of proprietary software it makes you click “I Agree” to a long document that lists all the ways you may not use their software. Open source software—at least when licensed appropriately—can be used in any way you want. Copy it, run it on multiple computers, repackage it, sell your used copy to a friend, make backups, mangle its insides, use it to build better software, change it to do things the original developers had never intended.

The third reason is less likely but of a lot more significance to big companies, government offices and regular consumers who hate being taken for a ride. Say your office (home or otherwise) relies entirely on Microsoft Office for the Mac for documents, presentations and spreadsheets. All your information going back years is in MS document formats and all your employees are trained in the intricacies of MS Office. Then one day, Microsoft decides to stop supporting Office for the Mac (it could happen). What would happen to your office? You may say that you would switch to at that point, but all documents do not translate well between them. You may end up losing data and lost money in retraining employees. While it may be easy to retrain from MS Office to OpenOffice, what about larger applications like Oracle databases or MS web servers? What is your contingency plan if the company that builds the software you use stops supporting it?

Free (as in freedom) software does not suffer from this problem. The source code of the software you use is as much yours as it is of the original developer. In many cases, it is a community of developers working together because each of them has a vested interest in a particular set of features. If the developers working on it lose interest, someone else is free to take over. In a worst case, you, your company or a government office could pay people to work on it. In any case, it will never be lost and for that reason it can always be supported. This is especially important in government where the information is owned by the public and must be available, in theory, for as long as it is useful. Also, your input as a user- be it as bug reports or feature requests- can have a quick and visible impact on the software in a way that is impossible anywhere else.

In that spirit, here is how you can go open source on the Macintosh:

The Obvious

Firefox: No surprises here, Firefox and Linux are the current poster-children of the open source revolution, if there is one. What may not be obvious is Camino, which I reviewed earlier, an open source browser based on the same core as Firefox but built specifically for the Mac. and NeoOffice: This one is a no-brainer. Compared with the expensive office software from other companies, has a quite well-rounded feature set. The only drawback is that it relies on X11 windowing for the Mac. For that reason, Patrick Luby and Edward Peterlin created the NeoOffice port of OpenOffice for the Macintosh that will run just like any other application and uses Cocoa and Java to get the native Mac OS X look.

Adium X: Since Adium X allows you to chat in AIM, MSN, Bonjour, ICQ, Yahoo!, Google Talk, any Jabber server and many others this is a fantastic replacement for Apple’s iChat. You can customize it to your heart’s delight or leave it in its clean original state. Based on the libGaim open source library that powers many similar chat clients for Windows, Linux and other platforms, Adium is probably the best Apple-only open source software.

Thunderbird: If you are tired of some of the quirks of Apple’s Mail, Mozilla’s Thunderbird has developed into quite a solid email client for many platforms. For people who use multiple computers and/or multiple operating systems, the ability to share your Thunderbird profile (or Firefox profile) across operating systems is quite useful.

Gimp: Gimp is a slightly tough-to-get-used-to, but free alternative to Photoshop. The Gimp community is almost as active as the Photoshop one and is extremely powerful. And it’s free! Unfortunately, it requires X11 which may be a barrier for some users.

The Not-so-obvious

Fink: While I could have mentioned this first, Fink is the window in to a much larger open source world. For details on the how and why you can refer to my review from a few months ago, but the short of it is that Fink provides you a simple interface to fetch and install many ports of popular open source software. The Fink project also takes open source software developed for other platforms (Linux, other Unixes) and modifies them to run correctly under Mac OS X.

VLC Media Player: This is a must have media player- it can play a stupendously large number of multimedia formats and is available for MacOS X.

Imagemagick: For anyone working with images or photographs, Imagemagick is fantastic. From changing formats (jpeg to tiff) to changing sizes to rotating to adding effects, to creating GIF animations, Imagemagick can do it all from the command line. A simple command like ‘convert rose.jpg -resize 50% rose.png’ on the command-line does exactly what you think it would. It is available through Fink.

Cyberduck: If you have use for FTP or SFTP, CyberDuck is full-featured, free and easy to use.

Gnucash: A free financial management software for individuals and small businesses, with the ability to get information from bank web sites, online stock quotes in addition to being a fantastic, double-entry accounting software, GnuCash has changed my life. I never used to keep track of my expenses they way I do now and it would have taken me a while to actually pay for a software that was this powerful. The only reason this is so far down the list is because other people may not have the need for it and it has a bit of a steep learning curve. In my mind, however, this is right at the top with Firefox. Available through Fink.

Nvu: A great WYSIWYG html editor that has many of the features that companies like Macromedia and Microsoft charge good money for, Nvu is great for beginners and power developers.

That is all I have for you for the moment. There are many more great open source software packages for the Mac and if you think I have unfairly left some out, let me know in the comments below. The ones I have listed here are ones I use on a regular basis and would recommend regardless of their being open source.

Also, remember that users of open source software are as much a part of the community as developers. If you use it, make sure you are vocal. Let the developers know what you like and especially what you don’t like. When something breaks, report it. Make your suggestions known and most importantly, make your appreciation known. Proprietary software is great and has made great things possible, but using software where your input counts will change how you look at software.

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  • has a lot more freeware/opensource goodies.

    motherduce had this to say on May 18, 2006 Posts: 17
  • FreeSMUG - Free OpenSource Software Mac User Group

    Gand had this to say on May 18, 2006 Posts: 1
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    Robomac had this to say on May 18, 2006 Posts: 846
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    Cubert had this to say on May 18, 2006 Posts: 4
  • The prospect of Microsoft cutting support for Office is no different from the prospect of the developer community stopping work on any particular open source project.  As a customer, are you going to get in there and start coding?  Maybe you will if you’re qualified to do so, but that’s a cost to you; hardly free.  More likely you (like most of the world) aren’t a developer, so you’re out of luck.  You either get to convince/pay someone to help you out or switch software.  Free software is immune to risk?  Sure, just like Macs are immune to viruses.

    sloryder had this to say on May 19, 2006 Posts: 2
  • @sloryder, it is open to the risk of a certain group of developers losing interest, but as long as even one developer is interested in working on it, the project is alive.

    I claim no immunity to risk- I only claim that whatever you use will be *open* in that if the main developers lose interest tomorrow your *data* will still be open- not proprietary, closed and lost forever.

    Also, I do not claim that open source software is *free in cost*- that is only a nice common side effect. Many people pay good money for open source precisely because they appreciate service along with their software.

    Microsoft may be a bad example because they are a behemoth and ubiquitous. But say you trust your data to a proprietary format owned by a smaller company that is still growing, you are truly in trouble if they go under. If they are open source and use open document formats, anyone can *potentially* get at your information legally, for no cost (in money).

    Many open source projects, such as Desktop Manager for the Mac, have stagnated as developers have lost interest. In the case of Desktop Manager, another developers had ideas of how it could be improved so he took the code base and rolled his own version called Virtue Desktop. If MS let IE stagnate, there was nothing anyone could do. If Mozilla lets Firefox stagnate, even a single developer could pick it up and improve it.

    Devanshu Mehta had this to say on May 19, 2006 Posts: 108
  • I think we may be merging the openness of source with the openness of formats here.  I can certainly see your point about proprietary formats, but it becomes less compelling when proprietary software stores data in open formats, as the next version of Microsoft Office will.  I certainly can’t speak for Microsoft, so I don’t know whether they intend to address concerns like yours with this move, but to my mind it does change the question a bit.

    On open != free, you’re right- I misread your article.  I’m sorry to have implied you said open source software has no cost when you clearly referred to the cost.

    One other point- in the case where a project stagnates and a single developer picks things up again, I may have trouble trusting the code.  It’s a sad statement of the times, but I’m much happier installing software from a group I may have heard of than from some dude.  While I could go look at the source to verify it’s not doing anything sleazy, that doesn’t practically scale.  In fact, I know people who want to do exactly this but can’t because their employment contracts forbid it.  Their employers are too afraid of opening themselves up to legal action.  (to my mind that’s another sad statement of the times, but what can you do?)  At any rate, m hope is that eventually code signing will be prevalent enough that I can count on some other agency to figure out whom I should trust.

    sloryder had this to say on May 22, 2006 Posts: 2
  • I realize the ideas of open source get confused with open formats- the philosophies behind them are similar, but the implications are different.

    Also, on new developers picking up projects- you can trust them for the same reason you trust companies; because of “peer review”; because of the wisdom of crowds. That is, because everyone else trusts them. I have never used any software from McAfee but I would trust a download from them because I know tons of people do.

    I would, however, be slightly less suspicious of an open source random developer than a closed source random developer, purely because the open source developer is opening himself up to closer potential scrutiny. Even if I am not going to scrutinize the code, the developer has laid all his/her cards on the table.

    Devanshu Mehta had this to say on May 22, 2006 Posts: 108
  • Yeah, open source is a great concept, it’s like we can all be a team without knowing each other and having attended to team buildings so that we learn to collaborate with each other and help each other. I once had a problem with Dll files while working with an open source piece of software and fixed it myself, it was great that I had the option to do that.

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  • My favourite without doubts is VLC player, it just can play every file you try, I really love it smileair filter

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    Toolman11 had this to say on Oct 26, 2011 Posts: 3
  • Where would we be without open source??
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