Literally the Best Thing Ever: Open-Source Software

Get it with a five-finger discount.

Illustration by Kelly

Illustration by Kelly

I’m about to show you how to be a total badass rebel and fight the power—just by changing what computer software you use. Computers are everywhere and everyone uses them, but not a lot of people seem to wonder why and how they work. The computer companies like it this way—they don’t want us to think about computers, they just want us to spend all our money on them. How did this happen? How did the computer industry get so much power over us, and what can we do to get some of that power back? It’s all about educating ourselves to make better choices. We’ve already covered hardware and how you can make your own computer, so let’s dig into what makes your computer do the things it can do: software.

First, a few definitions: Hardware is the physical stuff that makes up your computer: the processor, memory, keyboard, monitor, etc. Software, on the other hand, is basically an instruction manual for your computer, telling it what to do. Your operating system, the browser you’re reading this on right now, your word processor, and all your games and apps are software. The instructions inside that instruction manual are called the source code. When you are “writing” a program, you are writing the source code. Here’s an example of some source code for a small program that tells you if a number you’ve entered is odd or even:

main() { int n; printf("Enter an integer\n"); scanf("%d",&n); if ( n%2 == 0 ) printf("Even\n"); else printf("Odd\n"); return 0; }

An operating system is a cluster of software that runs the whole show, managing the hardware and the software and getting them to work together efficiently. Windows is an operating system; so are Apple’s Mountain Lion, Snow Leopard, etc.

When the first personal computers were being developed in the 1960s and ’70s, computer users were computer lovers who had fun testing the limits of computing and programming. They were hackers—which doesn’t mean people who illegally modify computer software or break into secure systems; the term was originally used (and still is, by tech enthusiasts and other badass rebel types) to describe people who are just interested in modifying computers to make them run better. Back then, if you wanted your computer to do something, you had to write the source code yourself. Very few people were thinking about making money from coding; it was just about exploring and learning. So what happened?

First, in the early 1970s, everyone started using a new operating system called UNIX. The upside to this system was that it allowed multiple simultaneous users (so even though a university might have only one powerful computer, different people could use it from terminals all over campus at the same time) and it made writing reliable code easier. The downside was that the system was owned by AT&T, and AT&T realized they could make a ton of money by licensing the software. This started the whole idea of a software license, which you often have to buy once a free trial on a piece of software is over. You don’t really OWN licensed software when you buy it—you are simply purchasing the right to USE the software based on the maker’s specific terms. If you owned the software, you could look at the source code, which would empower you to play around with the program and modify it to suit your needs. Licensing turns the computer user into a computer consumer, with no power to change the code in any way.

In the ’50s and ’60s, the American telephone company Bell System licensed EVERYTHING—the telephone was theirs, the signals were theirs, and even the words transmitted through their wires were theirs—and so any word that was spoken to you over the phone didn’t legally become “yours” until it left the Bell System mouthpiece and actually entered your ear!

The new MacBook Pro is the least hackable computer ever made, since Apple intentionally made it impossible to upgrade or replace the hard drive or the RAM, or even change the battery. Many of the services we use (like Facebook and Gmail) restrict our freedom by not being transparent about selling our information and making money off of us, but they won’t let us tinker around with their tech. We agree to these stipulations when we accept the legalese on their terms and conditions forms.

In the 1980s, a group of computer activists joined forces to fight for “free software” (free as in freedom, not as in no price). The free software movement was started by a programmer named Richard Stallman in 1983, and its basic ideology is that all computer users have an ethical right to access source code. A lot of programmers think Stallman is too radical and weird; he will only use the Leemote Yeelong laptop because it runs on 100% open source software, and when Steve Jobs died Stallman notoriously blogged, “Steve Jobs, the pioneer of the computer as a jail-made cool, designed to sever fools from their freedom, has died.” In 1998 a new group formed called the Open Source Movement (under the umbrella group Open Source Initiative). It’s basically the free software movement minus all the dogmatic philosophy; all the OSI wants is access to the software source code.

If you have the source code and you know what you’re doing, you can tinker with any program to make unique improvements and see exactly how the program interacts with your computer. For open-source proponents, it’s about building on other people’s ideas and sharing your own, collaborating to create software with more flexibility, fewer bugs, higher reliability, and lower cost. If you’re interested in using open-source software on your own computer, here’s a quick rundown of some alternatives to popular software you’re probably using already. These programs are easy to find and download, and they often work better than the proprietary versions. You don’t need to learn code to use any of these programs, and it is good to support free software!

Word Processing:

LibreOffice vs. Microsoft Office

Microsoft has to add new features to their software in each new version to keep consumers coming back, so the interface just gets crazier and crazier to fit everything in. If you find this annoying, then LibreOffice is for you. It strips Office applications down to only the essential features so you can just focus on your work and still save in any format you need (.docx, .doc, .pdf, etc.). Here’s an illustrative comparison:

Microsoft Word toolbar (What are all these things? I just want to write!):

Screen Shot 2013-07-16 at 6.55.47 PM

LibreOffice toolbar (Simple! Clean!):

libre bar

Photo Editing:

GIMP vs. Adobe Photoshop

Comparing GIMP with Photoshop is like comparing a Best Western with the Four Seasons—both basically have the same stuff, but one is clearly way better than the other. GIMP has almost all the same tools as Photoshop, but they just don’t work as well. If you’ve never used Photoshop before you won’t know what you’re missing, but if you learn Photoshop first and then try using GIMP, it can be a very frustrating experience. The main problem with GIMP is that it’s just as complicated as Photoshop, but not as powerful. If you’re looking for a simpler, free version of Photoshop I recommend Pixlr, a browser-based Photoshop clone. Pixlr is not open source, but it is free (while Photoshop costs $700!).

Drawing Programs:

Inkscape vs. Adobe Illustrator

These are both vector graphics editors, which are useful for making digital art, graphic design, logos—but they are different in many ways. Inkscape shines in its simplicity: It’s powerful and has lots of features, but it’s also easy to learn and use. Illustrator is more difficult to navigate if you want to do simple things like distorting a shape, but it has Inkscape beat if you want to print with true CMYK and Pantone colors. If you just design for the web, Inkscape should meet all your needs.

Search engine:

DuckDuckGo vs. Google

If you are concerned about being tracked, having ads targeted at you, or any of the other ways that Google gets and uses your information, you may want to consider DuckDuckGo. It doesn’t have all the bells and whistles of a Google search, but it gets the job done without snooping around.

Web browsers:

Mozilla Firefox vs. Safari/Internet Explorer/Google Chrome

Firefox is the only easy-to-use and -install open-source web browser out there. Luckily, it is also a great browser. One of its major benefits is that because it’s open-source, people are constantly making add-ons for it. (An add-on is an additional [usually free] piece of software that adds features to your browser.) Greasemonkey, Adblock Plus, and Video DownloadHelper are all great add-ons developed for Firefox (Adblock Plus has also made it to Chrome). Internet Explorer has always kind of sucked, and Safari isn’t much better. Chrome is fast so I still use it, but only in “incognito mode” so Google can’t track me. Firefox is a bit slower than Chrome, but they are fighting hard to keep open standards on the web. Open standards are important because they help make the internet an even playing field, allowing anyone to understand and develop websites and apps no matter what browser, hardware, or software they use. Firefox also has a mobile operating system coming out that will allow more people in the developing world to use smartphones and web-based apps.

I’m not saying you’re evil if you choose to use licensed corporate software instead of open-source, or that you’re a mindless consumer. But if you choose to stick with Windows or OSX or what have you, it should be just that: a choice. The whole point of freedom is that it’s up to you! ♦


  • Britney July 17th, 2013 11:18 PM

    This is officially one of my favorite articles. Also, thank you for explaining UNIX because my friends and I were having a computer/tech related conversation and the subject of UNIX came up and I was considerably confused. But yes, I understand my computer better now, and the article was entertaining yet informative. Okay, I’ll stop talking now.

  • elliecp July 18th, 2013 2:06 AM

    This is actually really awesome. I actually understand computers now <3

  • Emilyis July 18th, 2013 2:48 AM

    :0 DuckDuckgo has the most adorable Logo!

  • heartcity July 18th, 2013 3:45 AM

    This is dope info that I wish more people knew about!!! So glad you guys are posting stuff like this, we need more lady programmers.

  • OliveBrown July 18th, 2013 5:49 AM

    This is such a great article! Thanks for omitting all the technical jargon. I would also suggest Miro as a great open-source media player for those sick of iTunes (or iAnything for that matter).

  • Sophie ❤ July 18th, 2013 7:14 AM

    I actually understand what the word ‘computer’ means in detail! Super super cool, thank you, Rookie!

  • soviet_kitsch July 18th, 2013 10:01 AM

    duckduckgo is awesome. i use it instead of google! i find that sometimes i don’t get as many links as i would on google, but more often than not they’re a better quality because they don’t allow people to buy ad space to get top priority in searches.

  • fromanotherearth July 18th, 2013 10:15 AM

    This is so cool! I have minimal knowledge of computer stuff and only know some basic HTML coding. I think I’m gonna start using DuckDuckGo now! :)

  • hanalady July 18th, 2013 10:21 AM

    This is awesome! I love that Rookie covers stuff like this and it’s not like “okay ladiez we know you’re more interested in fashion but here’s a dumbed-down explanation of computers for you.” Rookie respects us and knows we’re interested in all types of things!

    Also, I would be really interested in a Rookie article about how exactly internet things track and use your information. I have a general sense that they do, and that it’s bad, but as someone who hasn’t kept up with all the news about it, an article breaking it down for me would be really helpful and interesting.

    • Afanen July 21st, 2013 9:40 AM

      It’s not a Rookie article, but I have a post on the data collection issue on my personal blog. It seems you’re not the only one having those questions, I been asked about it a lot lately.

      I’m a bit of a techie, so I hope it is comprehensible, if not or you have any questions, please feel free to comment.

      Here’s my blog post:

  • wallflower152 July 18th, 2013 10:54 AM

    Thank you for posting this! Most people, myself included, just use computers/phones and don’t think about this stuff. It’s great to be reminded that there are alternatives to the devices/programs I use. I love my Apple products but Apple doesn’t want me to tinker with my devices, and for good reason, they design everything so meticulously that you shouldn’t want to. My iPhone is jailbroken which used to be illegal until courts ruled that it is up to the consumer to do what they want with their phones once they buy them as long as they don’t use it to steal apps/music etc. It’s nice to have a sexy iPhone but still be able to have some customization. I am not a hacker, I owe this to the people who make the jailbreaks. : )

  • siouxzanne July 18th, 2013 12:14 PM

    If anyone loves to learn things (!!!) I am just getting into free music programs like SuperCollider,, PureData, etc.

    These programs have really welcoming communities (and facebook groups!) with really extensive tutorials.

    Plus, they make the COOLEST experimental computer music.

    and try these out
    (normal audio: )

    Also, the Microsoft Kinect is open source ( and you can do SUCH rad things with it.


    These fields are dominated by nerdy males, but this stuff is super fun and you can literally make or do anything. I end this rambling post with music from a rad GIRL who does experimental sound art.

  • Julianne July 18th, 2013 12:47 PM


  • erin35 July 18th, 2013 3:58 PM

    awesome article, i really enjoyed it because i dont think i would have found out about those other options, or at least would not have had a little bit of more understanding.

  • xcelina July 19th, 2013 12:17 AM

    thanks so much for the links ! I just bought a new laptop w/o microsoft office and google drive wasnt working out well… Im giving libre office a try as well as duck duck go!

  • sissiLOL July 19th, 2013 6:01 AM

    My browser is firefox. :-)
    And in the next school term I will have all this computer things in school! <3

  • taste test July 19th, 2013 4:44 PM

    yay! it makes me happy that this article exists! you did an awesome job of explaining why open source is good. also, you inspired me to give firefox another shot! I used it for a long time and customized the shit out of it but then I ditched it for chrome almost a year ago when I started having some issues with it. but it’s working fine now and it’s nice to have all my little shortcuts back.

  • mowski July 20th, 2013 12:49 AM

    this article was so awesome it made me register so i could comment – this website is pretty generally one of the best things on the internet, and this article especially so!

  • purplepopsicles July 20th, 2013 2:08 PM

    Great article :)
    Just so you know, Google can still track you in incognito mode, it just automatically deletes your personal browser history, autofill, cookies, etc. on your computer

  • Kaetlebugg July 20th, 2013 8:20 PM

    also audacity for music recording, right?

    • Afanen July 21st, 2013 7:12 AM

      Audacity is for recording in general. It’s your 21st century version of those giant tape machines of old.

      You can use it to record and edit your sound recordings in numerous ways. I use it, for example, to mix and edit audio-tracks for videos.

      If you want to do something like that, Audacity is your tool of choice.

      If you’re in a band however, and want to do professional recording of your own music, have a look at Rosegarden ( It is a music composition program (such as Cubase), that has a recorder, a midi sequencer and even a score-editor, so you can print out the score of your works.

      It needs a Unix-like operating-system or OpenVMS to run, so no windows support here.

  • lizabeth July 20th, 2013 11:00 PM

    I was just looking at Inkscape last night and I’m definitely going to be checking out DuckDuckGo. Thanks for this article!

  • Afanen July 21st, 2013 7:01 AM

    @Maggie: The MS-Office screenshots are from Office 2003 aren’t they? I find the new interface since Office 2007 , where there are no more menu bars at the top of the window, even more annoying.

  • daisyparakeet July 21st, 2013 9:03 PM

    Great article and, as a non-techy, I appreciate that it is written in English.

  • I W July 23rd, 2013 1:08 PM

    Thank you so much! Inkscape is my new favourite thing.
    I wish there was a better photoshop substitute though. GIMP and Pixlr are alright but they are just not up to scratch when it comes to some things (Pixlr is way better than GIMP though)

  • Yani August 1st, 2013 8:32 PM

    Can I just add, though it’s 50 dollars to buy, scrivener is an amazing writing app. Thirty day trial has turned my heels

  • a-anti-anticapitalista August 4th, 2013 11:10 AM

    ” Licensing turns the computer user into a computer consumer, with no power to change the code in any way.”
    This is like a perfect metaphor for capitalism and the state.

  • a-anti-anticapitalista August 4th, 2013 11:23 AM

    Also, if you believe all property is theft then iceweasel is even better than firefox because firefox’s logo is propietary. Also, iceweasel’s logo is cuter.