Indispensable Software

Below is a list of some of the best free and open source software available.  Software that has become indispensable in professional life.  I've chosen those that are cross-platform; learn them well, and you can use them on every PC (w/ Win/Mac/Lin) you come across.

For students, these are an amazing set of resources and tools to learn, use, experiment on, hack, disassemble, and contribute to.  Anyone with determination can be come an expert in any of the areas below and many, many more.  It's sure a great time to be a geek.

Why, back in my day, free(dom) software was almost unknown and there were no tools that made experimentation and research as straightforward as today.  ((shakes cane))


Mozilla Firefox and Thunderbird
I'm guessing these two don't need much introduction.  ;)

Likewise, there's a good argument to be made for Google's new Chrome browser, because of its elegant tab isolation and raw javascript speed.  However, considering the amazing array of extensions and usability of the Mozilla software, I recommend sticking with Firefox and/or T-bird for the time being.  We'll see how Chrome improves in 2010.

Pidgin/Adium Instant Messenger
The no-frills multi-platform, multi-system IM client.  Don't run multiple instant messengers, run just one, Pidgin.  It is true that GTK apps are a bit thick-looking on Windows, but I'll take it any day over the Fisher-Price circus acts that are Yahoo or Live Messenger.  If you are on OSX, try its feathered cousin Adium.


The premier multi-platform, free office suite.  People who really need MS Office are welcome to buy it, but for the majority of us, this suite works well and the price sure is right.  One of the most important tools in the task of unlocking your data.


Virtual Box
Virtual Machines have become so useful, it's hard to remember what it was like before them.  VMWare and later others brought this technology to the PC and completely revolutionized testing and hardware consolidation in just a few short years.  More on that in a future article.  But, what if I told you there were a free, open alternative that runs on all platforms, has a nicer UI, and is also highly scriptable?  It sounds too good to be true, no?   There is one small drawback, you'll need to download Sun's version to use USB with your VMs.


Why Python?  Imagine there was a programming language so easy it was taught to beginners, who then went on to become experts, who continued using it to create high-quality applications.  Simple, powerful, and practical, is a combination you'll rarely hear of in the computer industry, but Python arguably gets you closer to this goal than anything else.  Most, if not all of the products here are scriptable with Python.

Art and Design

A great photo and image editor, that has constantly been given a hard time because it is not Photoshop.  However, as someone who has used numerous image editors in my time I don't find Photoshop to be particularly easy nor intuitive as it could be.  I've found Gimp, though unfortunately named is great at any non-professional (not 16bit/channel color, CMYK printing) task you can throw at it.  In other words, if you are not using PS for a living, it is time to start moving away from it, sucking-it-up and learning a few new keys, and unlocking your data with Gimp.

An amazing vector graphics editor, responsible for most of the beautiful icons on this page.

A powerful 3d-graphics suite, though noted to have a steep learning curve.  The next version, 2.5 promises a comprehensive UI refresh, after which I hope to dig into it fully.

And there's much, much more—We've only scratched the surface.  If you are on Windows, I recommend the OpenDisc, a collection of great software to get you started.  What is your favorite free and open software?

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