Open source alternatives

This is a list of my favourite open source – and more generally just less evil – alternatives to software and websites people use frequently. I’ve split the list of alternatives into categories (click to jump):

1 – cross platform

2 – desktop

3 – android

4 – hosted web

5 – honourable mentions

Cross platform

 Firefox
Does Chrome care about your privacy (and give you privacy tips)?
Does Chrome care about your privacy (and give you privacy tips)?

Pretty much everyone has heard of Firefox, but at the moment it seems to be fighting a losing battle with Google Chrome. I think that’s a real shame, and I continue to use Firefox.

While Chrome is open source to some extent (Chrome has Google’s closed source stuff on top of the open source “Chromium” base), Firefox is properly open source. More to the point, Firefox is produced by a non-profit foundation interested in the open web, while Chrome is made primarily by a somewhat-evil giant company. (You can read more about my thoughts on why you should choose Firefox here.)

Firefox is available on pretty much every platform — Linux, Windows, OSx, Android and iOS.

If you haven’t used Firefox for a while, you should give it another spin. Your software choices matter!

Fastmail

I recently started using Fastmail for my email, and I am loving it. It’s good because

  • they contribute to open source email projects
  • it’s super fast; and
  • it has a pretty interface.

The only downside is that its’s a little expensive. Luckily I’m here to help! Sign up here and receive 10% off.

Desktop

GNU/Linux (operating system)

If you care about open source, then your computer should reflect that – from the operating system up! GNU/Linux is a fantastic alternative to Windows and OSX.

There’s a distribution out there to suit pretty much everyone’s needs, so if you’re new to Linux there’s no need to be afraid. Give it a try!

Libre Office (word processing)
Screenshot - 120814 - 20:56:04
LibreOffice Writer, including a bonus muesli recipe!

Libre Office is the de-facto leader of the open source productivity market. It was forked from Open Office (which continues to exist), and it’s really starting to get good. It’s a solid productivity package, and they continue to up their game in relation to inter-operability with Word etc (although I don’t think it’s ever going to be 100%).

In terms of user interface design, Libre Writer is comparable to the days of Word 2003 (i.e. before the now familiar “ribbon” at the top of the program). In some ways, it’s nice to not have to click through sub-menus on the ribbon to get to the thing you want, but other times the design of Libre Writer feels pretty dated. That said, the community is working hard on usability, and it continues to improve.

Clementine (music)

Screenshot - 110814 - 23:13:49

Clementine is one of the only good open source music programs I’ve seen. It has the ability to fetch album artwork from the web, to display song lyrics, and do everything else you would expect in a normal desktop player. You can also control it from an android device with the remote app. It works on both Windows and Linux.

I recently subscribed to Spotify premium, and Clementine allows you to stream music through your Spotify account (although I just use the Spotify Ubuntu client).

VLC media player (video player)

VLC just works – it plays pretty much anything without having to download anything extra. I’ve also found it can play damaged files, in situations where most other players would complain or crash.

Yacy (search engine)

If you’re willing to go a bit further down the rabbit hole, YaCy search is an interesting idea. They bill themselves as “Web Search by the people, for the people”, and it’s a decentralised and peer-to-peer search engine where everyone who’s connected contributes to an index of the internet. Every time you search for something, you send away requests to all the other members of the public network for websites they have which are relevant. Every user of Yacy can run their own crawler which indexes the websites of their choice.

I’ve found the results pretty variable so far, but if adoption becomes more significant, the quality is likely to improve quite drastically. You can try it out without installing the software here.

Evolution / Thunderbird (desktop email client)

Sometimes I find it useful being able to have a desktop client for my emails. Desktop clients can sometimes provide a better interface, and they allow you to store your emails for offline use etc.

A useful email client is Evolution, which contains an email client, contacts management, calandar and tasks system. If you’re looking for a stripped-down desktop client, this probably isn’t your best bet, but I appreciate being able to use it for emails, and also manage my contacts in the cloud with cardDAV. Evolution is actively developed, and has pulled ahead of Thunderbird in a few ways (such as cardDAV support). It’s only available on Linux.

Thunderbird is the pretty well known email client created by Mozilla (although it’s no longer supported by them). It’s fallen behind a bit and doesn’t support remove calendars or contact syncing without installing add-ons and a fair bit of fiddling. Hopefully it finds a new home in a free software foundation somewhere soon.

Although it’s still got a little way to go, Geary is shaping up to be a really nice alternative. The Gmail-like interface for viewing emails is the nicest of the programs I’ve tried out. It doesn’t yet have things you would normally expect from an email client, like contact management, but worth watching or using if you don’t need lots of features!

GIMP (image manipulation)

Gimp screenshot

GIMP stands for GNU Image Manipulation Program, and it’s the standard open source software for image manipulation/graphics editing.

Android

AntennaPod (podcasts)

It took me a long time to find a good postcasting app for android, let alone an open source one. For Android users, AntennaPod is pretty much as good as it gets.

It does everything a podcasting app needs to do. You can add podcasts through gpodder.net, and also sync your subscriptions between platforms through signing into gpodder in the settings options.

OSMand (navigation)

OSMand is a free navigation and map app for Android devices which uses Open Street Map data.

What’s cool about is that you can download the maps for entire countries to your phone, so that you can consult and a map and navigate places all without using any mobile data. The downside to downloading all the map data–in contrast to Google Maps on your phone where it just downloads the relevant bits–is that it’s noticeably sluggish sometimes as it has to render the map from the underlying data. (Or at least I think that’s what’s happening!) The interface is also slightly confusing at times, but once you get used to it, it works well.

You can also edit OpenStreetMap through the app, and record your movements as gpx tracks which you could then subsequently upload as GPS traces if you’re that way inclined. The other thing you could do with recording your movements is to create a map of your travels through foreign countries.

There’s a good guide to using the app here.

Kontalk / Telegram (messaging)

Messaging software is tricky – there are so many possible protocols and options. The open source ones typically have very few users which is problematic.

I mainly use Telegram, which doesn’t have perfect open source credentials. Only the clients (i.e. not the servers) are open sourced, although their FAQ says they will eventually open source everything. They’ve also been criticised for using a home-cooked encryption protocol. But they might be on to a good thing building up a base of users and focusing on usability and experience, and then sorting out the open-ess aspect later.

Kontalk seems like a pretty cool open source and community-driven messaging project. It’s still in relatively early stages of development as far as I can see (there’s no app for iOS or platforms apart from Android), but the idea seems solid.

F-Droid (android apps)

If you have an android phone or tablet, F-Droid is quite a great alternative to the Google Play store which only stocks free and open source android apps. It’s a little trickier than normal to install, as you can’t just download it through the Play store (due to Google’s ban on marketplace apps I think), but once you get it set up you have easy access to over 1,000 open source apps for your device. There’s also easy access to the source code of all the apps if you’re interested.

Hopefully in the future they will introduce features which more traditional app marketplaces offer, such as screenshots of the apps, reviews, etc, but for now it’s nice not to have to install everything on Google’s terms. You can even get quite a few of the alternatives I’ve talked about here through the F-droid repository!

If you want to go further, Ron Amadeo at Ars Technica has a guide for setting up a completely free and open source phone.

Other mobile operating systems

While I think most people don’t think about, there are pretty compelling reasons why Android is somewhat evil. (I’ve written a blog post about that here).

A big and quite well known alternative is CyanogenMod (CM). CM is basically pure open source Android with a few modifications, and apart from it’s confusing name, the project is quite promising. It has the big advantage of being more open source than normal Android, while also allowing users to install Google apps if they choose. Although installing Google apps is possible, it is a slightly complicated process, and generally the process of installing CM as your mobile OS is not particularly easy. However, CM also highlights the difficulties competitors to Google face. Google’s applications like Gmail and Google Maps are a must-have for a lot of people, and basically the only way to get them is to use iOS or Android. CM has talked recently about wrestling control of Android away from Google, and about starting up their own app store.

Ubuntu phones have been on the horizon for a very long time, and is starting to produce some interesting phones. One thing I particularly like about the OS is that it’s designed to have frequent over-the-air updates. This instantly makes it more sophisticated in this area than Android phones. If you were cynical, you could argue that it’s too late arriving that the battle has already been lost, and it might only attract a few open source nerds at the fringes. But here’s hoping more will come of it!

I bought an Ubuntu phone (the Meizu Pro 5) — you can read my review here.

Hosted web

WordPress

WordPress is a really popular open source content management system (CMS). This website is run using WordPress, and you’d be surprised how many popular news organisations use it behind the scenes.

Piwik

If you have your own privately-hosted website, and you use Google Analytics or something similar to keep track of who visits your site, I can recommend using Piwik instead.

Piwik is open source and pretty easy to install on your server. It also respects the privacy of your visitors, and isn’t sending information about them to Google HQ.

Honourable mentions

The following aren’t technically open source, but are good “less-evil” alternatives.

Duck Duck Go (search engine)

Duck Duck Go is a privacy-centric search engine. While it’s not open source, it does give prominence to open source/crowd-sourced results. I’ve been using it for the last little while and I’m not often frustrated by the results. Sometimes it doesn’t quite get what I’m looking for, and you have to switch back to google, but it’s become my default search engine. I think it works much better if you specify your region in the preferences. (They have quite a nifty system for keeping track of your preferences without logging you in, and my understanding is that you can maintain your preferences without being tracked…) In a similar way to Google search, it provides useful information at the top of the results with summaries of Wikipedia information etc.

It doesn’t track users of its search engine, and doesn’t provide personalised results so helps to avoid the so-called “filter bubble”. Here’s how Wikipedia defines a filter bubble:

A filter bubble is a result state in which a website algorithm selectively guesses what information a user would like to see based on information about the user (such as location, past click behaviour and search history) and, as a result, users become separated from information that disagrees with their viewpoints, effectively isolating them in their own cultural or ideological bubbles. Prime examples are Google’s personalised search results and Facebook’s personalised news stream.

I think it’s easy to see how it might be desirable to avoid such a bubble! (The ‘Explore’ tumblr also has a good post about how websites like Facebook are keeping things from you.) There is an argument to be made for the benefits of personalisation (“we’re providing information tailored to your particular needs!”), but personally I would rather trade away a small amount of convenience for privacy. I’ve found that if you adjust settings in DuckDuckGo to tell it which country you’re in the results are way better.

The search engine has been growing in fits and starts, but interestingly it’s growth has hugely benefited from recent surveillance revelations and an increased awareness of privacy. They recently announced that they reached 10 million daily searches.

After a somewhat recent design update it looks really great too.

Open Street Map (maps)
In some places, OpenStreetMap surpasses the quality of Google Maps. (c) OSM contributors

Open Street Map (OSM) is like the Wikipedia of maps. Anyone can edit the maps and add or correct information about things in their neighbourhood or city. The mapping data is free for anyone to use, so anyone can build apps or websites using the information. Since the data is free to use, the main website (openstreetmap.com) is only the tip of the iceberg, and there are all sorts of interesting projects based on the efforts of volunteer OSM mappers.

Everyone seems to use Google Maps for pretty much everything, but there are some pretty compelling reasons why we shouldn’t rely on Google’s proprietary maps. Simply put, it’s a bad idea to rely on a for-profit company to decide what’s worth seeing on a map. Do we really want those with the deepest pockets being able to pay to pop up when you’re browsing a map or searching for something, while others without the money being resigned to obscurity? (You’ll see above that I talk about ‘filter bubbles’ — I think restricting or tailoring access to spatial data is potentially the worst filter bubble of them all!)

In terms of the parts of OSM which aren’t so great – you can see in the screenshot above a lot of those houses are missing numbers. That’s pretty normal for OSM, and the lack of addresses is the biggest area in which they don’t match up with the quality of a competitor like Google Maps at the moment.

If you want to read about where the project is heading, TechCrunch published an interview with OSM’s founder Steve Coast which is well worth having a look at.

Further reading

Get in touch

What are your favourite open source alternatives? Let me know in a comment below.

Last updated Jan 2017

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