By Meredith Farkas | April 3, 2005
When I was talking to my dad and he told me that he had a copy of Adobe Acrobat’s PDF Writer, I realized that not everyone is up on the wonders of open source software. I wish I’d told him prior to his purchase that there is a great open source alternative that creates PDFs from any Windows program. So just in case any of my readers don’t know, I thought I’d tell you about PDFCreator. This program allows you to take just about anything (a Word document, an email message, a webpage, etc.) and turn it into a PDF. It’s great for creating PDF copies of unofficial transcripts, confirmation pages, and other documents. I’ve also used it to create my own little PDF archive of things on the Web that I’m very interested in reading but just don’t have time for at that moment. All you do is download the program and then when you want to create a PDF, you go to the program’s print function and choose PDFCreator as your printer. It will save the file as whatever you wish to call it and then will open it up as a PDF. It’s amazingly easy and convenient, and you certainly can’t beat the price.
There are so many open source alternatives to the expensive options we use at libraries. There’s OpenOffice instead of Microsoft Office. I haven’t tried the new version (2.o — still in Beta), but I’ve heard it has a great database program that would make my disengagement from MS Office complete. With OpenOffice, you can still save programs as .doc files (and other MS-related extensions), so they can still be accessed by people who haven’t been seduced to the side of good and truth. There’s Firefox instead of Internet Explorer. Really, I can’t see any reason anyone would use IE, other than the fact that some library vendors have products that only work on IE (which is beyond absurd). There’s Thunderbird instead of Outlook Express. Honestly, I was nervous about switching to Thunderbird myself, but it works just as well as Outlook Express and I feel much safer opening my emails. There’s Real Alternative, which plays Real Audio files just as well as Real Player without dumping a of bunch junk and spyware on your computer to slow it down. There’s IM and Jybe! for providing virtual reference and co-browsing services. I tried out Jybe!’s co-browsing software (not Open Source, but free) and found it to be quite easy to use, though I have my doubts that most students would be willing to download Jybe! in the course of a virtual reference transaction. However, I am a big fan of using IM instead of virtual reference systems like QuestionPoint. Users shouldn’t have to download, disable, or change their habits in any way to get in touch virtually with a librarian. We have to learn to communicate using the methods they use. Finally, there’s .LRN, an open source course management system developed by MIT (and used by about 250,000 other folks) that rivals its expensive competitors (Blackboard, WebCT, etc.). I’m surprised that .LRN is not better known in the distance learning community. My husband downloaded it recently and we played around with it a good deal. I was impressed to say the least. Expect a review of .LRN from my hubby on the site in the next week or so, but do check it out yourselves.
And yet so many people don’t trust Open Source software. It’s hard to use! It’s hard to maintain! It’s unreliable! It’s unsafe! Or perhaps they think that Open Source software can only be run on computers using Linux as their operating system. Not true! Open Source is not all about lock-in like Microsoft is. It’s all about giving you options! I don’t think everyone should go out and install Mandrake or Fedora or SuSe Linux on their computer, but it costs nothing to try out Firefox or PDFCreator. And you may be surprised to find out how well these things work. Really, can it get much worse than Microsoft??? I think some people have gotten so used to poorly designed, insecure, unusable programs that they become suspicious of anything that offers convenience and usability.
Anyways, I’m getting off my soapbox now. I just hate to think that I am holding onto information that might be useful to my readers (or my Dad). So next time I download something great, I’ll be sure to mention it. Just know that if you’re using something expensive, clunky, or difficult to use, do check to see if there isn’t some better out there that was created by people who were just as annoyed with the proprietary options as you are.