How to escape from vendor lock in without leaving Windows
The usual advice given is to run Linux in a virtual machine until you find a distribution that you like and the recommended tool is normally Virtual Box1. It provides a nice and easy way to try different operating systems without risking your data. If you don’t care what a virtual machine or operating system is, you can still start to free your data.
I am going to talk about freeing your data using Free and Open Source Software. After using the software mentioned, it becomes easier to switch to a Linux-based operating system later on. You will already be familiar with much of the software available.
What is Free and Open Source Software?
Firstly, I am not talking about free in the payment sense although FOSS is usually free in that regard. The Free Software Foundation2 3 define four essential freedoms with regard to software.
- The freedom to use the software for any purpose.
- The freedom to study how the program works and understand it.
- The freedom to share copies of the software.
- The freedom to improve the software and to distribute copies of the improvements.
That may sound terribly geeky, but in these times of ever-increasing government and commercial spying it is more important than ever to take control of your data and to be able to trust the software you are running.
Open source is inherently more trustworthy than proprietary software. While proprietary software probably doesn’t contain back doors implanted for government agencies, we can’t check for ourselves. We have to take the companies word for it.
Anyone can check open source software for back doors and can remove those they find and release it themselves. They can also send the update to the developers in the case that someone maliciously added one.
What open source software is there?
There are several choices here. Firefox4, Chrome5 and Chromium6. All of them are better and faster than Microsoft’s offering and come with the ability to add extensions to supplement their basic functionality. Of the three, I prefer Firefox and add extensions to block adverts, unwanted tracking scripts and to protect my privacy.
If you don’t use a web mail client, the obvious choice for open source email is Mozilla Thunderbird7. It handles the usual mail formats and allows you to easily set up a secure connection in to your mail server. Thunderbird comes with an extension called lightning which handles a calendar, appointments and alarms.
The three main open source graphics applications that run on Linux are both also available for Windows. Inkscape8 handles a professional level of vector graphics better than many of the expensive proprietary solutions and the wonderfully named GIMP9 handles photo manipulation. Despite its slightly eccentric interface, it is a very capable piece of software. For high-end rendering and animation there is Blender10 which is an insanely complex and powerful tool that can produce almost unbelievable results.
For photo management, there is digiKam11 which is a very powerful photo collection manager with basic editing capabilities.
The biggest player in the open source office suite arena is LibreOffice12 which is a fully featured suite. It has word processing, spreadsheet, presentation, diagrams and even an access-like database tool. It will load and save most Microsoft Office documents just fine, but if you have very complex documents it may struggle with the formatting.
Windows is well supplied with open source text editors but I am going to mention Kate13 here as it is one of the best Linux text editors. Suitable for quick text editing, it is also a very powerful code editor.