In the early 1970s I dated a young lady who told me that she was planning to study computing in college. Despite being something of a math geek myself, I remember wondering silently why anyone would want to study something so dull as calculating machines. Little did I imagine that just a couple of years later I would fall prey to the same passion.
As we all know, since those early days of clunky, room-sized, magnetic-core monstrosities, computers have evolved considerably and have changed the very nature of our civilization. I personally spend more time with them every day than I spend with my family. And I have come to depend on them, and the tools they provide, for manipulating the ever-increasing stream of data which the modern world forces me to process.
So here’s a short list of the software tools which I currently can’t live without and which I think are worth your time to explore in 2012.
Linux: The most important software in my life and probably the most pervasive and ubiquitous in yours. Linux is an open source operating system with various flavors and versions freely available (yes, free) for a wide variety of desktop and mobile devices. Linux lives underneath many devices that you may already use (like your Android-based phone or tablet, your network-accessible media storage, and your wired or wireless router) as well as many web servers. To be sure, it is still mostly used by techies like me, but Linux flavors for the desktop (like Ubuntu Linux) have become sufficiently friendly for non-techies that they can be used by most people. The Ubuntu installation process is, in fact, the easiest install I have done in years and you can even install Ubuntu and run it from within Microsoft Windows ® just to try it out.
OpenOffice: There’s an old saying that goes something like “Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?” and that pretty much sums up why I use OpenOffice (now officially known as OpenOffice.org 3) . You see, quite some years ago I got tired of paying a certain major software company for periodic and expensive upgrades to the basic applications required for my life. OpenOffice.org 3 is a suite of office applications – word processor, spreadsheet, database and more – that can be downloaded and used on most computers, and as many computers as you wish, without any licensing cost. OpenOffice can probably open and read most of the documents you’ve created in the past and it can save them in a variety of formats. It is what I’m using to create this article.
HTML-Kit: As more and more nonprofessionals have begun creating web pages the need for better, simpler, and inexpensive page design and development tools has become increasingly important. And even though HTML-Kit is, at this time, only available for Windows ® , it is just simply the best. It has all the features that someone like me – who still prefers to code my pages by hand – desires and yet is easy enough for a novice to use. It makes writing standards-compliant pages (which is critical for getting page views from the widest possible web audience) straight-forward and it just plain works without problems.
Firefox and Thunderbird: The Firefox browser and Thunderbird mailer are free, open source applications which are the linear descendents of Netscape, and the grandchildren, if you will, of Mosaic, the first web browser. Hundreds of plug-ins are available for these applications which let the user add features tailored to their personal needs. “Skins” are available which let the user easily change the appearance of the programs to suit their personal interests or style. But the main reason I love these two applications is because they have virtually eliminated my need for virus protection and spam filters.
Exactly why that is true for me I will probably cover in a future article but for now let me just say that something I’ve learned over the years is that some browsers and mail applications seem to be more susceptible to these sort of problems than others. Since I began using Firefox and Thunderbird (on Linux) I’ve experienced significantly less trouble from malicious software; so much less that I no longer use virus protection software or spam filters. And while I can’t guarantee how well Firefox and Thunderbird will work for you in that respect, what I can definitely say is that I believe using Firefox and Thunderbird will probably improve your relationship with your computer, your family, and your dentist (because you’ll spend less time grinding your teeth).
Apache: Apache isn’t software that everyone would, or should, use but it IS software with which every self-respecting techie should become familiar; particularly those wanting to explore computing or programming as a career. Apache can truly be said to be the software that drives the web as it currently has approximately 59% of the web server market share. It runs on a variety of platforms but primarily with Unix and Linux.
If you’re learning networking or programming these days you are, at some future time, undoubtedly going to have to either write or troubleshoot code that generates web pages or otherwise interacts with them. The web IS the universal user interface and Apache feeds it. And for anyone with some tech savvy Apache is not difficult to install or use – even on relatively ancient hardware – and it is well-documented. I have a functional web server running Apache and Slackware Linux 10.2 on a 133MHz Pentium-S with 32MB RAM. I built that machine in 1997 and it I still use it for page testing and as a backup web server.
XBMC and MythTV: Both XBMC and MythTV are touted as providing functional media centers. I just installed both of them on separate hardware and what I’ve seen so far looks promising. But I haven’t had enough experience with either of them yet to say for sure how well they’ll perform given that my goal is to ditch my cable subscription yet still keep my TV jones satiated (through over-the-air broadcasts and streaming). Check back here sometime after the first of the year for a full report.
More from Rick Amandan on Yahoo!:
The Fear of Occupy
Six Signs The End Is Near
Too Much Too Little