Every year when I go home for the holidays, I wind up setting up new computers, printers and cameras, as well as troubleshooting and de-lousing all the old ones. For most of my relatives’ desktops, total computer meltdown takes about 3 months from time of install. So by December, most of these machines can be nicely classified as “a project”.
This year, while I’m working on everyone’s machines, I’m hoping to give the gift of free software. To do this, I’ll be distributing flash drives with useful open-source desktop applications that I think will get the most traction. You can’t expect everyone will become a full-on Linux convert overnight, but if I’m going to be installing office suites, digital photography tools, and antivirus software, now is a perfect time to introduce the great open source applications that will meet everyone’s needs.
The first thing that needs to be done on many machines is to run a virus and adware scan. ClamAV is a solid open source virus scanner that’s used by server administrators to scan and filter email coming in and out of corporate networks. There’s a derivative of this program, ClamWin, that adds a desktop interface to the package, and you can use this to effectively scan and clean a Windows box before installing anything else.
There’s also a Mac version called ClamXav which I’ve included a link to for completeness. At this point in time I haven’t really experienced any adware or virus issues in OS X, but the download is there if you need it.
On a side note, I’ve noticed so many problems on relatives’ machines that are directly related to commercial virus scanning utilities. I’ve never installed these, so I don’t know if it’s a misconfiguration issue or that the hardware/OS combination isn’t speedy enough to handle on-the-fly scanning of everything that’s going on, but my first move is usually to uninstall these programs. More often than not, performance problems seem to be the direct result of a virus scanner. This is my opinion only, but I’d recommend removing any existing anti-virus software, or at least disabling the real-time scanning features before installing ClamWin. Better to use a safe browser and scan down downloads manually, in my opinion.
One of the best things you can do for Windows users is to install Firefox. It provides a more secure browsing experience and lessens the exposure to adware, popups, and virii, without damaging the user experience with so many warnings you can’t differentiate problems from normal behavior. It’s a solid install for Mac users as well, since there are a number of Firefox addons which can add additional security features to your browsing experience.
Secure Browsing and Communication
Encryption and anonymity features can be very important, especially for laptop owners and users who want to email information securely. If you know a very mobile laptop user, there’s a reasonable chance that their laptop will get lifted or lost at some point. I’ve included GPG on my gift sticks so that sensitive files like bank and tax records can be encrypted in case of loss.
Also recommended is the Tor anonymity routing tool. If you’re browsing the web in a public space, it will help to prevent local snoops from monitoring your communications. You’ll still need to use SSL enabled (https) sites to ensure end-to-end encrypted connections, but Tor will help to keep those connections anonymous.
There are also Firefox plugins for GPG and Tor. The GPG plugin allows you to easily encrypt and decrypt data within web applications. If you know a GMail or webmail user, this will allow them to secure communication on these mail systems. Torbutton for Firefox provides a simple way to enable and disable the Tor network. Browsing with Tor can be heinously slow, so it’s nice to only use it when necessary.
Word Processing, Spreadsheets, and Office Tools
Most people use MS Office at work, but don’t have the latest version (or any version at all) at home. The Google Docs online apps do a reasonable job, but OpenOffice.org is a much more robust suite, can do most everything MS Office can, and it will function offline. It’s the largest install on my gift drives—the installer weighs in at about 150MB for both the Mac and Windows versions. If you know someone who has a pirated or ancient copy of MS Office, though, installing OpenOffice on their machine might make for a great gift.
Photography and Image Manipulation
If someone gets a camera this year, forget about the crappy bundled software that comes with it. Even in the best case scenario, it’s a crippled version of a popular app that will leave anyone wanting. In the worst case, well, some of the bundled photo tools rank right up there with bundled printer applications, which is to say that I can’t write about how I really feel about them.
GIMP is awesome. Install it for your family and show them how to open, crop, scale and save JPGs. If they can get past that, teach them how to color correct and desaturate images. It’s the 99% of what most people need to know to get the most out of their photography.
As of this writing, the native Darwin version of GIMP for OS X is still too buggy to use. The X11 version runs reliably, but you’ll need to get the X11 package that comes with XQuartz or install it from the OS X install disks.
Without further ado, here are the downloads for all the above packages, separated by platform.
For Windows Users:
FireGPG GPG Firefox extension – use GMail/Webmail securely
For Mac Users:
GIMP for OS X – GNU Image Manipulation Program
This requires X11, which you can install with the XQuartz-Project if you have Leopard. With 10.4 (Tiger), you’ll need to install the X11 package from the optional installs section of the OS X disks.
FireGPG GPG Firefox extension – use GMail/Webmail securely
Easy Download Option
I collected all of the installers for both Windows and Mac platforms into a single zip file that you can download from Sourceforge. At the time of this post, these were the latest stable binary installer releases for all of the above files, excluding the Firefox extensions, which you’ll need to open in Firefox manually after installing it on the destination machine. You should be able to download either the giftstick-mac.zip or giftstick-windows.zip (or both), unzip it to a 500MB flash disk, and go on a free software installation binge.
Please note that the source files and latest releases for all of these programs are available at the sites listed above. The GiftStick zips are provided as a convenience for grabbing all of these applications in a single download. If this turns out to be helpful for a lot of people, I’ll try and keep the GiftStick downloads up to date.
The Mac files come out to about 360MB (bigger if you need to keep both 10.4 ad 10.5 installers), and the Windows files are at about 220MB. You can fit either on a 512MB or larger flash drive, or toss files for both platforms on a 1 Gig drive. I’m going to do the latter and help people with the installs and training, but you may want to consider putting this on a couple $30 drives and leaving them behind. Maybe it will get passed along to other potential free software converts.
Of course, there are many other open source packages that I’ve missed here. If you think I’ve left out anything essential, please share a link in the comments.
Hack on, and happy holidays!