Free software’s replacements for desktop applications


Author: Jem Matzan

For a while it seemed as if the free software community was treading water by improving automatic configuration tools and device support, fighting ridiculous legal issues, and arguing over tools instead of concentrating on its original goal of providing free replacements for proprietary programs. But quietly, in the background, a number of important programs have begun to bring “proprietary functionality” to free software. Here are eight free software desktop applications that could change the balance of power between Windows and GNU/Linux by replacing proprietary software with free code.

Flash4Linux/SWF Writer For Linux

Macromedia’s Flash development environment can be used to create everything from simple animations to Web applets to entire Web sites. Flash is responsible for a large percentage of the Web’s most annoying ads, but it is also used to create interactive tutorials, and lately has begun making its way onto embedded software on portable devices.

Macromedia doesn’t make design tools for any platform other than Windows and Mac OS X. Flash4Linux aims to someday be the free-as-in-rights replacement for Macromedia’s Flash development environment. In the meantime, at least it’s a working, Flash-like way to create SWF animations on GNU/Linux.

The project is in the process of changing its name to avoid using a copyrighted or trademark name.


A Flash interactive development environment is not all that’s in the works. The GPLFlash project has been resurrected and is under development as a free replacement for Macromedia Flash Player. Linux users will welcome a free alternative to Macromedia’s GNU/Linux Flash Player, which always seems to be a little behind its Windows edition, and gets left out of some GNU/Linux distributions because it is proprietary software.


Another member of the Macromedia Studio suite is Freehand, a vector graphics program similar to Adobe Illustrator and CorelDRAW. Inkscape has an interface similar to that of those three programs. Functionally it does most of the same things that those proprietary programs do, although you have to try it for yourself to see if it meets your specific needs. One thing that Inkscape does not do is publish to HTML; it’s strictly a W3C-compliant SVG editor, and saves files in the open SVG format by default. You can view its files with any Web browser that conforms to the W3C SVG standard.


Before we leave the subject of Macromedia and Web development, we must mention the popularity of “what you see is what you get” (WYSIWYG) Web page design tools such as Macromedia Dreamweaver, Microsoft FrontPage, and Adobe GoLive. These programs allow you to create a complete Web site without having to look at bare HTML code. None of them create “clean” HTML code (it probably won’t be W3C-compliant), and you have to know a lot about Web design to use them to maximum efficiency, but even if you don’t have in-depth knowledge, you can still create an attractive Web site without having to learn HTML and CSS.

Using the code from the Mozilla Composer project, Linspire established the Nvu project as a free replacement for proprietary WYSIWYG Web editors. Nvu is still in its infancy and has nowhere near the power and flexibility of its competitors, but it may offer enough features to satisfy people who want to switch to GNU/Linux but need a good WYSIWYG design tool.

Of course users could always learn HTML and code Web pages by hand using Bluefish or Quanta. This approach to creating Web pages is slower and less productive at first, but after a week or two, users may not want to go back to clunky WYWIWYG Web design tools.


For years, many Windows users (especially those in business settings) have said that the one program they can’t live without is Microsoft Outlook. Microsoft competitor Corel tacitly conceded this point by removing its email and personal information manager (PIM) from the latest version of its WordPerfect Office suite and adding special support for Outlook. On GNU/Linux, Novell Evolution is a worthwhile free replacement for Outlook. It handles email, calendar and appointments, contacts, and a task list in one program shell — and the interface is very much like Microsoft Outlook 2002. You don’t need a virus scanner with Evolution because GNU/Linux doesn’t have the kind of end-user viruses that Windows does. Evolution doesn’t block file attachments by default (as Outlook does) because it doesn’t need to — Windows trojan horse programs don’t work on GNU/Linux.


Almost everyone with a computer has heard of the Mozilla Firefox Web browser by now. If you haven’t, you’ll be pleased to find that it’s a complete replacement for Internet Explorer. The interface and functionality are the same, except Firefox has many additional features that IE lacks: tabbed browsing, a more secure architecture, popup window blocking, a theme engine you can use to change its appearance, and an extensibility architecture that allows you to add a multitude of features to Firefox at your discretion.

Even if Firefox is installed on your computer, it can be hard to escape the grasp of Internet Explorer if you’re using Windows. Although you can’t remove it completely, you can replace and disable it with a few minutes’ work.


Windows does not ship with full-featured CD writing software, so if you want to write CDs and DVDs (especially for data backup purposes), you have to buy a third-party program to do it. Nero and Roxio Easy CD Creator are two of the most popular CD writing programs, but until recently neither was available for GNU/Linux. Nero now has a Linux version, but it doesn’t seem to be as good as the GPL-licensed K3b. K3b, which is included in nearly every desktop GNU/Linux distribution as the standard CD/DVD writing package, is easy to use and writes eight different formats for CDs and DVDs. provides the same basic functionality that people have come to expect from an office suite — word processing, spreadsheets, presentation software, raster graphics, and a desktop database. With the soon-to-be-released version 2.0, will be complete enough to give proprietary office suites a run for their money on any operating system. does not include a PIM such as Outlook, but it will meet most people’s needs in the areas it does support.

…And more?

What if you need that one feature that a free replacement doesn’t have? Well, as a fallback, you can shell out a few bucks for CrossOver Office, which allows you to use many popular Windows programs on GNU/Linux. Nearly all of the proprietary programs mentioned above will work well with the inexpensive CrossOver Office program. If you need to go the extra mile and actually have a complete Windows environment inside of GNU/Linux, you can purchase VMware or Win4Lin. Unfortunately, you’ll need a valid, licensed copy of Windows 98, 2000, or XP to run Windows legally with these two programs. Furthermore, CrossOver Office, VMware, and Win4Lin are all governed by proprietary licenses.

Did I miss your can’t-live-without-it free (as in rights) desktop application replacement? Post it below and let others know about it.