April 21, 2010

Jon 'maddog' Hall's Picks for Today's Six Best OSS Projects

Hot New Projects – In the Eye of the Beholder

You would think that writing a blog entry on “Hot New OSS Projects” would not be that difficult. All you should have to do is go to SourceForge or Freshmeat and see what projects are being downloaded, or at least accessed, and write about them. Or, hangout on Slashdot or LinuxDevices.com and see what cool things are being shown and talked about. These days you can even read the mainstream media about Linux products and projects. And of course there is the Linux.com site with its news feeds, discussion groups and projects.

All of these would have been “too easy” for maddog, so of course he had to do the unthinkable and ask his eclectic group of Linux User Group (LUG) members what they thought were “Hot, New OSS Projects.”

The first message that came back from the “call for thoughts” was:

“What do you mean by OSS project?” followed by “What do you mean by new?” and (of course) “What do you mean by Hot'?”

Bill McGonigle of BFC Computing told me that he is into selling hardware with Free & Open Source Software (FOSS) on it, so while projects might be “cool,” they become “hot” for him when they are ready to be moved in high volume for his customers.

To quote Bill:

“Personally I'm most interested in OLSR and adding WiFi to everything right now with OpenWRT (which is an old project, but getting things more and more right now). pfSense and ZFS are selling hardware for me. Again, leading indicators vs. production-ready.”

And, Joshua Judson Rosen, another LUG member said:

“Now, I'm serious: are they looking for software projects that are Open Source Software, or hardware projects that use OSS, or what? Are they looking for software that they might want to include in MeeGo, or hardware into which they might be able to convince people to put MeeGo? Are they looking for projects that people are doing (somewhere out there) or projects that you can do (e.g.: `DIY automated Linux vacuum-cleaner')? Do they want community-driven projects or company-driven projects (e.g.: Lemote's Yeeloong & Lynloong computers with 100% FOSS down to boot-PROMs)? Do they want technical projects (e.g.: everything above) or social ones (e.g.: Linux Against Poverty)? Maybe this should all be transparent, but you went and un-defined 2 out of 4 words [Guilty! - md] and now I'm getting fuzzy on the remainder... :)”

The great part of all of this discussion is that the answer to all of Joshua's questions is “yes.” All of these things are what make OSS projects “hot” and “cool” at the same time.

For many years I used a mail reader called “MH.” It was a textual email reader that used the command line and a series of commands to read email. In the early days of the X Window System there appeared a graphical client for it called “xmh.” Over time, support of it seemed to wane, and just about the time I was thinking about switching to a new email reader, along came 'nmh,” a new version of the MH mail reader  updated to handle things like MIME and a new graphical front end based on TK called “exmh,” which I then continued to use for a number of years. Altogether I used that line of email readers for at least a decade. To me, that mail reader was always “new” and “hot.”

Here are my picks today, though, for hot new OSS projects:


Two people in the LUG mentioned “OpenStreetMap” and that, indeed, is an interesting project. Most people do not realize that a lot of the data used in making maps is proprietary and therefore controlled by some type of licensing restrictions or restrictions on the tools used to access the data. In addition, despite the best efforts of map makers, the maps are often out of date, not showing new roads or subdivisions of houses.

OpenStreetMap provides tools for people to add to a huge and growing database of map data, which can then be used for any purpose.

Participants in OpenStreetMaps carry around GPS units that record their movements and waypoints. When they get back to their computers they download the data into the computer; and by using that data and free satellite imagery, they can create or update street map data in the system.

Even if you do not own a GPS, you can help. There are flags on the maps where people have noticed issues, and local people looking at their own areas can often find out the information or correction needed and edit the map to fix that particular error.


What Star Trek fan has not dreamed of having a “replicator,” the machine that (given the almost unlimited energy of controlled matter/anti-matter conversion) could create a cup of “Earl Grey, hot” just by being given a voice command?

RepRap has been around for a while but has taken off in the past year. RepRap has the concept of a 3D “printer,” making things of plastic that eventually could be used to replicate it as well as other objects.  The concept of 3D printers has even escaped to the commercial space, and many molds for the casting of metal parts can now be easily made by 3D printers. RepRap aims to bring this ability to the masses.

There are offshoot and collaboration projects of RepRap, such as Cupcake CNC, also known as “MakerBot" and ReplicatorG, an open source machine controller that can be used with MakerBot and RepRap.

Hacker Spaces

While not exactly “FOSS” based, another interesting phenomenon rising from efforts like RepRap are “Hacker Lofts” or “Hacker Spaces,” places where Hackers can come together to work on projects. Often located in old warehouses, basements and other low-rent areas, Hacker Spaces are places where “geeks of a feather” can flock together and work on projects.

While it is true that a lot of the materials and equipment to do projects are dropping in price, a lot of the more sophisticated equipment is still pretty expensive. Hacker Spaces can allow the equipment, the expertise and the excitement of working on cool things to be shared.


When I was growing up, logic for controlling machines was done with relays and (if you were lucky) vacuum tubes. Transistors were $1.50 each (and I got one dollar a week as an allowance). You built projects by tearing apart old radios and televisions and scavenging the parts. You had to be careful un-soldering the transistors, as too much heat would ruin the transistor.

I turned my head one day and then looked back and integrated circuits had been invented. Soon TTL logic and breadboards allowed more sophisticated projects for controlling things at a fraction of the real cost formerly extracted from your pocketbook.

Today there are projects like Arduino, where the entire controlling circuit sits on an openly designed board that encourages people to either use the system as it comes, or change the system to what they need. You can buy a pre-assembled board, a kit to make one, just the printed circuit board, or (using the CAD files) change the board. A board like Arduino allows a young electrical engineer or computer engineer to start interesting projects quickly.

A young friend of mine, Álvaro Justenwho lives in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, has started “Hack n' Beer,” a get-together to explore new uses of the Arduino. 


Another example of a code base that has been around for a while, but recently got a new lease on life, is Synergy. It's a window control system that allows you to control multiple computers with only one mouse and keyboard, even if those systems are Linux, Microsoft and Apple's MAC OS/X.

Just by moving the mouse back and forth you can start controlling the windows on whichever screen your mouse is on, or you can lock your mouse to one screen, which is useful for gaming.


Sahana is a FOSS Disaster Management system. Helping to coordinate missing persons; requests and pledges of materials and help; shelter registry; inventory management; situation management; and volunteer coordination; it supplies a lot of the infrastructure necessary in relief efforts and has been used in various recent disasters.

Along those same lines, I would like to mention my friends at Inveneo, who for many years have been using FOSS software such as Asterisk to deliver communications to emerging economies. Recently, Inveneo was active in the Haiti earthquake, helping to supply equipment and expertise in re-establishing communications.

Sahana and Inveneo are good examples of how FOSS and FOSS communities are stepping up to the plate to become more than “suppliers of software” or even “suppliers of hardware” but a community of people willing to help.

There were other “Hot, New OSS Projects” mentioned by the LUGs, but in order to keep the blog entry within the “reasonable length” category, I will save some of the others until a later date. In the meantime I hope that you enjoy reading about some of the projects that you might not know, or ones that you do know but have “moved on” since the last time you looked at them.


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