The top ten open-source apps you’ve never heard of
Thousands upon thousands of open-source applications are created and used every year, and some of them, like Firefox, become so popular that most of their users neither know nor care that they are open-source. But there are many less stellar applications that are enormously useful in their own particular niche. In this column I’ll not be talking about the Apaches, MySQLs and Firefoxes, but instead about these lesser-known apps that serve a particular function very well – a Top Ten of open-source applications you’ve never heard of!
Anyone who has to administer a collection of machines or applications will eventually end up with a collection of passwords. Actually, some of you might have one password and use it for everything, but those of you who are serious about staying secure will have more than one. Moreover, those passwords are going to be made up of upper-case and lower-case characters plus numerals, which not only makes them more secure but also completely impossible to remember.
There are many password managers, but we use KeePass (http://keepass.info) for a variety of reasons: Windows, Mac and Linux users can use it, and it has a great interface; you can organise your passwords into groups and give each group an icon; you can search for machines and accounts; and it’s open source and secure. You can carry all your passwords with you on a USB key, and if you lose your key or a staff member leaves with theirs, you’ll know which passwords need to be changed.
2. Open Flash Chart
You must have heard the old maxim that there are lies, damned lies, statistics and Excel charts – well, anyone who’s ever tried to do any kind of serious reporting of statistics on the web knows that you need to be able to produce good graphs. For years there have been libraries such as JPGraph available that do a reasonable job of graph-drawing, but the arrival of Google Analytics raised the quality bar substantially. Suddenly everyone wanted fancy line graphs that show the numbers represented by each point when you roll the mouse along the line. And Open Flash Chart lets everyone have such interactive Flash charts on their website.
Open Flash Chart (http://teethgrinder.co.uk/open-flash-chart) is a collection of Flash applets that you embed in your web page, and which fetch data from the web server to display. At the time of writing, Version 1 is the current release and it lets you create various types of bar chart, line chart and pie chart. Version 2, which should be out soon, introduces more sophisticated graph types such as stacked bars. In both cases you get nice little refinements as well as animated pie charts, and with a little fiddling you can customise the way your graph appears by changing its colours, fonts and size. And Open Flash Chart is British, so you’re not only encouraging open source but British open source.
Do you remember when texting was something only done by people who were too young to vote? Well nowadays everyone and their granny sends text messages, but instant messaging (IM) remains stigmatised as being the preserve of teenagers, even though it’s used by many business people (including the editorial staff of this august publication).
The problem with instant messaging is that there are many different types of platform. The three big “portal companies” – AOL, Yahoo and MSN/Live – all have their own formats; Google’s GTalk is slightly different as it’s based on the open Jabber standard and can communicate with AOL Instant Messaging (AIM), but not with the others. For this reason you’ll soon discover that if you use instant messaging regularly, you’re going to end up with more than one IM account. However, rather than needing a separate client application for each IM network, Pidgin enables you to use just one application that can talk to all of them. I have two AIM accounts, a Yahoo account, an MSN account, a Google account and another Jabber account (via hab.la, which lets you embed an IM client into a website). Pidgin (www.pidgin.im) is available for both Windows and Linux, and if you use a Mac then part of it is already embedded in the native Mac application Adium.