LONDON – Danny and Linda Lee, who are both in their mid-50s, know as much about computers as they do about gangsta rap.
Yet Mr and Mrs Lee's computer at their home in Bedhampton, Hampshire, England, doesn't run Microsoft Windows. Nor is it a newbie-friendly Mac.
"I gave my parents a machine running Linux, and they know no different," says their son Wayne. "I showed them where to click to start the Internet, and they got on with it. It doesn't faze them at all."
Wayne and his parents are among the growing legions turning their backs on conventional, commercial computer software and, instead, trying open-source programs.
These are usually developed as a global collaboration by volunteers, then made freely available online — and the software is rapidly becoming as good and as easy to run as that of brands costing hundreds of dollars.
Products range from Web browsers through to a complete operating system, and most software will run on both Windows PCs and Macs.
There is an important distinction to be drawn between freeware and open-source software, though.
Freeware doesn't cost a penny, but the public cannot view the computer code that comprises the program, should they wish to develop add-ons or modifications. Internet Explorer is freeware, but nobody is allowed to improve the program except Microsoft, its creator.
The Open Source Initiative (www.opensource.org) believes that the collaborative approach leads to better, more reliable software because it invites peer review.
Unlike Microsoft Windows, say, programmers around the world can go under the hood of open-source software, find out how it works and collaborate to fix bugs or suggest improvements.
Once the preserve of geeks, open source has gone public in the past year, to the extent that programs such as Firefox have become household names.
When a minor update for this browser was released last December, it was immediately downloaded 10 million times, helping to double its annual market share to 10 percent, the researcher Net Applications reports.
And Firefox is no one-off phenomenon: Forty million people have downloaded OpenOffice, an open-source alternative to Microsoft Office.
"I use OpenOffice at home, and I've found that it reads almost all Microsoft Word documents," says Wayne Lee. "I've had no problems at all, and neither have my kids."
Paul Holst of Red Hat U.K., which makes a version of the Linux open-source operating system, says: "The challenge for open source is to make the experience as seamless as possible. I know from experience with my parents that if you install something and it doesn't work within two to three minutes, you've lost them. Once people experience the technology and realize that it's credible, they demand more from their proprietary software."
Even if there is little need to beware of geeks bearing gifts, can free software, created by volunteers, truly be as competent as commercially developed packages? Many experts now think so.
"We are beginning to see free software that is really good," says Rob Jones, editor of Personal Computer World magazine. "The problem is that the people who would benefit most don't know it exists. People who don't want to spend a lot of money on software aren't the hard-core technology enthusiasts."
If that includes you, read the recommendations below for six open-source packages capable of dealing with day-to-day computing needs. Once you have taken a first step down the open-source path, you will find that these programs differ little from products you are used to.
Wayne Lee says: "If I repair a machine for friends, I change the icons around, so when they click on the Internet Explorer logo, it opens Firefox instead. Most people don't notice the difference."
If you are inclined to drill deeper online, you will find communities of enthusiasts eager to improve and add to existing software, often at your request.
Take the Firefox evangelists at forums such as mozillazine.org. A member has asked for an add-on so that he can watch the latest stock-market prices in a side-bar while browsing the Web. This tool will be created to order.
Hundreds of simple yet potent free extensions, both to Firefox and to the Thunderbird e-mail package, already exist at www.mozilla.com/extensions.
One instantly converts foreign currencies on a Web page into pounds. Another delivers thumbnail previews inside Google search results. A third tucks local weather reports permanently inside your browser.
The chances of Microsoft ordering its team of programmers to make such niche add-ons for the now down-at-heel Internet Explorer are, frankly, remote.
Nicholas McGrath, Microsoft's director of platform strategy, says: "We build products according to what our customers want. There are a number of exciting projects in the open-source community, and organic is great when it comes to yogurt, but not when it comes to software development. Customers want to know software is going to be supported, that it will work reliably."
So, what do you do when open-source software goofs up?
With commercial brands, there is frequently a technical-support team. In the open-source world, advice is provided by the online community.
It's an approach that has pros and cons. On the one hand, help is usually provided by knowledgeable people with first-hand experience. On the downside, there is usually nobody on a phone line to deal authoritatively with urgent problems.
The open-source movement is guided by the principle that software should be free, as in speech, rather than beer.
The most famous exception is the Linux operating system, where you pay mainly for documentation and support. It accounts for more than one-fifth of the business-server market, says the research firm IDC, although Linux struggles to gain a foothold in the home, largely because computer manufacturers are reluctant to ship it on their machines.
There are good reasons for this hesitancy: Finding compatible accessories can prove a headache.
As McGrath observes: "The PC plays the key role as the digital hub in the home. Those setups need a lot of different working parts — digital cameras, media players, home networks. All those parts are designed to work with Windows as standard."
Games, too, are nearly always designed to run on Windows.
The tide, however, is beginning to turn.
Dell, the world's largest computer manufacturer, now offers a series of notebooks and desktops without operating systems installed, and the cost saving can be as much as $250.
Linux operating systems are considerably cheaper than Windows XP and, broadly speaking, more secure, too. Now that Dell is prepared to ditch Windows, Linux has to be taken seriously.
Free distribution and the Net's universal reach have empowered a computer-literate generation that is no longer prepared to pay for software or wait ages for updates.
The giants, such as Microsoft, won't be pushovers, especially with new versions of Internet Explorer and Windows due later this year.
Nevertheless, the free-software brigade has created a buzz. The world's richest company is certainly on its toes.
SIX OF THE BEST OPEN-SOURCE FREEBIES
WEB BROWSER: Firefox, www.mozilla.com/firefox
This highly customizable browser is probably the most successful open-source software to date, with 20 million downloads. Why? Because it is quicker, more powerful and less likely to be attacked by security bugs than Internet Explorer. One of Firefox's chief attractions is tabbed browsing, which means you can open several Web pages simultaneously without cluttering your desktop with separate windows. The plug-ins on offer are often fab, too.
Verdict: The best Web browser around, bar none.
OFFICE SUITE: OpenOffice 2.0.1, www.openoffice.org
Microsoft Office dominates the market, but at $300 or more, it's a hefty investment for the home. The latest version of OpenOffice looks so similar, most people will barely notice the difference — and it is free. The software is also compatible with Microsoft (so there is no fear that the kids' homework won't work at school), although it struggled with some heavily formatted Word documents in my tests, although such problems are not unique to OpenOffice.
Verdict: A convincing imposter.
E-MAIL: Thunderbird, www.mozilla.com/thunderbird
As loyal a servant as Parker himself, Thunderbird is more than adequate for home e-mail needs. Similar in design and performance to Outlook Express, Thunderbird soars ahead of its rival with many customizable plug-ins (to give extra functions) and a neatly implemented RSS reader, which brings the latest news from favorite Web sites. However, it made a mess of importing my Outlook address book, confusing first and last names at will.
Verdict: Very good, if occasionally eccentric.
MEDIA CENTER: Media Portal, mediaportal.sourceforge.net
A thinly disguised imitation of Microsoft's Media Center XP edition, the portal provides access to all music, photos and video from one screen or a remote control. It also enables television recording for those with a tuner in their PC. Media Portal is not a full operating system, nor is it as intuitive as Media Center — and you will need to tweak several well-hidden settings — but it is a poke in the eye to those who say open-source software is too complex.
Verdict: A multimedia marvel, after a little tinkering.
INSTANT MESSAGING: Gaim, gaim.sourceforge.net
While Microsoft, AOL and Yahoo childishly still refuse to let their instant-messaging (IM) services talk to one another, Gaim makes them mutually compatible, in a similar manner to Trillian, the superb (but not open-source) freeware. Gaim lacks some of the advanced features offered by the IM packages (there is no alert for incoming Hotmail messages, for example), yet its true beauty lies in its convenience and sheer simplicity. Even better are the nifty free plug-ins.
Verdict: A must-have for all ultra-popular IM chatterboxes.
IMAGE EDITING: The Gimp, www.gimp.org
The perversely named Gimp is a open-source rival to Photoshop, the professional's image editor of choice. As such, it is a reasonably complicated beast, not made any easier by a two-stage installation on Windows. The Gimp has most of the features any digital-camera enthusiast will ever need, and the appearance can be customized to closely resemble Adobe Photoshop (at least on Macs). Competition among budget image-editing software is now fierce, but The Gimp is powerful — and free.
Verdict: Respectable photo-editing tool; not for beginners.