The essential open-source tool kit for 2021

Today we bring you the essential open-source tool kit for surviving the technosphere in 2021. Communication, browser, audio, you name it.

Fidel Chaves
11 min read

Free software & open-source software

We’ve already talked a lot about free software and open-source software. If you want an in-depth comparison, you can check our article about it. If not, I’ll recap briefly for you. Then I will present the essential open-source tool kit for 2021.

 

Open source is a term that originated from a group of people in the free software movement. It was born as a way to distinguish some political and moral connotations in the original term: free software.

 

Open-source software has its code publicly available. Any person can see, distribute and modify it at their whim. This also implies some licensing issues that can arise, which you can read about here. Open-source software is often cheaper, more flexible, and has a longer life cycle due to its decentralized nature and development process that does not rely on a single company or author.

 

On the other hand, free software is based upon four basic requirements:

 

  • Freedom to run the program
  • Freedom to study how the program works
  • Freedom to redistribute copies
  • Freedom to distribute copies of your modified version

 

Free software does not necessarily mean that the executable is free. This confusion originates from the difference between free as in free beer and free as in free as a bird. It’s easier if you know some Spanish because you can tell the difference between gratis and libre. Cerveza gratis and cerveza libre are not the same thing—though I am up for both.

The open-source tool kit

There is a growing trend of people who prefer Free (Libre) and Open-Source Software, FLOSS for short. Some find the free part negotiable, others accept freemium versions, and many choose to donate rather than pay. While we encourage the support of these projects, we know that many of you might not have enough to pay for every program needed. Modernity comes with a massive investment in software and hardware that makes it hard for many people to access technology and innovation.

 

That’s why I bring today a wide range of options of free and open-source software. They are alternatives to many services you now probably use: browsers, email and email clients, communication, media players, audio, design, vector graphics, code editor, video editor, notes and productivity, photography, music management system, office suites, password management, and operating systems. Wow, that was a long list so I'll leave some of them for other articles. Let’s dive in!

Browser

The stats came out and, according to StatCounter, you are probably using Chrome or Safari to read this post. These two browsers get 63% and 19% of users respectively, and while they have pros and cons, they are both proprietary software. Chrome is based on Chromium, an open-source browser, but Google’s browser is not fully open source. And well, you know Apple, their source code is as closed as it can be.

Firefox

Firefox is the third most popular browser in the world, which is not surprising. Mozilla Firefox presents a customizable and open-source web browser with support for thousands of add-ons, making it highly extensible. The current version, Firefox 60+ (Quantum), is faster and uses less memory than Google Chrome. Firefox, like many other alternatives, is very privacy-focused, customizable, and extensible.

Waterfox

Waterfox, as the name suggests, is a browser-based on Mozilla Firefox. That is what I love about open source. It was created with one goal in mind: speed. While maintaining most of the features of Firefox, this alternative brings a potent browsing experience. But beware, it usually takes longer to receive security updates, an issue hard to ignore. Also, Waterfox has recently been bought by System1, an advertising and data analytics firm (and we may have learned something from Cambridge Analytica).

Brave

Along with Chrome, Brave is was my personal choice. Why? Well, because it pretty much looks the same as my Chrome browser but with a built-in ad blocker, tracking and security protection, and optimized data and battery experience. It also provides a crypto domain integration which I will not discuss here. However, Brave also has its issues, the speed claim they make is vastly overstated, and their built-in ad blocker can break pages where Chrome or Firefox extensions would have worked perfectly.

Edit: I recently found this article that strongly encourages users to stop using Brave browser, after reading it I decided to try out Firefox and put the Chromium based browser on hold. While you are at it, you can also check out our Medium publication.

Chromium

Chromium is the open-source browser project from which Google Chrome takes its source and name. It may look just like Chrome but with a different icon, and yeah, if you are not a power user, that might be it. The main difference is the customization options, less tracking, and no auto-updates in the background. The problem with this browser and Chrome is what I call the Internet effect: they are just sitting in their default state. While people use them just out of habit, they don’t necessarily provide the best possible experience considering the team behind them.

Tor Browser

The Tor Browser presents an alternative outside the conventional browser. Anonymity and privacy are paramount. Tor Browser lets you surf anonymously, providing anti-censorship functionality and a built-in VPN. This decentralized browser is the choice for a very niche group, but privacy and security are a growing concern in the general public. We never know—even this obscure alternative might gain some traction.

Email & email client

You probably use Gmail, Yahoo (if you are over 30), Outlook (corporate policy, right?), or Apple mail ( @me? that's cool). An email client and an email are not exactly the same thing. The client is a computer program used to access and manage a user's email; the email is, well, just an email. Therefore, we have two kinds of alternatives, email providers and email clients.

ProtonMail

Proton mail is a secure email brought to you by MIT and CERN scientists. That seems impressive. It offers a very simple free plan and some attractive features start to appear on the paying tiers. It works from any browser, is privacy-focused, fully anonymous, and works on all devices. While this all seems perfect, ProtonMail complies with the Swiss laws, making it controllable by a specific government. If you have some extra income you might want to invest in a Posteo account.

Tutanota

Tutanota is another mail provider that promises an encrypted mailbox for free. It has both iOS and Android apps and has many features that allow a de-googling of your life. All data is stored encrypted and cannot be searched for commercial use, for example. One added feature is the ability to open an account without providing a phone number, which is an exception nowadays.

Mailspring

I don’t know about you, but I love email clients; they make my life so much easier. I used to do everything on my browser, but having all my accounts in the same program? Unbeatable. Mailspring provides a desktop email client with features like unified inbox, snoozing, templates, offline search, and many more. Some concerns, though: the free version has some limitations. That is the thing with free things; they usually have some drawbacks. Many paying users even have recurrent bugs and errors as the updates take a long time to unroll. Mailspring can be a good alternative but still can look overpriced and bloated.

Thunderbird

I still have to try Thunderbird, but most reviews indicate that's where the gold is hidden. In email client terms, obviously. It supports an unlimited number of mailboxes and calendars, has full-text email search, can show you a unified inbox, read RSS feeds, use extensions, and much more. But all these options do not come without their drawbacks. I got this from a random user: “When I use TB, I have the feeling I drive a tank. A very heavy tank.” That is the thing with software that has been around for too long. It can feel bloated and hard to use.

Communication

As of 2021, the most popular communication app is WhatsApp, followed by Facebook Messenger, a bit of the same thing, considering they are both controlled by Facebook. WeChat follows in a close third place, but you might want to reconsider before choosing a service controlled, censored, and spied on by the Chinese government. A lot of people distrust Facebook-owned communication apps as well, so we bring forward some alternatives.

Telegram

Many people already know Telegram, that kind of edgy alternative communication app that your cousin (that is so into tech and privacy) uses. But here is the thing, Telegram is proprietary software, chats are unencrypted by default, group chats cannot be encrypted at all, and the business model is not fully transparent. Its benefits? You do not require a phone number, plus it overflows with stickers and has bot support. I have listed it here just because a lot of people think of it as a FLOSS client, but it is not the case.

Signal

Signal is what Telegram promotes itself to be. Very similar to WhatsApp, it fosters respect for its users and focuses on transparency and privacy. While being end-to-end encrypted, same as WhatsApp, it does not collect any metadata for commercial purposes. Secure, open-source, a known business model. Not owned by Facebook. Its issues? It still requires a phone number and is centralized under the tight control of Moxie.

Element

Element is free for personal use, enough for our purposes today. It is based on the Matrix protocol—which already sounds cool—and relies on decentralized functioning. Element seems like the option that truly incarnates the free (libre) and open-source ideals. It has E2E encryption, does not require a phone number, and is simple to use.

Media players

You know, media players were a big thing in my childhood. I lived through the transition from VHS to DVDs, and boy, did we hate that region block. Then I met VLC, one of the apps that I instantly install each time I get a new device or help other people with their booting. While at that, check Ninite, a web page for installing and updating all those crucial programs at once.

VLC

Not much to say about VLC more than it’s a true gem. Free, open-source, cross-platform multimedia player and framework. DVDs, Audio CDs, VCDs… you name it. It is simple, and it is powerful. It may have some issues with subtitles, and if you watch a lot of foreign films, or English is your second language, you might want to look for alternatives.

MPV

MPV is another free and open-source alternative for traditional media players. It also supports a wide range of video file formats, audio and video codecs, and subtitle types. It's simple, clean, and lightweight, but that minimalistic design can cost the user experience. I usually oscillate between this and VLC; you should check both out.

Music management software

I know, I know. Music management software? Well yeah, I use Spotify on my phone, and it’s great to access music quickly. But at home, on the comfort of my couch, and having my computer nearby, I can give myself the gift of a good .flac and hear some lossless audio. You know, there is a better world beyond mp3.

Strawberry music player

To enjoy those sweet audio files, you should get a music player, and Strawberry is my open-source go-to. It functions as a music player and music collection organizer. It is a fork of Clementine (discussed below), and it’s aimed at collectors and audiophiles. *Wagner at max volume intensifies*

Clementine

Clementine is Strawberry’s parent. Wait. That doesn't sound right… But that’s the thing with open-source apps, you take it, you copy it, you make it better. We talked about the same happening in design. Clementine is a good option, and many people still choose it, but as with many open-source programs, it lacks a dedicated team to keep it updated. Farewell, good friend.

 

At Awkbit, we promote the use of free and open-source software alternatives. We believe that FOSS installments are the winning horse in the long run, even if it is just natural selection. Would you like to embrace the open-source way?

Reach Out!

Sources & further reading