It is now roughly 40-plus years since Richard Stallman released his text editor with the words "Emacs General Public License" in the documentation and 20 some years since the world first saw the phrase "GNU General Public License." Back in those days, finding the best open source software was relatively simple. There was Emacs, and then came vi. Choosing between them was never easy, and many still argue over the best editor.
In 2010, the choices aren't any easier, and now there are many, many more packages available. Sourceforge.net claims more than 310,000 projects and GitHub more than 1 million. Before going much further, let us apologize profusely for not sorting through the millions of projects to find all of the very best.
If finding all of the absolute best piles of code isn't possible, then let me be more precise. The word "best" here can mean many things. It is sometimes equivalent to "most promising," "most surprising", "most subversive," "most unnerving," "most opportune," "most happening," or some weird, inchoate mixture of them all. The one thing it always means is "most useful" -- to developers, IT administrators, and users on a business network.
So we grant that our idea of "best" is not always fair to the solid, upstanding citizens. I still use vi every day and Emacs once a week. They're incredibly reliable and very useful, but they're no longer interesting or notable. A complete list of the very best would start by enumerating the projects that everyone forgot about long ago because they just did their job without fanfare. (See InfoWorld's "The greatest open source software of all time" and "Top 10 Open Source Hall of Famers" for a better list of these projects.)
So before sorting through today's "best" open source projects and how they're reshaping the technology business and the computing landscape, we'll first pause to offer all due respect to the solid chunks of bedrock that we take for granted every clock cycle. If you want to skip the introductions and steer straight to the winners' circle, just follow these links to our slideshows:
Open source innovation
The first thing to mention is that open source packages are not just judged on the quality of the lines of code alone. We're well past the day when Emacs and vi competed over the best way to signify meta operations and how many keystrokes it takes to do search and replace. I'm only a bit embarrassed to write that my version of Chrome is wearing a Donna Karan theme, although not as embarrassed as Ms. Karan might be if she saw my desktop. Changeable themes like this are on the top of the list of Chrome's most loved features. Now artists can contribute to open source projects by creating GIFs and PNGs, not raw source code.
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