The best free open source software for Mac OS X

If you live and work on a Mac, you'll want to try these 10 killer open source apps -- InfoWorld's top picks

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Play any video with VLC

Sure, QuickTime is a great system, but it's a bit limited. It doesn't come with every codec, and you have to purchase QuickTime Pro to get the features you really need to work with video. This isn't a big limitation, but it can be a pain if all you want is to play some files.

A friend of mine in the video codec business set me straight. The best all-purpose video playback tool that he could find came from a group of open source programmers in Europe, not from the professional developers working for the codec creators. He was so baffled when he saw how well VLC could handle everything he threw its way that he started calling it the Swiss Army Knife for video. VLC displays almost every video format known on all of the major operating systems and even some long-forgotten favorites like BeOS. I often reach for it instinctively because it knows how to deal with some of the Ogg Vorbis files I have laying around.

My friend went on to offer a theory about VLC that seems entirely plausible to me, although I often wonder whether it could really be true. VLC, he said, was written by people who never went to the industry conferences and meetings. They never made friends with the big players, and they never had tight relationships. The only information they had were the public specs for the standard, so they followed them scrupulously. The arm's-length relationships kept their code free of the kind of assumptions that come when a programmer hears another programmer say, "Ah, we're only using integers. I don't know why floating-point is in the spec." So when the next revision comes along with floating-point numbers, VLC is ready while the codecs from the insiders never bothered to anticipate that possibility.

Maybe he's right. VLC has never given me a reason to doubt him.

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You'll have a hard time finding a video format that VLC can't handle.

Money for nothing

In the great tradition of open source, there's no charge for using any of these packages. Just download and go. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't be sensitive to economic realities. The best open source has a sponsor, and sometimes that sponsor should be you. Some packages like Firefox make their money selling advertising through Google. Others don't have that option -- so give when you can. Most of the packages have donation buttons, and some even make it possible to give to the developer of a plug-in (for instance, ScrapBook for Firefox). That's innovation.

This story, "The best free open source software for Mac OS X," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Follow the latest developments in open source, the Mac, and Mac OS X at InfoWorld.com.

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