Bossie Awards 2015: The best open source desktop and mobile software

InfoWorld's top picks in open source productivity tools, desktop utilities, and mobile apps

Bossies 2015 desktop mobile

The best open source desktop and mobile software

Open source on the desktop has a long and distinguished history, and many of our Bossie winners in this category go back many years. Packed with features and still improving, some of these tools offer compelling alternatives to pricey commercial software. Others are utilities that we lean on daily for one reason or another -- the can openers and potato peelers of desktop productivity. One or two of them either plug holes in Windows, or they go the distance where Windows falls short.

Bossies 2015 LibreOffice


With the major release of version 5 in August, the Document Foundation’s LibreOffice offers a completely redesigned user interface, better compatibility with Microsoft Office (including good-but-not-great DOCX, XLSX, and PPTX file format support), and significant improvements to Calc, the spreadsheet application.

Set against a turbulent background, the LibreOffice effort split from in 2010. In 2011, Oracle announced it would no longer support, and handed the trademark to the Apache Software Foundation. Since then, it has become increasingly clear that LibreOffice is winning the race for developers, features, and users.

-- Woody Leonhard

Bossies 2015 Firefox


In the battle of the big browsers, Firefox gets our vote over its longtime open source rival Chromium for two important reasons:

• Memory use. Chromium, like its commercial cousin Chrome, has a nasty propensity to glom onto massive amounts of memory.

• Privacy. Witness the recent controversy over Chromium automatically downloading a microphone snooping program to respond to “OK, Google.”

Firefox may not have the most features or the down-to-the-millisecond fastest rendering engine. But it’s solid, stingy with resources, highly extensible, and most of all, it comes with no strings attached. There’s no ulterior data-gathering motive.

-- Woody Leonhard

Bossies 2015 Thunderbird


A longtime favorite email client, Mozilla’s Thunderbird, may be getting a bit long in the tooth, but it’s still supported and showing signs of life. The latest version, 38.2, arrived in August, and there are plans for more development.

Mozilla officially pulled its people off the project back in July 2012, but a hardcore group of volunteers, led by Kent James and the all-volunteer Thunderbird Council, continues to toil away. While you won’t find the latest email innovations in Thunderbird, you will find a solid core of basic functions based on local storage. If having mail in the cloud spooks you, it’s a good, private alternative. And if James goes ahead with his idea of encrypting Thunderbird mail end-to-end, there may be significant new life in the old bird.

-- Woody Leonhard

Bossies 2015 Notepad


If Windows Notepad handles all of your text editing (and source code editing and HTML editing) needs, more power to ya. For Windows users who yearn for a little bit more in a text editor, there’s Don Ho’s Notepad++, which is the editor I turn to, over and over again.

With tabbed views, drag-and-drop, color-coded hints for completing HTML commands, bookmarks, macro recording, shortcut keys, and every text encoding format you’re likely to encounter, Notepad++ takes text to a new level. We get frequent updates, too, with the latest in August.

-- Woody Leonhard

Bossies 2015 VLC


The stalwart VLC (formerly known as VideoLan Client) runs almost any kind of media file on almost any platform. Yes, it even works as a remote control on Apple Watch.

The tiled Universal app version for Windows 10, in the Windows Store, draws some criticism for instability and lack of control, but in most cases VLC works, and it works well -- without external codecs. It even supports Blu-ray formats with two new libraries.

The desktop version is a must-have for Windows 10, unless you’re ready to run the advertising gauntlets that are the Universal Groove Music and Movies & TV apps from Microsoft. VLC received a major feature update in February and a comprehensive bug fix in April.

-- Woody Leonhard

Bossies 2015 7-Zip


Long recognized as the preeminent open source ZIP archive manager for Windows, 7-Zip works like a champ, even on the Windows 10 desktop. Full coverage for RAR files, which can be problematic in Windows, combine with password-protected file creation and support for self-extracting ZIPs. It’s one of those programs that just works.

Yes, it would be nice to get a more modern file picker. Yes, it would be interesting to see a tiled Universal app version. But even without the fancy bells and whistles, 7-Zip deserves a place on every Windows desktop.

-- Woody Leonhard

Bossies 2015 Handbrake


If you want to convert your DVDs (or video files in any commonly used format) into a file in some other format, or simply scrape them off a silver coaster, Handbrake is the way to do it. If you’re a Windows user, Handbrake is almost indispensible, since Microsoft doesn’t believe in ripping DVDs.

Handbrake presents a number of handy presets for optimizing conversions for your target device (iPod, iPad, Android Tablet, and so on) It’s simple, and it’s fast. With the latest round of bug fixes released in June, Handbrake’s keeping up on maintenance -- and it works fine on the Windows 10 desktop.

-- Woody Leonhard

Bossies 2015 KeePass


I’ll confess that I almost gave up on KeePass because the primary download site goes to Sourceforge. That means you have to be extremely careful which boxes are checked and what you click on (and when) as you attempt to download and install the software. While KeePass itself is 100 percent clean open source (GNU GPL), Sourceforge doesn’t feel so constrained, and its installers reek of crapware.

One of many local-file password storage programs, KeePass distinguishes itself with broad scope, as well as its ability to run on all sorts of platforms, no installation required. KeePass will save not only passwords, but also credit card information and freely structured information. It provides a strong random password generator, and the database itself is locked with AES and Twofish, so nobody’s going to crack it. And it’s kept up to date, with a new stable release last month.

-- Woody Leonhard

Bossies 2015 VirtualBox


With a major release published in July, Oracle’s open source VirtualBox -- available for Windows, OS X, Linux, even Solaris --continues to give commercial counterparts VMware Workstation, VMware Fusion, Parallels Desktop, and Microsoft’s Hyper-V a hard run for their money. The Oracle team is still getting the final Windows 10 bugs ironed out, but come to think of it, so is Microsoft.

VirtualBox doesn’t quite match the performance or polish of the VMware and Parallels products, but it’s getting closer. Version 5 brought long-awaited drag-and-drop support, making it easier to move files between VMs and host.

I prefer VirtualBox over Hyper-V because it’s easy to control external devices. In Hyper-V, for example, getting sound to work is a pain in the neck, but in VirtualBox it only takes a click in setup. The shared clipboard between VM and host works wonders. Running speed on both is roughly the same, with a slight advantage to Hyper-V. But managing VirtualBox machines is much easier.

-- Woody Leonhard

Bossies 2015 Inkscape


If you stand in awe of the designs created with Adobe Illustrator (or even CorelDraw), take a close look at Inkscape. Scalable vector images never looked so good.

Version 0.91, released in January, uses a new internal graphics rendering engine called Cairo, sponsored by Google, to make the app run faster and allow for more accurate rendering. Inkscape will read and write SVG, PNG, PDF, even EPS, and many other formats. It can export Flash XML Graphics, HTML5 Canvas, and XAML, among others.

There’s a strong community around Inkscape, and it’s built for easy extensibility. It’s available for Windows, OS X, and Linux.

-- Woody Leonhard

Bossies 2015 KeePassDroid


Trying to remember all of the passwords we need today is impossible, and creating new ones to meet stringent password policy requirements can be agonizing. A port of KeePass for Android, KeePassDroid brings sanity preserving password management to mobile devices. 

Like KeyPass, KeyPassDroid makes creating and accessing passwords easy, requiring you to recall only a single master password. It supports both DES and Twofish algorithms for encrypting all passwords, and it goes a step further by encrypting the entire password database, not only the password fields. Notes and other password pertinent information are encrypted too. 

While KeePassDroid's interface is minimal -- dated, some would say -- it gets the job done with bare-bones efficiency. Need to generate passwords that have certain character sets and lengths? KeePassDroid can do that with ease. With more than a million downloads on the Google Play Store, you could say this app definitely fills a need.

-- Victor R. Garza


Loss or theft of mobile devices is all too common these days. While there are many tools in the enterprise to manage and erase data either misplaced or stolen from an organization, Prey facilitates the recovery of the phone, laptop, or tablet, and not just the wiping of potentially sensitive information from the device.

Prey is a Web service that works with an open source installed agent for Linux, OS X, Windows, Android, and iOS devices. Prey tracks your lost or stolen device by using either the device's GPS, the native geolocation provided by newer operating systems, or an associated Wi-Fi hotspot to home in on the location.

If your smartphone is lost or stolen, send a text message to the device to activate Prey. For stolen tablets or laptops, use the Prey Project's cloud-based control panel to select the device as missing. The Prey agent on any device can then take a screenshot of the active applications, turn on the camera to catch a thief's image, reset the device to the factory settings, or fully lock down the device.

Should you want to retrieve your lost items, the Prey Project strongly suggests you contact your local police to have them assist you.

-- Victor R. Garza


The premiere proxy application for Android, Orbot leverages the volunteer-operated network of virtual tunnels called Tor (The Onion Router) to keep all communications private. Orbot works with companion applications Orweb for secure Web browsing and ChatSecure for secure chat. In fact, any Android app that allows its proxy settings to be changed can be secured with Orbot.

One thing to remember about the Tor network is that it's designed for secure, lightweight communications, not for pulling down torrents or watching YouTube videos. Surfing media-rich sites like Facebook can be painfully slow. Your Orbot communications won't be blazing fast, but they will stay private and confidential.

-- Victor R. Garza


Tails, or The Amnesic Incognito Live System, is a Linux Live OS that can be booted from a USB stick, DVD, or SD card. It’s often used covertly in the Deep Web to secure traffic when purchasing illicit substances, but it can also be used to avoid tracking, support freedom of speech, circumvent censorship, and promote liberty.

Leveraging Tor (The Onion Router), Tails keeps all communications secure and private and promises to leave no trace on any computer after it’s used. It performs disk encryption with LUKS, protects instant messages with OTR, encrypts Web traffic with the Tor Browser and HTTPS Everywhere, and securely deletes files via Nautilus Wipe. Tails even has an office suite, image editor, and the like.

Now, it's always possible to be traced while using any system if you're not careful, so be vigilant when using Tails and follow good privacy practices, like turning off JavaScript while using Tor. And be aware that Tails isn't necessarily going to be speedy, even while using a fiber connect, but that's what you pay for anonymity.

-- Victor R. Garza

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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