Open Source Pieces Part II: Freely Available, To Change and Alter

In my previous post, I discussed the first two pieces of “open source”:

I ended the previous post by asking you to remember two terms: “freely available” and “to alter and change.”

As you can guess, “freely available” means that you do not have to pay to be granted permission to use the computer software. In other words, you don’t have to plunk down $200-$500 for software like Microsoft Office. And note: you are paying to just use the computer software, not tinker with the source code to get it to do something you want.

A common example of “freely available” software is OpenOffice.org. When you go to the site, and click around, you’ll notice that if offers the same types of computer software applications as Microsoft Office. There is a Word Processor, a Spreadsheet application, a Presentation application, a Database application…even its own Draw application. All in a single download, all for zero dollars. Yes, $0.

But, not only do you get the computer software for $0, you get access to the source code!

And this is where the fun begins because, with the source code, you are allowed “to alter and change” and make OpenOffice.org do what you want. Plenty of people have given you a head start with various extensions. One of my favorites is the Writer’s Tools. It has this nifty feature, called Start/Stop Timer, that “can be used to keep tabs on the time spent on the currently opened document and save the time data (the document name, used time, and date) in the accompanying WriterDB database.”

Oops. There’s a scary word: “database.” If you’ve used products like Microsoft Access, I can understand (though I hear it has gotten better but I’m skeptical). Not all databases are bad, though. When done correctly, they can make life easier. Dynamic websites are often run by databases. Google runs off many many databases. There has to be some efficient way to track and store those millions of search queries every hour or so, right? So the word may seem scary, but databases are pretty useful.

So the Writer’s Tools has a timer function that tracks your time on a document and lets you store it in the accompanying WriterDB. Then there is this other nifty feature called MiniInvoices: “a customizable invoicing solution for writers. miniInvoices is built with OpenOffice.org Base and relies on the Sun Report Builder extension. The solution features support for multiple currencies and basic reporting capabilities. The latter allows the user to generate print-ready invoices and earning reports.”

At the moment, the timer function does not hook into the miniInvoices feature, and the Timer does not start/stop automatically when you open/close a file. I posted a comment on the site, and the developer responded that the miniInvoices integration is under consideration for a future release.

When I mention this small set back, many people throw up there hands and start that “not different that MS Office” speech, until I ask “Well, where is the Timer function in MS Word?” There is silence, followed by “Is there a Timer function is MS Word?” I’m told there is, but have yet to find it, or anyone who uses it.

Do any of you?

And good luck hooking a Microsoft product to a non-Microsoft product to generate a Client bill. Not saying it isn’t doable, but it seems people use a different billing system that doesn’t necessarily communicate well with Microsoft. The “proprietary walled garden” cuts off communication. The source code for Writer’s Tools, however, is freely available under the GNU GPL. The “proprietary walled garden” has no walls, so communication is open, flowers are free to bloom where they please. There is no barrier in connecting different computer software applications together in order to produce an end result, such as a Client bill.

I’m curious…how many steps does it take to create a Client bill? Do you keep a spreadsheet that gets imported into computer software such as Quicken? Everyone seems to have their own methods, and they all have tricks they’ve learned but also wonder why technology can’t help automate some of these tasks. There is an open source solution…

So “freely available” and “to change and alter” mean that you don’t have to pay anything to get the computer software AND the source code, you less likely to get sued for infringement for tinkering with the source code and in the end, you’ll have a more streamlined, productive business side so you can focus on doing what you do best: lawyering.

OpenOffice.org is just one example, and comes readily to mind as I have been using it for a project the last two months. I work on a MacBookPro, and the Client sends me documents in .docx but I have MS 2004, which can’t read .docx, so I use OpenOffice.org. Problem solved!

Thus concludes the introduction on the 4 pieces of Open Source. There are many other examples of open source applications, though, that lawyers and legal professionals may find useful, so stay tuned!

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