In recent years a movement has been growing to provide good quality software and resources to everyone. It has been made possible by the wide spread use of the internet. The term open source refers to the source code of a program. Traditionally, a program is only received in a form that's used by the computer to run. I'm not a programmer and as such I don't want the source code myself. So where's the benefit? A whole lot of programmers all around the world can play with a single project and share it with anyone. They do this because they write the program for them to use. This gives good quality, usability and security.
I've been getting myself heavily into open source and as such I feel the need to make a contribution. There are 3 non-technical ways that anyone can contribute to a program. One is to donate money, another to file bug reports and the other is to promote the programs. That's what I'm about to do. All of these except for Debian are available for windows. Note that the pictures are all links.
My first rant has to be about Mozilla Firefox. My web browser of choice. Firefox is well worth the effort. It looks better and feels better. A very few websites don't work properly but as firefox gains popularity these websites are being fixed. (Note: it's the websites, not firefox, that are the problem.) Add in a few extensions to suit your taste and it's playtime!
Next, Firefox's sister Mozilla Thunderbird is an email client. It has a strong focus on security, killing spam and making email a simple and enjoyable experience. Thunderbird hasn't achieved Firefox's cult following but is a valuable program in its own right. You can have either of these two programs separately. It's usefulness is limited by the fact that it's not a web browser and can't open hotmail and the like.
The other major open source sensation is Openoffice.org, a fully functional office suite. An excellent replacement for Microsoft Office. Unless you do very specialised work, Openoffice.org will do everything you need it to. Among its many features, it can read all MS Office files without effort and can write to pdfs. It takes a little getting used to but most of it makes a little more sense anyway.
A form of communication of general importance these days, instant messaging. This includes MSN, ICQ and Yahoo for the most popular. I didn't like it to begin with when I tried it a few years ago but it has changed considerably since then. It's style is different to what you may be used to but some of the cool things you can do more than make up for this. The main benefit of these programs is that they can connect to any or all of these protocols simultaneously. That includes connecting to the same protocol multiple times. It doesn't matter to you which protocol they're connected on either.
The all-important virus scanner. ClamAV is the way to go. Anyone can submit virus details so as soon as a virus is discovered it's dealt with. It updates itself regularly as you choose. The windows port, Clamwin, is fairly new to the scene but gaining popularity and usability very rapidly. If you don't have a virus scanner you should definitely get one and this one comes essentially without anything to lose.
The Gimp, GNU Image Manipulation Program is an electronic art studio. You may have used MS Paint at some time? Well, that's a box of crayons with a ruler compared to the Gimp. I have no description of it that will do it justice so I'll just say this: it's cool. It has a whole lot of tools for anyone who's even half serious about pictures. That's making your own or editing others including photos and such.
For an interesting paradigm shift we turn to Inkscape, another picture program. This program works with SVG files. In stead of drawing every pixel in an image you work with shapes that you make. It's a very interesting way to work. It's fun too because it makes images very easy to edit. They also still look good when you resize them. Many great tools to play with here too.
I don't necessarily advocate that you run a Jabber server yourself. Some people will find it useful but for most it's just another IM protocol. Jabber has a few technical advantages that I'm yet to discover but the best one I've seen, from my perspective, is that anyone can run it. As an example, any given company or group can run a jabber server and use it for internal purposes. For a company that means that its easy to keep security in mind. For individuals it means you have better control over which server you're agreeing to give data. You only need to trust your jabber server and the server of a given contact. I don't know where my msn goes but I know where my jabber account goes. I know I can trust internal servers. Again, however, for now you won't really notice much difference so move if you like tech toys or have friends on it.
Finally, the operating system on which I run these wonderful programs, Debian GNU\Linux. They all run just fine on windows but Debian makes it all a step easier. You don't have to even look for the programs. Debian programmers take the source of these programs and get them to work on Debian systems. All you have to do is choose the program from a list, decide what parts you want installed and go for it. It'll sort everything out and file everything neatly and everything works just like that. Then, when you're in the mood, you ask the system what packages can be updated and you do so. Is there a program you want to run? Chances are Debian has it. The same goes for all of linux but Debian is the one I use.
The only exception to this is top end games. For most programs there's a functional equivalent of whatever is usually used for windows. Some still need work but within a few years they'll match anything commercial companies are putting out. Top level games, however, are much less likely at this point in time. Most people working on open source do it part time. They simply don't have the resources to do top level games. I say top level because there is an enormous amount of games made for linux. Some are clones of other games, some are original designs. In this list, this is the only one that doesn't run on top of windows. It replaces windows.