I love the tinkering spirit of the internet. Dissatisfied with gaps in software capabilities, or dismayed by the extravagant costs of corporate software, self-regulating groups write and improve their own programs and make them available to the world for free, for the joy of it. Open source programmers are anti-authoritarian populists of our age, demolishing significant cost barriers to creative expression. If you can afford a computer (and really now, they cost far less than a television set these days), you can accomplish just about anything using free software; the only limitation is your mind.
I have two quick recommendations for you today: to extract zip, rar and other compressed files (or to zip them back up again), try Quick Zip. While WinZip has established dominance in compression and extraction due to its heavy advertising, it’ll run you $30. Quick Zip manages to accomplish the same tasks with an intuitive, easy-to-use interface, at no cost. Quick Zip, although not strictly open source, is free.
We all have used “unzip” programs; graphics programs may be a bit more unfamiliar to you. Raster graphics programs like PaintShopPro and Photoshop and Windows Paint work by putting together individual pixels to create what can be very pretty pictures. Unfortunately, if you try to enlarge them you’ll get a blocky looking, jagged mess as those individual pixels just get bigger. Vector graphics programs create pictures as mathematical expressions of lines, curves, color gradients and so on, mathematical expressions that are independent of scale. With a vector graphics program you can create a two-inch image, enlarge it, and stick it on a sixty-foot-wide billboard without any loss of quality. Another advantage: because every element of a vector image is a mathematical expression, every element can be transformed with precision.
If you want to go with the leading corporate vector graphics software, Adobe Illustrator, get ready to shell out as much as $300. Yowch! Try Inkscape instead: it’s an open source vector graphics program with most of the features of Illustrator and none of the price. While it’s powerful, the vector graphics approach isn’t quite as intuitive as using a paintbrush in Photoshop, so if you want to give it a try be sure to supplement your experimentation with the also-free manual and spiffy video tutorials by heathenx.
By the way, as with all programs downloaded off the internet, you’ve got to be sure that these are legit programs, not containing any spyware. You could just take my word for it, but fortunately you can do better: trust CNET, which links to software downloads only after they first verify that the software is spyware-free. Download through links you find at CNET and you’ll be all right. Free downloads of both Quick Zip and Inkscape area available there.