7 open source innovations on the cutting edge

Think open source doesn?t innovate? Think again. Here are seven projects that are exploring exciting new directions in computing -- for fre

The open source movement remains a font of innovation to this day, and not just in the commercial sector. Numerous projects founded by universities, loosely knit communities, and individuals are exploring areas yet to be taken on by mainstream, proprietary software products. Here are just seven examples of exciting new ideas in software that you may be able to buy from proprietary vendors someday, but that you can only get for free from the open source community today.

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See also:
InfoWorld's Best of Open Source Software Awards
Top 10 open source apps for Windows, at a glance
Top 10 open source apps for Mac OS X
Top 10 Open Source Hall of Famers

Open source innovation: Alchemy

Open source innovation: Alchemy

An open source drawing and sketching program created by Karl D. D. Willis and Jacob Hina, Alchemy eschews Photoshop’s bulging toolbox and complex UI in favor of a stripped-down, minimalist approach. Alchemy’s focus is on the earliest stages of image creation, and its goal is to foster creativity, not render finished artworks. It provides a limited set of tools, but what it does provide would boggle even seasoned Photoshop experts, including the ability to shout into a microphone to draw using sound.

Open source innovation: Bespin

Open source innovation: Bespin

Under the hood, Mozilla Labs’ Bespin is an ambitious attempt to push the boundaries of what’s possible for Web-based applications. Every element of the editor’s UI, from the blinking cursor to the editor text itself, is rendered using HTML5’s new <canvas> element. Its current feature set is limited. Over the long term, however, Mozilla Labs’ plans for Bespin are as intriguing as they are ambitious. Once it’s mature, Bespin will offer a collaborative, online code authoring environment like no other.

Open source innovation: Bitcoin

Open source innovation: Bitcoin

Alternative currencies for e-commerce have been attempted many times, but never quite like Bitcoin. Backed by a “digital gold standard” based on the contribution of CPU cycles to solve calculations for grid computing projects, Bitcoin relies on public/private key cryptography to facilitate electronic trading in a completely anonymous, secure, peer-to-peer fashion. Unlike past attempts at digital currency, no dedicated servers manage Bitcoin transactions. Instead, all “banking” functions are distributed across individual nodes on the Bitcoin p-to-p network.

Open source innovation: EyeOS

Open source innovation: EyeOS

Users who want the flexibility of cloud apps but want to retain control of their own data should check out EyeOS. It aims to offer a complete, Web-based desktop built on readily available open source technologies, including Apache and PHP -- which means you can either use a hosted version for convenience or install your own copy in-house. EyeOS is more than just a prepackaged application suite. Based on a sophisticated RIA framework, it’s almost infinitely customizable.

Open source innovation: KDE Social Desktop

Open source innovation: KDE Social Desktop

If social networking is becoming central to how we use our PCs, then social networking should become central to the PC user experience, integrated directly into the operating system. Enter the Social Desktop concept -- one taken to heart by the K Desktop Environment. Beginning with version 4.3, KDE ships with a lightweight tool that allows users to locate and communicate with other KDE users in their local areas, enabling them to build local communities and lend advice on how to manage and maintain their Linux systems.

Open source innovation: Ksplice

Open source innovation: Ksplice

Updating operating systems can be a tricky affair. Whether the goal is to update device drivers or fix vulnerabilities in core services, successfully patching a running OS typically requires a reboot -- and nothing is more disruptive than that, especially for high-traffic servers. With Ksplice, Linux users have an alternative. Originally developed by a group of MIT alumni, Ksplice is a technology that allows software maintainers to create special binary patches that can be inserted directly into a running OS kernel. No reboot is necessary; the system experiences only a momentary pause as Ksplice suspends operations, applies the patches, then resumes normal processing, almost as if nothing ever happened.

Open source innovation: Ubuntu Light/Unity

Open source innovation: Ubuntu Light/Unity

Ubuntu’s new user experience software, dubbed Unity, seeks to combine the ease-of-use and accessibility of a smartphone UI with the power and flexibility of a full-fledged Linux desktop. Gone are the traditional pull-down menus and desktop widgets, replaced by a simple, push-button-style taskbar. But this is no toy OS; it can potentially run any of the thousands of applications available for Linux, GUI or otherwise, and its real power becomes evident when paired with Ubuntu Light, a stripped-down formulation of Ubuntu Linux designed to take users from power-on to the Web in under 10 seconds.