Getting started into any new software can be a daunting experience whether open source or not. For open source projects, you want to find mature projects that generally “just work” and shouldn’t give you many problems. How do you know if an open source project is mature?
One of the quickest ways is to see if any books have been published for the project. If a book has been written, that generally means that the product has a large user base that the publisher can sell into. More users means more bugs found and fixed and therefore more stability. It also means more feature requests and more developers to work on the requests which means a more robust and useful product. Usually by the time there is a book out, an open source project has good documentation. However, many times documentation can be too dry and technical for the average user. Books are meant to be more readable and useful for those not willing to wade through the specifics of every feature. Many times books are organized around concepts and projects rather than grouped by feature like documentation usually is which makes them more useful to average users as well.
Even better, because open source projects are invested in open source culture, sometimes the books are released under liberal Creative Commons licenses in digital form so that you can download and easily check out the book to see if it fits you before you invest in buying it if you choose to. Again, open source culture isn’t just about software; it includes many things like books. Here is an example of just such a book about Getting Started in Open Office.
Most books are available from Amazon or other online book sellers where you can buy them used or new. So, as my mom says, let your fingers do the walking and see what’s available for a project you’re interested in. If you don’t find a book, that doesn’t mean the project isn’t mature and useful (we’ll keep looking at more ways to decide maturity in future posts). On the other hand, if you do find books available, then chances are really good that the project is mature enough for almost anyone to use. Here’s a few links to books for several of the most used open source projects.
Open Office – an office suite similar to Micro$oft Office
Inkscape - a vector graphics editor similar to Adobe Illustrator
Gimp – a raster graphics editor similar to Adobe Photoshop
Scribus – a desktop publishing application similar to Adobe InDesign
Firefox – the best web browser (at least for now)
Ubuntu – a user friendly and robust operating system similar to Mac OSX or Microsoft Windows
Various Open Source Media Software – covers installing Ubuntu, audio recording and editing, animation, video editing, font creation, graphic design tools, and much more
If you have other recommendations for good books for learning an open source software package, please post them in the comments.