Monday, October 5, 2009

How to save money - Use free software - legally!

As always, please read my disclaimer before acting on any information contained in this post.

Certain software packages are considered essential for certain daily activities. These are premium programs, and you pay a premium price:

  • For word processing, spreadsheets and presentations it's Microsoft Office (currently retailing at around £100-£300 for the standard edition);
  • For security it's Norton (£15 - £30 ish, at a quick browse);
  • For photo editing it's Photoshop (nearly £600 for a fully-functional edition);
And so on...

If I can take office software as an example, there is much pressure to buy the current market leader: Microsoft Office 2007. This pressure comes largely from the fact that many businesses and schools use it, and you need something that's compatible with it on your home computer. You probably also feel more comfortable with it because it's what you've always used, because it's always been at work or at school. This also has a bearing on your purchase decision. But when you take into account the different packages that you buy in order to fulfil your various requirements, the costs of kitting your computer out with the latest and greatest are disturbingly high.

But does it need to be this way? I think not.

Make the change and go free!
No, I'm not advocating software piracy or illegal file/ program sharing of any kind. As always with these money saving posts I'm keeping it within the realms of legality with regards to the law at the time of writing. 

There are two types of free software available:

Freeware is software that you can install and use for free (although sometimes a donation is requested), and is often made by independent developers or small groups.

Open Source
Open source software is similar to freeware, but with one major difference: the code used to write the program is freely available, meaning that anybody with an interest can work on improving it. This has benefits over traditionally bought software in that it is constantly being updated and improved, but user support is often limited.

Why is it free?
There are two main reasons why individual software packages may be available for free:
  1. Promotion: the piece of software in question may be given to spread the name of the company distributing it, either in the hope of making it the industry standard or with an intent to encourage you to purchase an upgrade to versions with advanced features (or a mixture of the two).
  2. There are many reasons why individuals are prepared to give up there time to produce and distribute free software. These include a reluctance to be tied to the commercial giants of the industry and a genuine interest in creating functional pieces of software. Many free software packages suggest making a donation to the cause, either financially or in terms of time and expertise. Some include varying amounts of advertising to create revenue, which is then presumably fed back into the software's development.

Some examples
In this section I'll give a few examples of alternative software that I currently use in place of commercially available, paid-for programs.

Office software
An open source software package comprising word processing, spreadsheet, database, drawing, equation editing and presentation programs. I have this installed alongside Microsoft Office 2007* on my school laptop (and use it preferentially to MS Office), and it is the only office suite installed on my personal laptop. Whilst preferentially saving files in the industry standard Open Document Format (which Microsoft conveniently ignores), it can open and save files in many different formats, including those used by the newest version of MS Office, so compatibility is not an issue**.
In my experience, it's a little slower to load than MS Office and the menus are not quite as user-friendly, but the difference isn't so much that the MS Office's three figure price tag begins to look at all attractive next to's complete lack of a price tag. Some of the functions differ between the two suits, and it can take a little time to adjust, but again a saving of at least £100 in many cases makes this more than worthwhile.

This is an online word processor and spreadsheet package - there is no software to download and you can access your files (stored at google's end, not on your computer) from any internet-enabled computer. Google Docs will open just about any word processing or spreadsheet and supplies the option to download files in a format that's compatible with both the and Microsoft Office software packages.

Neither of the above office programs provide an alternative to Microsoft's Outlook, which comes as part of their Office suite, so I'll include a couple here:
The future of email is online, and Gmail, google's free web-based email, is embracing the future like a large, jolly aunt. Gmail allows you so much storage space that it's near-limitless (I have over 2000 emails stored, and Gmail tells me that I'm using around 15% of my allocated space) and has features that transcend those of Outlook. It might take a little bit of getting used to, but believe me when I say that it's worth it- Gmail will change your email experience for the better. If you like Outlook's calendar features, google also do an online calendar, again with features that are at the very least comparable with those of Outlook. Google are constantly updating both services, and a recent update includes the ability to access your gmail and google calender offline using your browser (i.e. you don't need to download any special software to read and respond to emails).
If you really must download your email, then this is an Outlook alternative that I have tried. It's from Mozilla, the same company that provides us with the Firefox web browser (see below). It does most of what Outlook does with regards to your email, but doesn't include a calendar. If you like your calendars offline, you could try Sunbird (also from Mozilla) too. I have used both of these programs, but don't any more having migrated online with my email and calendar provision.

Security software
This is a basic firewall program that does what basic firewall programs do***. I've been using it for years now, and I've had no internet security issues. It's updated fairly regularly, which is a good sign with internet security software. They do a number of different products and packages, so make sure you find the Zonealarm Basic free download.
Avast! is free for home users and requires registration that lasts for one year. When the year's up, don't worry, all you have to do is re-register and enter the new code they send to in the appropriate box in the program. This piece of software monitors your system for signs of viruses. It scans your system in the background, you can choose to scan individual files, and it checks your system for bad things on startup. You can also schedule a 'boot-time scan' which means that the software will interrupt your computer before Windows has had a chance to start, scan the whole thing, and then carry on with the startup. Again, I've been using this program for years. It's updated at least daily usually (a good thing) and I've had no problems, either with the software itself or with viruses getting through (even though it has detected a couple and shown them the door).

Image/ photo manipulation
This isn't as powerful as photoshop, but for most users will be more than adequate. I haven't used this program much (because I don't do much image manipulating), but I get the feeling that I have barely scratched the surface of what it can do.

Audio/ video
An open source program for recording and editing sounds. Again, I don't do much of this, but I have found the basic features easy to get my head round, and I was directed towards it by an audio-visual enthusiast friend of mine who does do a lot of recording and editing.

Web browsing
A free, non-Microsoft alternative to Internet Explorer. Similar functions, but open source and therefore more customisable and faster updating than the market leader.
Another product from google, this browser is still a beta****, but looks set to become the new big thing in the world of internet browsing. It's my preferred browser at the moment, although there are a few gremlins that annoy me now and then. It launches much faster than either Internet Explorer or Firefox, and has a menu style that allows more of the screen to be used for actually viewing websites. It also has an innovative combined address/search bar, which I really like.

Other alternatives
As I mentioned earlier, the software that I have just listed are just a tiny selection of what's available, and are programs that I, personally, have used in place of more expensive commercial software. There are plenty of alternatives available, and if you're interested in 'going open source', I'd advise talking to any of the geekier mates or colleagues you might have, and doing a web search for "open source alternatives to [name of software that you currently use]". To start you off, one website that looks like it might be both comprehensive and useful is Open Source as Alternative.

The biggie
The biggest and arguably most difficult commercial-open source change to make is that of operating system. The chances are that you're reading this from a computer running a windows- based operating system (XP, Vista, maybe even ME). I haven't made that particular switch yet, but next time I need to buy a new laptop or desktop computer, I fully intend to go open source with my operating system as well.

I'll leave you with a suggestion: have a look for a laptop or desktop computer that comes with Windows Vista. Then try to find a machine with similar specifications that comes with some breed of Linux operating system. Note the difference in price.

* The school paid for it, not me.
** This isn't strictly true: Whilst will open and edit just about anything, Microsoft Office can't read Open Document files. If this would be an issue for you, it's easy to set the Microsoft Office formats as the default for
*** If you're not sure, here's a basic idea: a firewall is your computer's bouncer on the door to the internet. If it's not on the list, it's not getting in. It's your first line of defence against viruses, trojans, worms and hackers.
**** Put simply, it's not finished yet.