I recently bought a new laptop
and decided to see just how far I could go in setting it up without having to pay for software. Granted, I was using a Windows machine, so I wasn't totally geeking out. I just wanted to see if I could live on free software other than the OS, and whether that's something a reasonably intelligent average user could do. I also decided not to steal software I should pay for (as that's against the law and all). Besides, Software Freedom Day
is coming up September 10, and I want to be ready.
Think free software's a crock? Believe in one world, one platform under Microsoft? Talk back.
I started in the obvious place, by downloading the Mozilla Suite
. I chose the Mozilla suite over Firefox and Thunderbird so that I could get the browser, e-mail functionality, Web editor, and IRC client all in one package. Of course, downloading it meant I had to open Internet Explorer once, since that was the default browser that came with my laptop. Yes, I could have logged in to a shell and downloaded through Unix, but I think I made it clear I wasn't geeking out here.
The biggest bugaboo for some people trying to go free is how to get around paying an arm and a leg for Microsoft Office. You can get 75 percent of the way there by downloading OpenOffice
. It's a free word processor, spreadsheet, and presentation graphics program that is fully compatible with Microsoft file formats.
The only problem is that OpenOffice doesn't contain an Outlook replacement for e-mail or calendaring. I had e-mail covered through the Mozilla suite, but I needed some kind of calendar system, so I downloaded the Mozilla calendar plug-in
Sound and graphics
After I got the basic productivity apps down, I branched out into more fun stuff, such as pictures and audio. I like to manipulate images, so I needed a replacement for Photoshop. I decided to give the GIMP a shot. The GIMP is the GNU Image Manipulation Program
, but it got a bad rap because of difficult installation and a pretty bad user interface. Still, if you haven't tried the GIMP in a while, give it a second shot. It's a much easier install now, and the interface has improved tremendously. If you've never tried it, you'll find it an amazingly powerful graphics package for free.
For sound editing, I took the recommendation of MP3.com's Eliot Van Buskirk and downloaded Audacity
. I haven't put it through its paces yet, but I've toyed around with it, and it's very easy to use. Comes in handy for recording podcasts
The hits keep on coming
From there the options are endless. Our Editors' Choice for Internet telephony, Skype
, makes my list, as does iPodder
for subscribing to podcasts, though you can now do that in iTunes
, which is also a free download. There are many other lovely freeware efforts out there that will do everything from letting you create PDF files to replacing Dreamweaver.
You can find a great collection of some of the best free programs for Windows at TheOpenCD.org
, which aims to create a totally free environment for Windows machines. The site's main purpose is the distribution of a CD that has a bootable, installed distribution of Linux called Ubuntu
with all the free software you need already installed. A bootable CD means you put the CD in any computer and boot up from the CD drive. Without having to install anything, you have a whole new operating system you can experiment with. All your data and your original operating system are still on your hard drive.
So, in the end, how's all this free stuff working? Well, I can do almost everything seamlessly--except corporate mail (which runs on the Exchange server). I can check my corporate mail from Mozilla, but I can't respond to or accept invitations to meetings. And boy, do we have a lot of meetings. I'm wavering on whether to cave and install Outlook. But that's just for convenience--I could
exist totally free. If you're not enmeshed in a Microsoft Exchange- or Lotus-only environment, or if you're braver than me and will blow off meetings, you need never pay another dime for software.
Ever wondered how technology and the Web really work? CNET's Tom Merritt
gives you the Real Deal on deals, steals, tips, and tricks.