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14 April, 2007

Free Software - It Really Is Possible

If you don't like paying for software, you can get practically everything you need for free without compromising quality or performance. On the contrary, the free stuff is often better than its commercial equivalents. This is what I have gradually come to understand lately and is a message I would like to share with the world – for free.

In the past few weeks, I have been making a concerted effort to replace all my bought software with free software. My goal is to have everything except the operating system sourced from companies other than Microsoft and free - and if Vista really is as bad as they say it is, I won't be buying that, either. Here is my progress so far:

Office Software: I have downloaded and begun to use OpenOffice.org 2.2. This completely replaces Microsoft's Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Access with, respectively, Swrite, Scalc, Simpress and Sbase. These programs are almost identical to their Microsoft equivalents in every way – similar user interface, similar functionality – but they seem to be more reliable and to run much faster. They also produce files which are about a fifth of the size of their Microsoft counterparts. They will open and save in Microsoft file formats if you want them to (with no penalties that I can see yet – formatting, macros, formulae all go both ways) or in the OpenDocument formats which are becoming a global standard. That software this good can be free is a miracle (or a testimony to how much Sun Systems hates Microsoft.)

Email: I've always been happy enough with Microsoft Outlook but I find I can replace it quite easily with free equivalents. However, what I chose to do instead was use a Web email service rather than get a new email client for my PC. The thing is, I don't like wasting my bandwidth on downloading junk mail (it amounted to half a megabyte of junk the other day!). With Web mail, you only download the emails you actually want to see. And when it comes to Web email, little else has the functionality of Gmail from Google. I can even use Gmail to consolidate all my other email accounts and have my own email address in the From and Reply-to fields – just as if it was a desktop client.

Other Internet Stuff: Browsers are all free anyway but the change from Internet Explorer to Firefox is one I am more than happy to make. As for file transfers, I used to use Coffee Cup's FTP software, which has a great user interface, but the change to the free FileZilla has been completely painless.

Image Manipulation: I've been using Paint Shop Pro for some years now – not as functional as Photoshop by a long way but so much easier to use, quite adequate for what I need and very cheap by comparison (up to AU$1,500 for Photoshop, depending on the version, vs less than AU$200 for Paint Shop Pro). However, I recently downloaded GIMP which seems to be every bit as powerful as Photoshop (although it has an even worse user interface!) and it is completely free.

Music: The one thing I do on a computer that I can't find decent free software for is writing music. There are plenty of free programs for stringing together sampled sounds but free software that will let you just write notes onto staves in the good old-fashioned way is very rare. I've tried a couple of things but they are not really adequate. However, I have found the next best thing to a full-function free program; Harmony Assistant from Myriad Software. It is a wonderful program, almost as good as the brand-leader Sibelius but it costs less than AU$90. As for sound editing and file conversions, I find that Audacity is a great piece of free software.

I'll keep you posted on new developments.

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