Originally published in The Clarion | June 30, 2010
Our final look at free software applications will focus on what is commonly known as Office applications. The popularity and functionality of Microsoft’s Office Suite has created an entire arena of capable, compatible and yes – free software applications that accomplish the same goals as the pricey software from Microsoft. The most popular free Office productivity software today is an application suite called OpenOffice.

While document viewers for most proprietary Microsoft applications are free to download and use, they are only that – viewers. In order to create or modify a proprietary Microsoft document, you must either buy their software applications or use a compatible application like those available in OpenOffice.

The OpenOffice suite of applications is entirely free for download and use. It supports native OpenOffice file formats, along with most all formats from Microsoft and other software vendors. OpenOffice also has features included that the expensive applications do not. Simply put, with OpenOffice you can satisfy most any Office application need while saving several hundred dollars in software costs.

The typical OpenOffice download includes software for Word Processing (yes I’m using it now to type this article), Spreadsheets, Presentations and Databases. Countless times I have heard someone ask for assistance because someone sent them a Microsoft Word document and they only had Microsoft Works installed on their PC. With OpenOffice, this scenario is no longer an issue. OpenOffice handles all Microsoft proprietary formats. Even better, in OpenOffice a user can take a Microsoft Word document and easily convert it to any number of other document types including Adobe’s popular Portable Document Format – or .pdf.

OpenOffice is free to download and use and is available for all popular Operating Systems including Windows, Mac OSX and Linux. Documents that are generated using OpenOffice are compatible with the commercial versions by Microsoft and other vendors. As newer versions of Microsoft’s Office Suite of applications become more and more incompatible with previous versions, OpenOffice is a perfect alternative to paying for the newest software from Microsoft. OpenOffice upgrades are frequent and, just like the core software, are entirely free. Commercial users can potentially save thousands of dollars by moving to OpenOffice and odds are good that functionality will actually increase by using OpenOffice in place of older versions of Microsoft Office.

Next week we will complete our look at free software by looking at free Open Source Operating Systems.


Instant Messaging

Originally published in The Clarion | June 23, 2010
This week’s look at free software applications will focus on communications software. While the Web provides a one-stop-shop for any imaginable information, Internet technology goes beyond Web content including an extensive communications system. Whether it be email, text chat or real-time audio/video communications, the conveniences of the Internet have allowed people worldwide to communicate from anywhere at anytime using many methods.

While web-based email is extremely popular for its convenience and simplicity, sometimes using an email client makes more sense for many users. Two of the more popular free email client applications are Mozilla Thunderbird and Eudora. Thunderbird has become my client of choice over the last several years. Although absolutely free for download and use, Thunderbird is a fully-featured email client that includes an Address Book, Junk Mail Filtering, Calendar plugin along with all the other bells and whistles users have come to expect from an email application. Additional plugins are available, making Thunderbird a fantastic choice for both home and business email needs.

Chat applications have come a long way over the years. Most all applications are free for download and use. Gone are the days of type-only chat – most current applications include some sort of audio and/or video features as well. Some even include collaboration features that allow users to share files and even their entire desktop in real-time. One very popular chat application today is Skype. While allowing typical type chat, Skype is most popular for its voice and video capabilities. I know several people who use Skype to keep in touch with friends and loved ones on a daily basis. It is very simple to use and, of course, is free to download and use. There are also pay services available in Skype for international calls to home and cellular phones.

Another communications realm on the Internet is commonly known as Instant Messaging. Applications from MSN, Yahoo, AIM, Google Talk, ICQ, Facebook, MySpace and many others are extremely popular and include many communications conveniences. There are several free applications that allow you to use multiple IM platforms within one application, including Pidgin and Meebo. Assuming you have more than one subscription to an online IM service, an application like Pidgin is a must as it consolidates all of your IM accounts into one place – enabling you to use only one software application instead of having a taskbar full of separate IM icons. Keeping with our theme, these IM applications are absolutely free for download and use.

Take a few minutes and take some of these free communications applications for a spin. Just like the free web browsers we talked about last week, I’m confident you will be pleased with their functionality and features, not to mention price.


Web Browsers

Originally published in The Clarion | June 16, 2010
Web browsing has evolved exponentially over the years. As technology has grown, so has the Web experience. It is not hard for me to recall the days of simple, text-based websites that may have included a few pictures and a catchy tune playing in the background. Today things are so very different. We watch streaming videos within our web browsers, both for entertainment and to keep up with the news. Some of us interactively trade stocks in an almost-real-time manner using that same web browser. We also communicate using type, audio and video – again, all from within our favorite web browser. While there have seemingly always been choices when it comes to web browsers, never before have there been more attractive and functional options – most of which are entirely free to the end-user.

By default, the most prevalent web browser is Microsoft’s Internet Explorer. A decade or so ago Microsoft integrated IE into their Windows operating system resulting in every copy of Windows sold including the IE browser. While this has been true for many years, it is quite interesting to me that IE continues to lose market share in the web browser arena. You may ask who or what is cutting in to IE’s dominance of the browser arena. Believe it or not, free web browsers are replacing IE more and more every day.Free web browsers have been around for years. I recall a friend giving me a 3.5” disc labeled ‘Netscape Navigator’ when I left for college in 1994. Today, the most popular free web browsers include Mozilla Firefox, Google Chrome, Apple’s Safari and the Opera Browser. I personally use Firefox on a day-to-day basis and have begun using Chrome quite frequently as well.

One main reason a typical web browser (person, not application) might use something other than IE is for increased performance. Over the years, IE has continued to get more processor and memory-demanding. The newest versions of Firefox and Chrome are noticeably lightweight and, especially in the case of Chrome, quite speedy. Add the fact that these browsers are absolutely free to download and use and you have a happy browsing experience. While Microsoft has had to deal with an enormous amount of security issues over the years in IE, alternative web browsers seem to be either better designed or more immune to the security issues that have plagued Windows and IE.

While it may be hard to imagine, free web browsers not only perform fantastically but are also fully functional. I personally have not used IE on a day-to-day basis in several years and cannot think of anything I have missed out on because of my choice in web browser. When you have a few minutes, take a look at the free web browsers out there and take one for a spin. I’m confident you will be pleased with the noticeable performance increase.


Free Software

Originally published in The Clarion | June 02, 2010
Several weeks ago while taking a look at software applications, I introduced the idea of free software. In the upcoming weeks, we will take a look at several categories of software, including specific applications that are absolutely free to download and free to use. While some of these applications aren’t necessarily considered mainstream software, all of them are not only suitable for certain situations but fully-functional and can be used in day-to-day home or office computing environments.

To be clear, it is necessary to define and elaborate on what is meant by free software. Free software is not that CD or DVD with the latest Microsoft Office Suite of applications on it your buddy let you borrow. Free software also isn’t that disc you found at the office and decided to bring home and install for personal use. Free software is exactly as simple as it sounds – it is software that is specifically licensed to be freely distributed and used at absolutely no monetary cost to the end-user. Remarkably, software is available under such licensing for most every imaginable computing need – from web browsing applications, communications tools, document viewers, word processing and spreadsheet applications, even entire operating systems.

Most PC users (including Mac owners) are accustomed to purchasing a desktop, laptop or netbook with the operating system and common applications pre-installed. I imagine most consumers do not consider the included costs of such software when making a hardware purchase. Wouldn’t it be nice to save say 10% on your new PC purchase by bypassing the operating system and software applications and installing your choice of free software once you get your new hardware home? Such is not a dream – I have done this myself on more than one occasion. Doing such does require some pre-planning and additional work once you get your new hardware home, but the results of a little extra work can definitely pay off once the hard work (used very loosely) is done. Nevermind the extra dollars you were able to save when making your hardware purchase.

In upcoming weeks, we will take a look at several free software applications that are available to the end-user. Along the way I anticipate some new ideas will arise that will possibly save you some money on your next PC purchase or maybe even extend the life of your existing hardware by ditching some of the outdated software applications you may have for the newest and most up-to-date software available today.