Software is funny stuff. Once you have made the first copy, it is virtually costless to make a million copies if it is downloaded. If you are Microsoft then your business model is to sell the software millions of times. But many others take a different view and give their software away.
Their business models are more complex and some are simply philanthropic. They are just like story-writers and want to get their creative wares out there.
There is nothing wrong with free software. Indeed, it provides a testament to modern marketing and consumer behaviour that most of us pay a lot of our money on their software when quality products can be had for free. We will have to leave that question to be answered by sociologists and behaviour specialists.
'Free' is not the word that is used inside the development community. Free is used in the sense of 'free speech' or 'freedom'. People work very hard to write software that you can use for free. A good case could be made that free software leads the way.
Free software is not automatically 'open source'. Open source is normally free but the term 'open source' means that the code is in the public domain and implies that there is an Internet community backing the product. Either way, some very skilled and talented people have worked to develop the software that you can use for nothing. It is often the result of a community effort. If you want to know more about open source, it is a well organised community and you will be surprised just how much all computer users owe them.
One enormous advantage of free software is that there are versions for most of the operating systems. So if you move between Mac, Linux and PCs then free software is an attractive option.
Top of the class is OpenOffice. This is distributed under the wing of the mighty Sun Corporation. This is a mature product that looks all the other office suites and bears comparison with them all, including Microsoft Office. Open Office, aka Star Office, provides all of the components that you would get in the most expensive MS offering. There are spreadsheets, graphics and data modules.
The origin of all browsers can be found in 'free' software. Many have tried to 'customise' the open source software which makes life very hard for web designers who have to make sure that their work can be viewed correctly. The best known customisation of free software was Internet Explorer which is still bundled by Microsoft with its operating systems.
Firefox is the 'free' browser which is another mature product. If you download this just take a look at the list of contributors under the Help menu, to get an idea where quality free software comes from.
Thunderbird is from the same stock as Firefox. But Microsoft also provides a version of Outlook for free as a part of the MS operating system bundle.
Every computer needs an operating system. The hardware of a computer is little more than a dead body until it is woken up by a surge of electricity and instructions from the operating systems. The operating system is the personality of the computer.
It links all the components together. The OS handles all the mundane activities such as interpreting the key strokes or mouse movements, and stores or outputs the data.
The world is dominated by Microsoft products with the MAC OS as a significant player. There are two open source products, Linux and Solaris.
Because the operating system provides the personality of the computer you need to think carefully before deciding to change it.
Editing and playing audio or video
Audio files can be recorded on your computer and with the aid of a little software you can be assembling your own podcasts.
MediaPortal does a good job at converting your PC into a complete media or home entertainment centre. http://www.team-mediaportal.com/
VideoLAN - media player is an excellent way to cope with the many formats for video that we have to deal with. http://www.videolan.org/
Editing video and photos
Google have contributed Picasa 2 which organises photos and tries to fix problems with images.
Yahoo has www.jumpcut.com which is like UTube with some editing functions.
Quicktime, Nero and MusicMatch all provide free, 'lite' versions of their products. These will play and burn CDs and DVDs. If you are prepared to put up with the nagging to upgrade, they work fine.
But they also try to make themselves the default applications to use, which is an annoying habit. I don't like my computer to provide the battleground for competing software, but that's competition for you.
InfraRecorder is free and free of these vices (PC only). http://infrarecorder.sourceforge.net/
As a computer community we need some vigilant organisations to watch out for and block viruses. Organisations such as Norton have established themselves as leaders in this area.
But AVG provide a free version of virus protection and it updates just like those to which one has to subscribe. http://free.grisoft.com
Avira provides an alternative. I have not used this myself but have heard good reports of it in operation. http://www.free-av.com/
But a word of warning before you switch virus protection packages. Virus packages that have been pre-installed are extremely hard to eliminate. I am sure they will claim this is essential for them to provide a safe environment. However, it does look a lot like restraint-of-trade, and changing supplier of anti-virus is not recommended except to determined and experienced users. If you do plan to change to another anti-virus package, make sure that you can undo any installation (an operating system function) and check the Internet to find out where all of the registry entries and other files are scattered around your computer, so that you can find and eliminate these.
Free software is innovative and of high quality. The minor downside is there is no support number you can ring, but how often have you bothered with phone support for software. Upgrades to fix any known bugs in free software are quickly provided.
There has been another move underway for some years. Oracle promoted the idea that all the software would be on a central computer, leaving your computer to work as a dumb-ish terminal. All you need is an Internet connection and all of your files and applications are available.
This movement has been slow to develop but if you are a roaming soul then Zoho might be worth looking at. Once the craze for social networking has run its course people will still want to use their numerous devices to do all those normal things like writing, storing and sending material. Having all your software on a central server will make a lot of sense.
Until then, give the free stuff a try.
©Chas Jones 2007