I am still a little surprised that people are willing to shell out hundreds of dollars on computer software when there are often dozens of free alternatives available. Most of us use computers for pretty basic tasks: emailing friends, browsing the internet, editing photos, listening to music, writing letters, and maintaining blogs. All of these tasks—and many others—can be performed using excellent free software that is easily installable and maintainable.
Why you should not be afraid of “Free”
Consumer Reports recently ran an article instructing its readers to be suspicious of free software. There reasons were sound, but only apply to a certain kind of “free.” There is certainly a lot of “free” stuff on the internet that can cost you in the end, but there are also a lot of excellent resources as well; the trick is being able to tell the difference.
I think the other reason people are afraid of free software is that they assume it’s “second class.” Since it’s free, it can’t be very good. Again, this applies to some software, but not the kind I’m talking about. Think about it this way: who would you rather buy a car from? Do you pick the used car dealer, primarily interested in his bottom line? Or do you pick the enthusiastic hobbyist, the guy (or girl) who refurbishes old cars because he loves it? All things being equal, the second individual is probably the more trustworthy.
So what do you mean be “free”?
There are three kinds of free. The first type of free software is “free” software—notice the quotation marks. This includes malware (software that pretends to be useful, but actually damages your computer), shareware (software that pretends to be free at first, but then cuts you off after a certain amount of time, or holds back on you until you pay its premium), and crapware (software that really is free, but sucks). Of these, shareware is the only one worth talking about, and even here you should be careful. While I don’t particularly care for the shareware model, there are some useful programs in this group.
The second kind of free software is free in the sense of “free beer.” Many programmers and organizations develop software for their own personal use, and while they want to maintain absolute control over their creation, they nevertheless offer it to others out of kindness (or self-promotion, or for some other non-monetary motivation). So this includes all software that is “closed” (the programmer does not release the source code) but does not require payment.
The third kind of free software is free in the sense of “free speech.” Free-speech software is (almost) always also free-beer software. The difference here is that in addition to being free to use, those who produce the software also publish the “source,” the internal nuts-and-bolts that determines how the software functions. This is useful for other programmers—anyone can improve or add functionality to the software, without having to ask permission or pay a fee. Firefox is a good example here; it is free to use and also free to modify, which means there are plugins that can do almost anything right in the comfort of your browser. This is the best kind of free because, in addition to keeping money in your wallet, you are not ultimately dependent on any one individual or organization, and so your software is less likely to go out of date or be unusable.
The Recommendations: Free Software you Should Download or Bookmark
Over the course of the next few weeks I will be posting about free software to get you started, organized by function. All the software will be at the very least “free beer” software (unless otherwise noted). Most of it will also be “free speech” (open-source) software. I will also include a number of web-apps, which are generally “free beer” services.
The following is a list of the types of software I will discuss in the forthcoming posts. You can check back here, as I will edit this page when new posts are available, or you can always subscribe to the blog and get updated automatically!