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The Best Things in Life Are Free

Visalia Direct: Virtual Valley
July 2007 Issue
June 10, 2007

The Best Things in Life Are Free

Free. Like many computer users, I love the notion of free software. I’ll trade a few bells and whistles for free, and I’m guessing so will you.

I use free software on a daily basis. I edit Web pages with Nvu (http://www.nvu.com/), create “plain text” documents in jEdit (http://www.jedit.org/), and browse the Web using Firefox (http://www.mozilla.org/). Some of the biggest names in technology sponsor free software projects, including Apple, Google, IBM, and Sun.

Admittedly, an “anti-Microsoft” bias motivates some of the developers involved in free software. The companies sponsoring free software projects are also interested in reducing the influence of Microsoft and its ubiquitous Office suite of applications. My decision to use free software isn’t philosophical or political: I’ve found that some features I want are actually better in free software.

If you don’t want to pay the ever-rising price of Microsoft Office, you can download OpenOffice (http://www.openoffice.org/), which is a free version of Sun’s StarOffice product. There are differences between the free edition and the $70 “commercial” edition, such as an expanded dictionary and thesaurus in StarOffice. I use an electronic edition of the Oxford American Dictionary and don’t miss the extra baggage Microsoft Office includes. Simplicity is a feature, in my mind.

I have asked my students how many use the dictionary in Microsoft Office, only to be greeted by blank stares. Under the “Tools” menu, or the “Toolbox” icon, you can access a complete dictionary. It’s a nice idea, but very few people seem to know it even exists. Only the “Insert, Movie” command is used less often when writing a term paper. I’ve never seen a movie in a Word document, but I’m sure someone has wondered why a movie didn’t print.

OpenOffice includes a word processor, spreadsheet, presentation software, and a database. The presentation software, Impress, is not as bloated with features as PowerPoint, but I believe most PowerPoint presentations would be better with fewer visual effects — and definitely no sound effects. Simple, uncluttered slides are generally more effective. I tell my students that Impress does everything PowerPoint should do, not everything it can do.

Likewise, OpenOffice Draw is not a full-featured replacement for CorelDraw or Visio, but it handles simple tasks well. Because the resulting graphics are usually put into documents or slides, they should be simple and easy to understand. It is amazing how the lack of features can help you focus on completing a task.

Some of my students don’t need the spreadsheets, databases, or the other extras in OpenOffice or Microsoft Office. The free AbiWord (http://www.abisource.com/) offers the features most students need, including support for WordPerfect files. The ability to edit complex math equations is also reminiscent of WordPerfect. Since I have files dating back to high school, in WordPerfect 4.2 format, I’m glad I can open these documents and convert them to something more practical. Microsoft Word couldn’t seem to open the documents at all, but AbiWord worked miracles.

There are times when you need more than a word processor. For desktop publishing, retail software options range from simple tools like PrintShop to the powerful Adobe InDesign. Free options exist to these, as well. Scribus (http://www.scribus.net/) resembles Adobe PageMaker, allowing you to create everything from simple newsletters to textbooks. Scribus has a growing user community, so getting help online is never a problem.

Probably the fastest growing use for a computer is photo manipulation. I love my digital camera, but the software that was included with it is too basic. While I own a copy of Photoshop, I didn’t want to pay for two copies. Photoshop is a lot of fun, but it’s also expensive. GIMP is the GNU Image Manipulation Program (http://www.gimp.org/), which does most of what Photoshop can do, for free. For some tasks, GIMP is even easier and faster than Photoshop.

There are some issues with running free software. In some cases, the online help is incomplete or even missing. Because the applications tend to resemble their retail cousins, finding features is usually easy, but not always. I have found myself turning to Web sites for help when using more complex features, such as mail merge in AbiWord or transparent masks in GIMP. Once you start using these applications, finding features because more routine.

Free software is simply not as polished as commercial applications, even though advocates might try to argue the point. Installing OpenOffice on the Macintosh can be frustrating. I’ve helped a few of my students with this process, which includes installing the “X11 Window System” for Unix applications. The few times this hasn’t gone smoothly have been annoying reminders of how easy “real” Macintosh software is to install and use.

When I first started using computers, a lot of software was “free” — as long as you were willing to spend a few hours entering computer code from a magazine like Byte, Compute, or PC Magazine. I spent hours entering lines and lines of code, learning to program while gaining a free word processor, illustration software, and hundreds of games. I remind myself of these efforts anytime I struggle with free applications.

Of course, as long as I have an Internet connection I can use Google Docs (http://docs.google.com/). The wizards at Google have developed a basic word processor and spreadsheet for the Web. Google is promising that you will soon be able to use these applications without an Internet connection, too.
The Google applications support Microsoft and OpenOffice file formats, so you can open and save files created by the full-featured application suites. Google suggests their tools are meant for basic editing, not complex documents, but I am sure Google Docs will meet the needs of a lot of people. The downside is that your files will be stored on Google’s servers — which could allow Google to search your files. Why would Google want to search your documents? To know which ads will appeal to you. After all, Google is in the advertising business.

I think if you try the various free applications you will find some great new tools at the ideal price. I know I have.

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