Free computing and Internet tools

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Here are some easy ways to lower what you pay for computers and software.

There are some secrets that market giants Apple and Microsoft don’t want you to know;  You don’t have to pay them a dime to get a good operating system and productivity software for your personal computer. This is good news for individuals on a tight budget or for small businesses owners that don’t want to spend a large amount of money on computer software.

As an example, I am composing this story on a netbook that runs an operating system that cost me $0 and with a word processor that cost me $0. My total cost was $200 for the netbook itself.  I don’t pay for upgrades to the operating system or productivity software. My total cost will remain $200.

Linux Tux
Have you tried Linux?

There are many pieces of software that are free to use today and the following is not an exhaustive guide for each category. But it’s a good sampling of some of the most popular choices.

Operating Systems
Linux is a free alternative to MacOS and Microsoft Windows. It’s been around since 1991 and comes in multiple variations. The user interface has the look and feel that consumers are used to with Apple and Micosoft and upgrades are free. It’s a great choice to install on older computers because the hardware requirements are light. So it’s a good option to install on older hardware as well if you want to keep the machine in service to you as a backup or for special use situations.

Linux comes in multiple variations, but the two most popular are Fedora and Ubuntu. To give it a try visit the sites and download a copy of the software to CD or thumb drive for the installation.

Office Productivity Software
There are a few options for free software for word processing, spreadsheets, and presentations. OpenOffice, like Linux, is free and is maintained by an open source community. It comes pre-installed with some Linux versions as the default software. There is also a Windows compatible version available for download on the OpenOffice site.

Google Apps offers a full office productivity suite as well. What’s different about this option is that the software is not installed locally to your machine. It’s a cloud software service, so you can access it anywhere that you have internet access (machine independent).

Zoho, like Google apps, is a cloud based service that offers an office productivity suite.

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Don’t be fooled to thinking that the email address provided by your internet service provider is free. It’s part of the package you receive for the monthly subscription. The problem with these internet addresses is that if you change ISPs then you also have to change email addresses.

A better choice is to use a free service such as Gmail, Yahoo Mail, or Hot Mail. With these services you can keep your email address even if you change ISPs.

The growth of cloud based computing has spawned several new services that provide storage space for documents and photos. The providers give a base amount of storage for free each month and then offer additional space at very reasonable prices. That’s good news for consumers looking for a backup location for valuable files or for a primary storage location for files.

It also allows consumers to access their data from multiple devices. That’s important because many consumers today are using PCs, tablets, and phones to access internet based services.

Popular services today include Amazon Storage, Google Drive, Microsoft SkyDrive, and Apple iCloud.

Computer Reuse
As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, I’m not just writing about this topic, but I’m a user of free and open source software as well. The computer hardware I have for personal use was purchased. But I use Ubuntu Linux, Google Docs, Gmail, and Google Drive as primary software for personal productivity and writing. Occasionally I compile video for my articles and I use a free software that runs on Linux for editing and rendering the video files.

I’ve also converted several computers that were over five years old to a Linux based computer. Those machines now use up-to-date software and I didn’t pay a dime to re-fit them for use for their second life.

These tools are not a fit for everyone. But the next time you are in the market for a new computing device you should consider some of the free options available to you.

This post is from my column on technology and business from the Suwanee Patch. I cross-post the entire contents here for the Merchant Stand audience. You can find the Suwanee Patch version here:

Free Computing and Internet Software

Microsoft Office online for free

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Microsoft opened testing for Office 2010 today for a select group of testers and previewers. Fortune reports that part of the distribution strategy for the new Office will be a free online version. Yeah, read it again, a free version of Office from Microsoft.

Photo: Creative commons from sunfox
Photo: Creative commons from sunfox

It was really just a matter of time before Microsoft did this. There are good alternatives to Microsoft Office already available for free. Open Office, Zoho, and Google Apps to name a few. I’ve been using Open Office for about two years now. It put me through graduate school and has performed every function I needed for word processing, spread sheets, and presentations. To be fair, it’s my belief that these alternatives provide a good basic alternative for office productivity. But the Office suite from Microsoft I believe is a great piece of software. For power users, I haven’t seen an equal.

So why was this inevitable for the Redmond giant? There are several factors:

  • Small businesses and startups are actively using online office productivity software and Open Source software as a means to reduce costs.
  • Software license fees will become harder to justify for mid to large organizations in the future. Many organizations (business and education) have begun to use Google Apps. See this example in Arizona State University.
  • Microsoft needs to make inroads in ‘open’ software and the stereotypes from the tech community. Just read the comments at the bottom of the post from Fortune mentioned above to see that it still exists.
  • With increasing usage of mobile devices and netbooks, consumers will gravitate towards online alternatives. Microsoft needs a competitive offering in this space.

Investors in Microsoft and the community should see this as a good thing. For the investors, it means Microsoft is attempting to strengthen it’s presence in a new and growing space for office productivity software. It’s a sign that signifies that Microsoft isn’t so big as to think it’s better than an online offering or that other alternatives can’t compete with Office. Investors should also see this as a complementary product for the full Office suite. Some customer and power users will still like the full version on their client. But they can use the flexibility of an online version when traveling.

For the tech community at large there are questions to be answered.

  • How will Microsoft support open document formats?
  • Will they require Internet Explorer?
  • What exactly will the EULA say?
  • How will they protect your identity or provide document security?
  • What type of SLA will be offered on the hosted systems?

Competition is good, because it makes everyone better. Let’s see if Microsoft can successfully give a little to start transforming itself into a new type of company.