Tuesday, September 1, 2009

A Price of Zero

Most Lagosians who started working with computers about the same time that I did had their first experiences with computers assembled from parts bought in the legendary Otigba Street area of Ikeja. It wasn't just the hardware that came from Otigba. The software came from there too - and it was pirated. Many a sophisticated computer user today would never have had the software their life depends on if not for the “Mega” CDs that put thousands of dollars worth of software on single CDs that sold for not more than a few hundred naira.

Now many of us actually pay the authorised price for software. We may not agree that the price is fair - and the truth is that software pricing can be fairly arbitrary, but those are what the people who invested their time and energy in developing the software want us to pay. We can agree to pay the price - otherwise the only right thing to do is not use the software. In any case, companies like Microsoft are heavily investing in all sorts of mechanisms to protect their software from unauthorised use.

computervillageikeja Despite my Otigba roots, I strongly advocate that people pay the legal price for the software they use. Because I work in IT, a lot of people have approached me to "help" them install Microsoft Office on their computers and Norton Antivirus on their new laptops. I always advise them to buy authorised copies. Often times they don't take the suggestion seriously.

The thing is software isn't cheap. Windows itself makes up a significant part of the cost of a prebuilt computer. Office is another 200 dollars or so depending on the version - and antivirus software can be an annual subscription as much as 40 dollars. Which is why I also suggest to people use free and open source versions of the software.

There are lots of free alternatives to the software we have grown used to. Many of them work the same way as the more familiar ones. Even those with fewer features are very attractive at the price they come at. I'll give examples of free software and the familiar non-free software that they replace. Everyone of them can be downloaded from the internet.

Ubuntu Linux (alternative to Microsoft Windows).

Windows is the only computer operating system most of us know, but there are a huge number out there. Ubuntu Linux is probably the easiest one for Windows users to grasp with the least amount of effort. The thing about Ubuntu and other forms of Linux is the that they belong to an entire ecosystem of free software. Linux is also less prone to viruses obviating the need for antivirus software.

Openoffice.org (Alternative to Microsoft Office).

Openoffice.org (yes, the “.org” is part of the software’s name) is a full featured office productivity software suite. It includes the usual suspects – a word processor, a spreadsheet program, a presentation program and even a database tool. It's greatest strength as an alternative to the Microsoft suite is that it can create, open and save most files created in Office without losing the formatting. This means that you can have Openoffice.org on your home PC and still be able to use files that were created by office users or create documents at home and use them on Microsoft Office installations.

AVG Antivirus Free (Alternative to Norton/MacAfee/CA antivirus).

There are several free antivirus suites out there. Many of them are free offerings that are a reduced feature version of a paid for version. For example AVG Free is the free version of AVG antivirus suite. Avast also has free version. Many of these free versions have limited feature sets devoid of things like antispyware, firewalls, spam filters and other security tools. On the other hand, there are many standalone products that do these things by themselves and they are free.

Gimp (Alternative to Adobe Photoshop).

For those who do their own photo-editing, both professional and otherwise, Photoshop is the preferred choice. Of course, only the truly professional are willing to pay the hefty premium the software fetches. Adobe have some scaled down versions that are cheap, but for a completely free alternative, the Gimp is the most preferred choice.

DoPDF (Alternative to Adobe Acrobat).

We all use PDFs, the Adobe document format that is the preferred format for storing and sharing completed documents. Historically, to create them you had to have the full Acrobat software - which isn't free, separate from the reader which is free. Now very many tools can save as PDF including OpenOffice.org and Microsoft Office 2007. There are also standalone PDF "printer" software such as DoPDF that after installation you treat like a printer and print any document to and it creates a PDF. This is one of those examples where the non-free application gives you many more capabilities, but most of us don’t need those features.

These are just a few examples of free software all which will run on Windows and Linux (except the antivirus which is Windows only). I have deliberately left out internet-based options - software that only works in a web browser while you are connected to the internet.

Let’s do something. Post a non-free software that you use in the comments, and I’ll try to point you at a free alternative. You can also do this via my twitter account.There is a whole constellation of rich software for the very attractive price of zero that are more than adequate to your needs.



George Peterson said...

I tend to favour SSuite Office’s free office suites. Their software also don’t need to run on Java or .NET, like so many open source office suites, so it makes their software very small and efficient.


Dej said...

Nice. I'll check it out.

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