When I blogged about Microsoft and Netbooks, I made the statement that nobody uses OpenOffice.org because they already use Microsoft Office. While I still maintain that is true, it doesn't mean that you can't dispense with all those expensive software applications in favor of open source. That includes Microsoft Office.
In fact, it has become even easier to put together a sophisticated set of software for everyday use using only open source or freeware offerings. There is now a critical mass in productivity and multimedia applications that can be had for nothing. This is the good news.
The bad news is that the free stuff is rarely as elegant as the commercial versions. In almost all cases, the GUI leaves much to be desired and not just the eye candy part. Most free software seems to have been designed by and for computer geeks. There is a somewhat old school feel to much of it and, at times, can be downright confusing to use. If you compare software like Audacity, a sound recording and editing tool, to commercial software such as Pro Tools or even the software that comes bundled with a Mac, the interface falls woefully short. This means the learning curve is high, especially for non-professional users.
So, I now present to you my Cheapskates Roll Call of Productivity and Multimedia Apps for the Truly Frugal. The first thing you will probably note is that there is no video editing software on the list. I have never found a free video editing suite that is reliable (as in doesn't crash a lot) and so I stick with bundled commercial applications.
Office Applications: OpenOffice.org
Okay, they need to figure out the name problem. Because of trademark issues, the OpenOffice.org people have to tack on the .org to the name of the suite. That's stupid. Get a new name. No one will care.
Strengths: It's a complete office suite,with MS Office compatibility and native exporting to PDF. The Writer word processor application is a darn good word processor. The presentation and spreadsheet applications are also pretty good though not great.
Weaknesses: The Draw program is just plain lame, hard to use, and lacks features. The OpenOffice.org GUI is ugly and many icons don't look like anything. The database program seems more techie than Access and lacks application tools.
Email: Thunderbird from Mozilla
This is an example where the open source/freeware version far exceeds the commercial variety. Simply the best email client for most people with awesome anti-spam filters. Add the Lightning add-on for calendaring and you have everything you need.
Strengths: Manages multiple email accounts as one. Freely available add-ons give Thunderbird all kinds of features that are not found in other email clients without creating bloatware. The anti-spam and security features are unbeatable. It's fast and easy too. Lots of support for use with online services like Google Calender, Remember the Milk, and Trip It. Thunderbird integrates news feeds from RSS, ATOM, and Newsgroups into your email.
Weaknees: No native Exchange or Blackberry sync support. This kills it in the business environment. Yes you can have Thunderbird access the same LDAP compliant address books as a Blackberry and make Exchange available as a POP server but that's a kludge. Could also use IM support.
Browser: FireFox from Mozilla and Chrome from Google
This isn't fair of course since almost all browsers are free. Still, you don't have to live with Internet Explorer. As a side note, this is what I find so odd about the recent EU slapdown of Microsoft. They didn't seem to understand that you can install five other browsers with less effort than uploading photos to Flickr. I still don't get it. But I digress...
I could write for days about the strengths and weaknesses of these two browsers. Needless to say, they are better than IE and everyone knows it or doesn't care.
Image Editing: GIMP (Gnu Image Processor).
Despite another lousy name which makes it sound both broken and politically incorrect, GIMP is the best image editor this side of Adobe Photoshop. You can actually get an add-on that makes it look and act sort of like Photoshop.
Strengths: Up to your eyes in features and filters. You can pretty much do everything imaginable in GIMP. Lots of add-ons give you all kinds of additional image manipulation features.
Weaknesses: A lot of time add-ons simply don't work and they are always tough to install. The standard GUI is also quite hideous which is ironic given what the software does. It can be hard to do more complex manipulations that commercial software has wizards for.
Sound Editing and Recording: Audacity.
Gotta love the name which is clearly a play on words. Audacity is a sound recording and editing program with a host of features including the ability to use industry standard VST plugins. This makes Audacity a great tool for the amateur and a platform for the pro.
Strengths: Gobs of features. Does all the basics such as analog and digital recording plus lots of signal processing to clean up what you record. My favorite feature is the ability to mark places in an analog signal and export them as separate MP3 files. If you are ripping an old analog record, this is a very necessary function.
Weaknesses: No mixer. You can mix but it is not as simple of moving a bunch of virtual sliders. The interface is busy and complicated. Compared to commercial offerings like Pro-Tools, Audacity can be confusing. A lot of the plugins you find on the Internet don't work well or at all. You need to have a good grounding in signal analysis or sound engineering to do most anything.
Instant Messaging: Digsby
I've tried a lot of IM clients including Trillian and Pidgin. None compare to Digsby. What makes Digsby special is that it can handle a wide range of Internet-based messaging. Not only does it connect to every major IM system, it can also connect to Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, POP email, and Online Email like Yahoo. Email support mostly allows you to preview messages and launch the real site or client, but that is more than most of the others do.
Strengths: Extensive support for all the major (and quite a number of the minor) IM networks plus social networks and email. Malleable and attractive interface with support for skins. Good Twitter support.
Weaknesses: Email support is not complete so it cannot be used as an all-in-one messaging platform. Digsby also lacks user created plugins which limit functionality compared to more open offerings such as Pidgin. It is also the only program mentioned here that is Windows-only. The website says that “ digsby is coming soon for Mac and Linux!” but that is not the same as now or even “November”.
I'm sure there are a bunch more if I took the time to think about it. What is most encouraging is that the ability exists to put together a complete set of desktop applications for nothing. You just have to compromise a bit, especially in terms of support for corporate systems and GUI. That is might be enough for some folks to pass. Too bad. They are missing out on a great opportunity in these frugal times.