Finding software freedom

Freeware: No-cost programs can handle a load of jobs - but you have to find the software.

February 20, 2003|By Steve Auerweck | Steve Auerweck,SUN STAFF

OK, I admit it: I'm cheap.

I clip coupons, wait for rebates, keep cars on the road until they collapse in a cloud of steam. Maybe I get it from parents who grew up in the Depression.

When it comes to computers, I'll pry open my wallet for critical professional tools and occasional slick playthings. But for the other stuff - Web browsers, file managers, graphics viewers, sundry accessories, tools and doodads - I've become addicted to freeware, the free programs that can be found for download across the Internet.

To some, freeware suggests "junkware." When frugality is a virtue and piracy a vice, however, you can hunt down amazingly powerful, well-designed Windows programs that fit the bill quite nicely, especially those items you might use only once or twice a month. In the process, you might save as much cash as you spent on hardware.

"Hunt" is a key term. Those who give their software away don't have big budgets for promotion. You have to go to them. Part of the fun is digging up just the right tool.

The first place to look is the Pricelessware Web site (www.priceless ware.org). There you'll find solid entries in about 140 categories. The list isn't exhaustive, but each program has passed the scrutiny of the demanding and quite vocal participants in the alt.comp.freeware newsgroup.

The group - you can view it on Google by going to the groups portion of the search engine - is a treasure trove of information, but be aware of the ground rules. These people are serious about their freeware. Shareware (which requires a payment if you like it) is off limits, as are demo programs that expire, or software that pops up ads or reports back on the user's habits ("spyware"). And woe betide the poor soul who asks for illegal versions of commercial software.

To get tips on a particular type of program, you can use Google's advanced search under "groups" to look for keywords in the newsgroup. If you come up dry, you might post a polite request for the members.

For a stunning quantity and variety of freeware, albeit of more erratic quality, go to www.all4you.dk. The site boasts more than 8,500 programs, in languages ranging from Arabic to Vietnamese (OK, only one program in each of those languages). Or find multiple indexes at http://home.wanadoo. nl/hmdejong/bestsites.html.

If you'd rather buy a Volvo than drive a free Honda Civic, then maybe freeware isn't for you. There's a reason why Microsoft, Adobe and the like are still in business. Some of the best freeware I've seen can compete with top commercial counterparts, but even the second tier tends to be less polished, maybe slower, or kind of geeky to use, or even a little buggier. Be prepared to install, launch and delete if it's not what you need. But hey, it's free, and that counts for a lot.

So where does all this stuff come from? The sources are as varied as the software:

"Light" introductory versions that familiarize you with commercial products in the same family. If such software blocks crucial functions such as saving files it's sneered at as "crippleware," but if it's only missing high-end options, it may provide everything you need.

Labors of love. They may have started out as a college project, or with a hobbyist writing something he couldn't find at the computer store, and then they grew and grew. Acclaim from users keeps the programmers coding away.

Power to the people. For some programmers, the idea of sharing software freely is a political statement. At the Gnu Project (www.gnu. org), most of that software is specific to the Linux operating system, but some can run under Microsoft Windows. To quote from the site: " `Free software' is a matter of liberty, not price. To understand the concept, you should think of `free' as in `free speech,' not as in `free beer.' " A similar site, with collaborative programming projects, is www.source forge.net.

"Abandon-ware." Programs whose owners made them freely available after they were pulled from the commercial market. The flip side is "beta-test" versions of software that will carry a price when it matures.

Etc. You can also find tools and accessories distributed for free by major software houses, or narrowly targeted applications from government and academia, and other goodies from a host of unclassifiable sources.

With all of these treats to choose from, singling out a small list is bound to be an idiosyncratic exercise, possibly one that could lead to fisticuffs in an Internet cafe. That said, here are selections that could form the foundation for an all-freeware machine (beyond a Microsoft Windows starting point):

OpenOffice. This collaborative, "Open Source" project goes head-to-head with Microsoft Office, including a word processor, spreadsheet, drawing program and presentation graphics tool. It has surprising depth, is pretty easy to use once you unlearn some Microsoft habits, and can work with the basic level of Microsoft document formats. It's also coming out in Mac and Linux formats.

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