Free Yourself from Commercial Software

You can save hundreds of dollars by using free software that works as well as the commercial software you're using now. If you're a typical user, you may never have to pay for software again.

Free software is available for creating documents, spreadsheets, presentations, and databases. There are free applications for photo editing, graphic design, Web page creation, and desktop publishing. There is even a free operating system that can replace Windows.

In just a few hours, I was able to convert my laptop computer to run on free software, performing all the tasks my desktop computer performs with commercial software.

This free software was created and is maintained by a global community of computer professionals and enthusiasts whose work is supported by a mix of volunteer labor, user donations, and corporate sponsorship. The result is known as free and open source software (FOSS) because it is distributed at no cost and, unlike most commercial software, it can be freely modified and redistributed by anyone who cares to do so.

You don't have to be a computer expert to use FOSS. It is designed to be as user-friendly as commercial software. The emphasis is on functionality, so the screen display is simpler and, in many cases, easier to navigate.

With FOSS, you not only save money up front, but also in the long run. While commercial software requires paying for periodic upgrades to enjoy the benefits of the latest improvements, FOSS upgrades are freely distributed as soon as they become available.

If you use one of the most popular versions of the free operating system, you can update/upgrade every application on your computer at the same time, with just two or three mouse clicks.

Because FOSS is free, you have nothing to lose by giving it a try. Once you do, you may never go back to commercial software.

Mozilla and Firefox (Iceweasel)

Replace your commercial software with open source

Installing all these applications on your computer doesn't mean abandoning your existing documents. While most FOSS applications use more efficient data file formats developed by the open source community, such as the OpenDocument files for office suites, most can also open files created with commercial software and save to commercial file formats. And many commercial applications work with FOSS file formats. As an FOSS user, you'll still be able to exchange documents with commercial software users.

You may be wondering why people are giving away something they could sell. In the case of some of the aforementioned Web browsers, PDF viewers and media players, it's in hopes that you'll buy other applications or services from them. In other cases, though, it's just a continuation of something that began years ago.

Back when computers were much simpler, so was software. It was freely shared and modified by the small number of people who used it, mostly scientists and researchers. As computers became more widely used and more sophisticated, so did software. At some point, it was sufficiently sophisticated – and marketable – to copyright and sell. Commercial software was born and we learned to pay for it.

There are still people who believe software should be free and should be freely shared. In organizations large and small, as paid staff and volunteers, they produce and maintain all the FOSS the average user needs to run a computer, including the operating system.

Entering the realm of FOSS may sound great until you think about all the stuff that's on your computer now. Why should you chuck it all and start over? You don't have to. Most of the best FOSS applications have been written for Windows, as well as for other operating systems. You can make the transition one step at a time and stop at whatever level is comfortable for you.

Step 1: FOSS for Windows

To prove to yourself that FOSS really works, start with the basics. Download LibreOffice to your Windows computer. It's a free office suite that replaces Microsoft Office. Open one of your MS Office word processing, spreadsheet, or presentation documents to demonstrate the interchangeability between the two suites. This does not apply to the database applications; they requires an export/import procedure to exchange data.

If you work with graphics, you can download GIMP, a raster graphics alternative to Photoshop, Inkscape, a vector graphics alternative to Illustrator, and Scribus, a desktop publishing alternative to InDesign. Their user interfaces aren't as pretty as those of their Adobe counterparts, but they get the job done.

Even if you already have all the commercial software you need, consider the future cost of upgrades. FOSS upgrades are free and, since there is no profit motive, they are made available as they are produced. Commercial software upgrades are stockpiled until it's profitable to sell a new upgrade version.

Step 2: Linux on a DVD

If you're ready to move on, try Linux, a free, open source operating system that can replace Windows. Plain Linux is a command-line system, meaning commands are typed onto a blank screen. To make Linux usable by a wider audience, graphical user interface (GUI) versions – called Linux distributions – have been created to provide a desktop with menus and icons. Most use one of two popular Linux desktop formats; a few are designed to look as much like Windows as possible.

You can try a Linux distribution on your computer without disturbing your Windows installation. This is usually done by downloading a bootable version onto a DVD. Restart, choosing the option to boot from the DVD, and your computer runs Linux. Most distributions include a Web browser, e-mail, and assorted utilities and applications. When you exit Linux, just remove the DVD and restart to return in Windows. Be aware that running Linux from a DVD is slow, and all work is lost on exit.

The bootable-DVD method is a good way to sample various Linux distributions. The popular Web site has information and links for most distributions. The site's “Page Hit Ranking” column will help you select from the most mainstream distributions.

Step 3: Linux as a Windows program

For a more realistic Linux experience on a Windows computer, a separate Linux partition can be set up on the hard drive. This allows full-speed operation and saving of work. Since the original process for setting up dual partitions is beyond the experience level of most Windows users, the creators of one Linux distribution created a Windows installer. Ubuntu can be installed and uninstalled as easily as any Windows-based program.

When Ubuntu is installed, it is added to the Windows boot manager. On startup, instead of the familiar Windows screen, the boot manager screen opens, allowing you to choose between Windows and Ubuntu. Once you choose the latter, you enter into a fully functional Linux environment. All changes made are saved, including reconfiguring the operating system, creating files, and downloading applications, another task made simple by Ubuntu.

Originally, installing applications to a Linux distribution could only be done from the command line. Later, a graphical interface was developed for the procedure, but it requires fundamental Linux knowledge. Ubuntu was the first distribution with point-and-click application installation, through its Software Center. It's a completely graphical feature that accesses hundreds of applications that can be installed by users with no Linux experience.

Step 4: Replacing Windows with Linux

If your Linux experiment has convinced you to make the switch to a completely FOSS system, you'll have to spend some time making sure your data files are cross-compatible. A few file types may have to be saved to a file format used by both Windows- and Linux-based applications. Microsoft Access files will have to be converted through export/import. Copy all this data to an external hard drive and you're ready to go. In case you may want to pass your computer on to someone less forward-thinking one day, consider making a set of Windows recovery disks before you begin the transition.

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The case for Ubuntu

By some accounts, there are about 300 active Linux distributions, and about as many that have come and gone. Most of them are variations of an original few. Many are specifically targeted to a particular task or a particular user group. That still leave quite a few choices for general use. If you're a Windows user who wants to make the switch to Linux as painless as possible, your best choice is Ubuntu, because it's easy and because it has a stable future.

South African entrepreneur Mark Shuttleworth, whose interest in Linux began with the Debian (Linux) Project set out to create an easier-to-use distribution that would be updated on a regularly scheduled basis, making it appealing to corporate users. He moved to London and set up Canonical Ltd., now headquartered on the Isle of Man, to sell the corporate support that would fund development of Ubuntu. Then he endowed a foundation to keep Ubuntu going if Canonical's support is interrupted.

Several distributions based on Ubuntu include the Software Center, and one, Linux Mint, includes a Windows installer. Another, Zorin, may be the closest approximation to Windows, both in appearance and in function, if that is your goal. Ubuntu looks very little like Windows, but is, as originally planned, easier to use. To achieve this, the Unity desktop was developed. Its beginnings were a bit troubled, but it is now working well and is a pleasure to use.

Another advantage of Ubuntu is that it's easy to get started. Just select Firefox from the Unity menu bar and it opens to the Ubuntu Firefox home page, where you'll find a link to excellent documentation for the first-time user.

If you want a Linux distribution that's easy to start with and easy to stay with, Ubuntu is the logical choice.

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What is Linux?

The hundreds of Linux distributions all have on thing in common: behind the graphical user interface is the Linux core, which is modeled after UNIX, an operating system created to run mainframe computers.

UNIX was create in 1969 at Bell Labs and is still in use around the world. It is a command-line system, meaning commands are typed on an empty black screen in plain white letters and the results are displayed in the same fashion. Users have to memorize the commands or have a list of commands handy for reference.

Linux was created in 1991 to run personal computers using UNIX commands and file structure. It is open source, meaning it can be freely distributed and modified. In its core version, it looks just like UNIX: plain white letters on a black screen.

If you're old enough to remember DOS, you understand the command line. If you've only used Windows, you can experience it by using the Windows command prompt.

Expand the command prompt window to fill the screen

If you type “help” at the command prompt, a whole list of DOS commands scrolls by, ending with another command prompt at the bottom of the window. UNIX and the Linux core look about the same.

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Eldy desktop for the elderly

If you want to give an elderly relative or friend with no computer experience access to the Internet, a free, open source software program called Eldy can make it easy. The program’s creators use the tag line “Enjoy the simplicity,” and it is enjoyably simple to use.

You won't find an office suite or graphics programs in Eldy. It was specifically designed to make information and communications technology (ICT) available to elderly computer novices. It includes an e-mail client, a Web browser, a chat program, and a selection of TV sites.

Eldy features big buttons and large fonts. Navigation is simple and direct. Every screen has a back button, so even the most inexperienced user won’t get stuck at a dead end.

Eldy was created in Italy. It is part of a European movement to make ICT freely available to everyone, in a cooperative effort that includes nonprofit and government agencies, with support from major universities. Eldy is available in 22 languages.

The cornerstone of Eldy is its e-mail function. It's not Web mail; it's an easy-to-use e-mail client with an address book. During installation, the user can establish a free Eldy e-mail account. Each step of reading or writing e-mail takes place on a separate screen with only two or three choices made with big buttons.

In the Useful Tools section of Eldy is a button for accessing a documents folder, primarily intended as a place to store pictures exchanged as e-mail attachments. Other tools are a notepad program and a simplified Skype interface.

The Help page includes access to online tutorials and exercises, including practice in using a mouse.

The Eldy download page has versions for Windows, for the Mac OS, and for Linux. The Linux version has not been adopted by Ubuntu, so the best choice for setting up Eldy quickly and easily on a budget is a basic Windows PC. It's not a completely open source solution, but it's as close as one can get with a completely graphical user interface.

For an elderly person, especially one whose ability to get out in the world is declining, Eldy can bring a bit of the world to the desktop.

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