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There's tons of free and open-source software out there. Is any of it it any good?

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In recent years, free open-source software has become more and more prevalent. I'm not talking about shareware, which is has been around for decades - I mean major applications, utilities and even operating systems that are simply free for the downloading.

As one example, this week I'm writing the notes for this podcast using the free OpenOffice word processing program, a very respectable competitor to Microsoft Word for many users, and I'm recording my podcast using Audacity, a free audio recording and editing program.

It got me to thinking ... is it possible to run totally free?

My answer is a qualified yes. It depends on your needs, and more importantly, your own abilities.

There are two major stumbling blocks:

First - support for most free software - from the various operating system distributions to applications and utilities - is typically collaborative. By that I mean your best source of support will come from other users of that software in forums, mailing lists and newsgroups. The good news is that there's often a lot of support. The bad news is that quality varies widely - and ironically, the more you already know, the better your chances of finding good help.

Second - not everything you need might be available, or comparable to commercial equivalents. For example I have yet to find a good money management program to compete with Quicken or Microsoft Money, or a personal information manager to rival Microsoft Outlook.

There are other, smaller issues that range from inconsistent user interfaces, to behavioral quirks to occasional incompatibilities with other programs. Most commercial applications typically adhere to user interface standards, and are run through a bevy of formalized tests. But if you're willing to deal with some of those kinds of issues, the price is certainly right.

Free and open source software isn't quite ready for the "I just want it to work" crowd. You'll still need to be prepared to learn more about the software itself than you might for a commercially available application. However there's a wealth of software out there, and it's getting better every day.

I've placed links to some related articles in the show notes for this podcast. Visit, and enter 9425 in the go to article number box. Let me know what you think, I'd love to hear from you.

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Article C2460 - November 16, 2005 « »

Leo Leo A. Notenboom has been playing with computers since he was required to take a programming class in 1976. An 18 year career as a programmer at Microsoft soon followed. After "retiring" in 2001, Leo started Ask Leo! in 2003 as a place for answers to common computer and technical questions. More about Leo.

Not what you needed?

November 16, 2005 4:01 PM

For those especially interested in Free Mac Software be sure to drop by my site

November 17, 2005 11:42 AM

Could someone summarize the podcast for those of us who dislike that medium?

Leo A. Notenboom
November 17, 2005 12:24 PM

Actually it dawned on me there's no reason not to post my notes, so I've added the transcript above.

chris monks
November 20, 2005 4:16 PM

Thanks for posting your notes. There is soething about podcasts that i just dont feel comfortable with yet.

November 21, 2005 12:45 PM

I dont think commercial softwaree is thorougly tested. As a matter of fact I think the commercial software has the same issues when it comes to:
- Quality variation
- Bad user interface
- Incompatibilities
- Lack of support

I have experience on all 4 categories with commercial software in the past. So saying that free software faces this issues is really a missconception between a technology issue versus a free software issue.

November 29, 2005 7:22 PM

For years I have used a PIM called Time & Chaos. It is far superior IMHO to the calendar function in Outlook. The latest version (6) is not free, but the previous version is a free download and is not crippled in any way.

I use Thunderbird as an email client - good junk mail controls.

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