DESPITE the increasing affordability of computers, the software that actually runs those devices can still be fairly expensive. Fairly common programs such as Microsoft Office can run to hundreds of dollars, and higher-end products like Adobe Photoshop can easily cost more than $500.
There are certainly times when the old adage you get what you pay for is true, but when it comes to what's available online, in many cases, that isn't necessarily the case. There are hundreds of programs available that are released as open source software. What this means is that the source code of the program can be edited by anyone, but what it usually amounts to for the casual user is that you can download it and use it completely for free, and it's perfectly legal.
These open source programs in many cases duplicate the functionality of popular, yet expensive software.
Two great examples would be OpenOffice and LibreOffice – these are two freely available programs that duplicate, nearly in full, the capabilities of Microsoft Office. Included is a fully featured word processor, spreadsheet program, presentation builder, and database builder. These programs can all save documents into standard Microsoft Office formats and are just as easy to use. There's also a free cloud alternative to Office, called Google Docs. LibreOffice can be downloaded from LibreOffice.org, and OpenOffice can be downloaded from OpenOffice.org. Both are free of charge.
Another example would be a program called GIMP – a powerful image-editing program that includes many of the capabilities of Adobe Photoshop – it can even open Photoshop files for editing, and supports layers and saving into multiple formats. GIMP is available from www.gimp.org. Similarly, a vector graphics program called Inkscape is an analog to Adobe Illustrator – and can open Illustrator files as well. It's available from www.inkscape.org. There's also a program called Scribus that's very similar to Adobe InDesign and Microsoft Publisher, and is available from www.scribus.net. Again, these are all freely available.
All of these programs are available for Microsoft Windows – but if you don't want to spend the money on the latest version of Windows – you guessed it, there are also several open-source alternatives. The downside of these is that most existing Windows software won't run on Linux easily, but the upside is that almost all of the software for these operating systems is free of charge, and they're every bit as capable as a Windows or Mac machine, provided you have the appropriate programs.
In the old days, using Linux could be hit or miss, but most new versions of Linux have very good driver support, and on older computers can usually run modern programs and browsers faster than a Windows installation.
By far the most popular would be Ubuntu, which is a free-to-download version of Linux. It's one of the most approachable free operating systems out there, in part because of its software center, which simplifies finding and downloading programs and games. It's also one of the most widely supported versions, and is available from ubuntu.com
Nick DeLorenzo is director of interactive and new media for The Times Leader. Email him at email@example.com.