Pay for software? Never again - MoneySense

Pay for software? Never again

Now you can get all the high-quality software you need for free.


One day, kids will stare at you in amazement when youtell them that you used to pay for software. They’ll gawk because all the software you need for your home computer is already available free and more free software is popping up each day. And no, I’m not talking about pirated software, software with ads or limited use software. I’m talking about robust software that’s as dependable as the stuff selling in the stores for hundreds of dollars. Only it doesn’t cost you a penny.

The free software revolution started with web browsers. More than 100 million people have gone to the trouble of downloading a free third-party browser called Firefox. Why? Because they find it’s
faster and more secure than the software that the big developers have produced, even with their multimillion- dollar budgets. Similarly, there is a third-party email program that many like better than Microsoft’s Outlook Express. It’s called Thunderbird. It comes from the same people behind Firefox, and yes, it’s free, too.

I became convinced that free software was the way to go when I grew tired of the bloated Norton anti-virus program I bought a couple of years ago. After installing it, I found that my five-year-old PC took twice as long to start up and operated sluggishly. I headed online and found two free replacements, AVG and Avast!. I chose Avast! and my aging PC was suddenly peppy and responsive again. I got rid of Norton even though I had paid for a two-year license.

Perhaps the most exciting new development in free software is a replacement for Microsoft Office called OpenOffice. During its early years, Open Office was primitive and clunky, but a new version released in late 2005 looks and acts very similar to  Microsoft Office. OpenOffice is constantly being worked on by volunteers and it has continued to improve. Now some people think it has surpassed the Microsoft product. “I find that it’s more intuitive,” says Anil Pasricha, a computer sciences student at York University in Toronto who has been using OpenOffice for four years. “If you had never used Microsoft Office before and you came to both programs fresh, you would think that OpenOffice is the better product.”

There have now been almost 100 million downloads of OpenOffice. The main reason the office suite is jumping in popularity is that it can now open most pre-2007 Microsoft Office files, including Word, Excel and PowerPoint files. It can also save files in Microsoft formats, so you can send them to people who don’t have OpenOffice.

I tested the file compatibility on my Windows XP computer by trying to open a huge Word file that was loaded with embedded photos and lots of formatting. It opened effortlessly in OpenOffice’s “Writer” program and looked identical to how it looked in Word. Similarly, OpenOffice could open all of my PowerPoint presentations in its “Impress” program, and all of my Excel files in its “Calc” program.

Advanced users say that OpenOffice does has difficulty with some complex Microsoft files. It can’t import macros properly, and it stumbles on complex Excel graphs and some sophisticated PowerPoint presentations. The current version can’t open Office 2007 .docx files, but the next version will be able to. These shortfalls could be a real problem if you want to use OpenOffice for business or if you are a power-user who regularly uses several advanced features. However, Pasricha says light to moderate users won’t experience any trouble.

Adapting to OpenOffice is straightforward. I found that it looks so similar to the pre-2007 versions of Microsoft Office that I often couldn’t immediately tell which one I was using as I switched back and forth. The menu headings are much the same, as are the button placements on the toolbars. There is also a Mac version of OpenOffice called NeoOffice. It’s a bit slower, but it has the familiar Mac interface.

Anil Pasricha, for one, is sold. “I don’t see any reason I should switch to expensive software such as Microsoft Office,” he says. After all, OpenOffice is free. If you don’t like it, you just end up buying the software you were going to buy anyway.

The best free software on the web

  • OpenOffice
    A complete suite of office software similar to Microsoft Office. It includes equivalents for Word, Excel
    and PowerPoint as well as database, math and draw programs. It can open and save in all common Microsoft Office file formats.
  • NeoOffice
    Same as OpenOffice, but for Mac users.
  • Firefox
    A popular free web browser.
  • Thunderbird
    An email client program like Outlook Express.
  • Avast! and AVG
    Two of the most popular free anti-virus programs for PCs.