Somewhere in the annual spending of almost every household and small business today is an item that might not have been there just 10 years ago: software purchases. Along with Google and Wikipedia, buying software has become as inevitable as death and taxes.
For the most part, that's fine. Programming is the sort of eye-glazing, rear-numbing work many of us prefer to avoid, and the people who do it well deserve to be well-compensated. But there are times when buying new software seems a bit much:
Fortunately, there are alternatives out there, and they're free. That's right -- free. What's known as open source software is part of the "gift economy," an alternative to markets or barter where people just put what they make out there, free for the taking. Why programmers would do this may seem a mystery; one study at the University of North Texas found that these programmers like the prestige they earn but also are interested in "learning for the joy of learning and collaborating with interesting and smart people." Imagine a world where people did their work for reasons like that!
The gift economy and open source movement extend way beyond the world of software (OpenCola, anyone?). But the place to start is with your computer. Here are three of my favorites:
I wrote this blog post in OpenOffice, just as I create and edit all my spreadsheets, presentations and similar work in this free suite of programs. I know most of the people I work with use Microsoft's Office suite, but that's fine -- my OpenOffice can read and write Microsoft's formats. OpenOffice has this multilingual capability, and it includes all the bells and whistles that I and most other users will never really need. It's free for download at OpenOffice.org. The same goes for its colleague, LibreOffice, a similar suite of programs produced by The Document Foundation.
Pretty much everyone needs some kind of image-processing program these days. As a professional photographer, I've used Photoshop since the first day I could get an image into a computer. But on the family computer, my kids have downloaded GIMP, and I use it when I'm on that computer. I have yet to discover anything I needed to do that I couldn't do in GIMP. I wonder if the next generation is going to consider this open source program its standard.
Many people need a website, and maybe more than one. For nonprogrammers, the easiest way to create this is to buy a domain name and hosting service, then install WordPress (many website providers will even do it for you). From there, starting to customize your new website takes minimal skill. By one estimate, more than one out of five new sites uses this free software, often jazzing it up with the many templates that are free or inexpensively priced on the web.
These are three of my own favorites. I use a number of others, often professionally. The key, though, is to know this choice is available. Whatever you want to do on your computer, before you buy new software, try a search for open source alternatives. You'll be supporting a whole community of programmers who've been writing code just for the interest of it. And you can't beat the price.
Read more: How the Recession Made Frugality Cool