Five Cheap (or Free) Software Programs You Can Afford During a Financial Crisis

Open-source software can save you a bundle; these are five prime examples that are every bit as good, if not better, than their proprietary equivalents.

It's the afternoon of September 30th and for reasons beyond my understanding the NYSE (New York Stock Exchange) is up more than 3.5 percent after yesterday's financial fiasco. Hello, Wall Street, what part of "No one has a new bailout deal; the House hated the old deal, and it's the week of Rosh Hashanah so it won't be a full week at Congress anyway" do you not understand? Even if you believe the bailout will magically work wonders for the economy—I don't—it's not going to happen this week.

No matter what happens to the bailout, it's a safe bet that times are going to be hard. So what can you do if you're not in Congress and you want to get new programs, but not pay an arm and a leg? After all, it's not like you can print money. Unlike, say, the U.S. government. The choice is clear: switch to open-source software.

Like what you ask? Like these five prime examples of open-source software that's every bit as good, if not better, than their proprietary equivalents.

1) Microsoft Office: OpenOffice. Here's your choice: You can pay about a $110 street price for Microsoft Office Home and Student 2007, which includes the basics office trilogy of Excel, PowerPoint, and Word, plus OneNote, Microsoft's take on a digital notebook, or you can pay nothing, Nada, for OpenOffice.

If there's anything you can't do in OpenOffice, which is soon upgrading to version 3.0, that you can do in Microsoft Office, I don't know what it is. There's also, as far as I can tell, almost no learning curve in moving from Microsoft Office to OpenOffice. I flip back and forth between the two office suites and I honestly can barely tell the difference between them whether I'm writing, working out my budget on a spreadsheet or—shudder—working on a presentation.

2) Outlook: Thunderbird. If you want to do real e-mail on Windows with Microsoft products, you're pretty much stuck with Outlook. I hate Outlook. A long time ago I called Outlook a security hole that masquerades as an e-mail client. I haven't seen any reason to change my opinion. It's amazing to me, even now, to contemplate just how many ways Outlook allows trouble to come visiting your computer. Thunderbird, on the other hand, has nothing like Outlook's problems.

I'm not crazy about Thunderbird It's a good, solid program, but I feel it's been neglected by Mozilla since it was spun off as a project on to itself so Mozilla could focus its attention on Firefox. That said, I'll take it over Outlook any day of the week.

Besides you can either buy Outlook 2007, as a stand alone program for about $90, or as part of Microsoft Office Standard 2007 for $315, or you can download Thunderbird. The price of the Thunderbird download: Zero. Zip.

3) Quicken: GnuCash. Chances are you've heard of the other programs I've mentioned, but GnuCash 2.2.7 may be new to you. It shouldn't be. It's an outstanding money management program. And, if there's anything we need right now, it's some good money management.

GnuCash has all the important features of Quicken and some of those of QuickBooks, Intuit's small business accounting program. Beside the basics of managing cash flow and checking accounts, it can also handle invoicing, accounts receivable and accounts payable. The program also works with OFX DirectConnect and HBCI (Home Banking Computer Interface) so you can use it online with the same banks, credit card companies, and so on that you use Quicken with today. Finally, it lets you import data from Quicken and Microsoft Money, so you won't need to rebuild your financial data.

Have I mentioned the price yet? That's right: zilch. Quicken Starter Edition 2009? It will cost you about $30.

4) SharePoint: Alfresco. Microsoft SharePoint Server, to give it its due, does a fine job of organizing users' information so that you can easily get to it from a Web-based interface. There are just two things. One, it's proprietary, and, two; there's nothing SharePoint can do that Alfresco can't do. I mean that quite literally. When Microsoft was forced by the European Union to cough up its proprietary network protocols, it had to open up the SharePoint Protocol. So Alfresco starting adding support for the SharePoint Protocol so soon any application that can use SharePoint can also use Alfresco.

And, of course, you can always get directly to your information from any Web browser. I do hope though that you'll use Firefox or Chrome.

If you thought the cost savings with GnuCash over Quicken was small change, here's something that will get your CFO's attention. SharePoint requires you not only to buy the server, but also SQL Server and Windows Server 2003 or 2008, CALs (Client Access Licenses), and a hodgepodge of other odds and ends of Microsoft server software. My back-of-envelope calculations give me a cost, for five ordinary user CALs, getting everything on the cheap, and no list prices here, for about five grand. Alfresco? Do it yourself and it won't cost you a dime.

5) Windows: Linux. I know some of you think that you're not paying Microsoft because "the operating system comes free on my computer!" No, it doesn't. But, I'm not going to get into that discussion now.

What I will point out though is that no one in their right mind runs Windows without security software. That means people buy, at a minimum, an anti-virus program. If you go for the whole she-bang of anti-virus, firewall, anti-spam, etc. etc., Norton Internet Security 2009 will sock your wallet for $50. Linux doesn't need a lot of that junk and what it does need, like a firewall, comes bundled in it.

Any questions? Besides asking me, you can also visit the Open Source as Alternative, where you'll find just about every "I want an open-source equivalent to 'blank' question answered.

This story, "Five Cheap (or Free) Software Programs You Can Afford During a Financial Crisis" was originally published by Computerworld.

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