Thirty-eight years ago, I came home from my first day of school with a list of supplies I needed for class. One item was called a Duo-Tang.
At the time, neither I nor mom had any idea what a Duo-Tang was or where to buy one. Undaunted, she took me shopping.
At one store, a helpful clerk showed us clear plastic report covers with a colored slip on binder, a Duo-Tang. Adding pencils, paper, Elmer's glue, eraser, round-tip scissors, and a ruler to the mix, I was ready for another year of learning. The supplies cost less than five dollars.
Four decades later, school supplies may include inkjet cartridges, printing paper, personal computer, office and reference software, plus Internet access. This back-to-school cost can easily top $1000 or more for a single PC workstation.
Some parents I have help opted for the "no conflict" approach and installed a study workstation for each child. For one family, this meant four PCs and a complete home network.
This expense, back when I was shopping with mom for Duo-Tangs, could have bought us a new family car. What can a parent do besides smile at the cashier and hand over their Visa card?
One option is open-source software. Open-source software is something like a volunteer community project. The goal is a product that serves a public need.
In other words, software created by the people, for the people, and available to everyone at no cost, and with no strings attached.
Over the years, open-source software has lagged behind commercial products in function and appearance. Thanks to the Open Office Project found at www.openoffice.org this is no longer true.
Open Office is a suite of office applications comparable to Microsoft's MS Office 2003. It includes a word processor, Writer, a spreadsheet, Calc, a database call Base, a presentation program, Impress, and a Draw design program.
MS Office 2003 and Open Office look alike. I recognized the toolbar icons in Open Office at first glance, and all my favorite drop-down menus were where I expected them. I was able to switch between them with no lost time.
Microsoft Office 2007 is flashy with pretty icons, colors, and animated buttons. I was happy to just look and admire the new Office, which was a good thing, since I was so lost with the new layout — I had no hope for production.
Microsoft's newest Office suite sells for $400-$500 for the full version. Student versions are closer to $130 but have fewer functions.
Open Office is free, period, end-of-story. It's a full-featured office suite and is fully compatible with MS office 2003/07, including PowerPoint presentations. If spending an additional $130-$500 is not your idea of a back-to-school sale, then click on over to www.openoffice.org and try out Open Office.
(Editor's Note: This article first appeared in August, 2007. Since then, Open Office has been renamed Libre Office and is now available at www.libreoffice.org All in-context links have been updated accordingly.)
Have you ever noticed that everything on the Internet is free? It must be true — I see it all the time.
There's free downloads, screen-savers, wallpaper, layouts, smiles, avatars, and games. There's so much free stuff I decided to Google free just to add it all up.
According to Google, my search for Free yielded 2 billion 50 million hits in only .04 seconds. Yikes! I can have free stuff until the end of time.
Let's see, there's free money and free cell phones. There's free books and free address labels. There's free MP3s and free kids...free kids? Yup, that's what it says.
Everywhere you look, there's something for nothing and it's all free until you find out what free costs you.
A little while back, I answered a call from a very frantic parent of three high school-aged children. I didn't really understand what their PC problem was, but it was very clear I needed to get there yesterday.
When I arrived, I found the family PC completely unplugged from the wall. Before I could plug it in to find the problem, the kids were ushered out of the room. I started up the PC feeling a little awkward under Dad's menacing glare.
It didn't take long to find the problem. Before Windows could finish starting up, full-screen windows of adult content began opening one after another.
Squinting and turning away as if an evil laser beam were about to melt my eyes, I reached down and killed the power.
Back at my workshop, I tracked the infection to a free 3D screensaver. The kids answered an ad on the back of a candy bar and gave away their e-mail address in exchange of the freebie.
Over the course of about three months, their e-mail address landed on several different advertising Web servers until it was picked up by the server responsible for the infection. It's not unlike subscribing to a publication and then finding magazine ads in your mailbox.
These kids didn't knowingly do anything wrong and neither did their parents. If one must assign blame, then blame human behavior and the word Free.
Advertisers use the word Free because it works. The technique reminds me of the Kevin Costner film where he builds a baseball field in the middle of nowhere, only on the Internet the field is a word. If you say it's free, they'll come.
Installing PC security software will block most of the Internet's bad content, but software alone cannot fix a careless user. It's important to understand that Internet freebies come at a price and one needs to know that price before clicking Download.
The price may be pop-up windows or maybe new spam in your inbox. The price may be a toolbar that delivers ads to your browser or a program that run in the background without your knowledge. In extreme cases, the price may be sites with evil laser beams that melt your eyes.
Anyway you count it — Free is a four-letter word.