Software for nothing and your clicks for free

One of the expenses of setting up and running an office is software. With a certain popular word processor/office program coming in at a couple of hundred pounds per user, the costs for even a small legal office can soon build up. You pay for it when you get it, then every couple of year you need to pay for another “upgrade”.  Of course no lawyer is going to buy one copy and “pirate” in on all their users computers are they – that would be breach of copyright! While everyone is going to need a word processor, that doesn’t go for all programs, so perhaps you can trim costs by making sure that some packages are only installed for a couple of users, who do all of that type of work for the whole office.

Or perhaps you can get your programs at a price of zero: welcome to the world of Free and Open Source software.

Now lawyers will be among the first to say “there’s no such thing as a free lunch”, but the price for something needn’t be in money. There are two types of computer program you can legally get and use without paying for them. Often they are described as “free as in beer” (meaning you don’t have to pay for it) and “free as in speech” (meaning you can modify and pass it on). For the sake of this post I’ll call the first type “Freeware” and the second “Open Source”. As an end user the difference between the two may be academic; the legal distinctions are fascinating but lets leave that for another time.

The only real concern you may have is that Freeware, like all proprietary programs, keeps the code private; if the supplier stops supporting it or goes out of business that’s the end of that program. If it uses a proprietary file format, you may be stuck using a piece of software that is getting older and older simply to access files you cannot otherwise use. With Open Source, other programmers can take up where the original supplier left off developing the program, and if need be they can examine how the data files are constructed and develop something to transfer the date into a more modern product.

There are a number of reasons why people make and distribute free software. Sometimes a paid for program may have a reduced features freeware version: this is both a sample of and advertising for the paid version; also if everyone has access to a program that uses a certain file format, it may become so popular that it is the de facto standard.

A subtype of Freeware is “Adware” – that is software that you don’t have to pay for, but contains advertising within it. Apart from the suitability of such software in an office, certain types of Adware which download “live” adverts may create security weaknesses in your network system (whether deliberately or accidentally) giving more opportunity for unauthorised access by hackers.

When it comes to software, the initial creation has all the costs, whereas distribution is virtually free. Therefore it may be that someone has written a piece of software to solve an in-house problem then releases it for anyone else who might have need of something to solve the same problem. This is particularly true of people working in academia or government bodies where commercialising the software is more difficult. Perhaps the most famous example of this is Linus Torvald’s Linux, first written when he was at the University of Helsinki. He also provides an example of the other “currency” that programmers may be seeking in writing Open Source software; renown for their coding ability and expertise. If you wrote a program that has 100,000 satisfied users, and publish the code so your peers can see it that can lead to plenty of paying job opportunities.

Another reason for releasing Freeware and Open Source is to sell subsequent support packages. For example anyone can download and install various versions of Linux operating system on their computer, but most businesses will want someone to provide technical support and who better than the company that releases the product. Other programs are effectively “data crunchers”, and the business value is in the supply of the data rather than the software. With both of these the supplier are giving up an initial capital payment for a (hopefully) long term income relationship with their customers.

So given that the “price” for the software is acceptable, what is there that you can use in your office. Well, there are many many programs, but here is a list of  some which are available for MS Windows and Macintosh operating systems.

Libre Office (http://www.libreoffice.org) is a complete office suite, word processor, spreadsheet, presentation, database etc. It can load and save several different file formats (including those of MS Office), and can save directly to pdf as well.

PostgreSQL (http://www.postgresql.org) is a database server and calls itself “The worlds most advanced open source database”. It is extremely robust, quick, and contains all the features one would expect and more.

To save money on Virus Scanner subscriptions, try Clam AV which in its MS Windows version is called ClamWin (http://www.clamwin.com)

Putting digital dictation to your secretary: the Freeware version of Express Scribe (http://www.nch.com.au/scribe/index.html) gives all the functions of a traditional transcription machine while the suppliers no doubt hope you will be attracted to some of their other paid for software to integrate with it.

Want to produce some graphics? For vector graphics try Inkscape (http://inkscape.org) while for bitmap editing you will find Gimp (http://www.gimp.org) is every bit as powerful as its commercial rivals.

Data security – comply with Data Protection requirements by encrypting and password protecting any client data leaving the office with TrueCrypt (http://www.truecrypt.org)

Of course once you have kitted out your office with these, you will still find a lack of specialist legal products for free, but hopefully the free products leave a bit more in your IT budget to shop around for the rest of what you need. Alternatively, if you are using Open Source software, why not pay someone to personalise it to exactly what you want.

Finally any discussion of Open Source software wouldn’t be complete without coming back to Linux – a whole computer operating system for free. There are many different versions, or “flavours” as they are described, of Linux these days; while it still has a reputation as “powerful but complicated”, many modern versions are designed to be used by “ordinary people” instead of computer experts, so it is quite possible to switch your workstations/laptops to one of these. Old computers can be given a new lease of life by replacing the existing large operating system with a smaller faster alternative. Even if you want to keep the workstations on MS Windows/Apple OS, you may well consider having your servers run Linux, particularly some of the versions that specialise in security. More than 60% of the internet runs on Linux machines, and computer viruses are extremely rare in Linux making it an ideal buffer to protect your other computers. All you need to do is ensure whoever deals with your IT support can deal with Linux, but that’s no different than using any other OS.

However, there is no need to switch to Linux to use Free or Open Source software as there are plenty of programs  for Windows or Mac OS. So what are you waiting for? Download some free software and click away…

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One Response

  1. On your recommendation I downloaded LibreOffice for my new laptop – it’s really good. Very impressed – so similar in use to MS Office and compatible with all my existing files. Thanks very ,much for tip (which was also free)!!

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