Even with educational discounts, software can be expensive. However, a lot of people aren’t even using name-brand software anymore. I don’t think I run any Microsoft products on my computer these days, and you don’t have to, either. While there isn’t a satisfactory substitute for everything, there are for a lot of things. (By the way, make sure to read to the end of this post for a really useful link if you travel and use internet cafes and library computers, or shared school computers.)
Here are just a few (I’ve tried to only list cross-platform ones so that most people will be able to use them). Most are free; some ask for a small fee or donation.
- Office applications, including word processing, presentations, and spreadsheets: OpenOffice.org (cross-platform, including Windows) and NeoOffice (OS X) do pretty much everything we want them to. They can open .docx and .xls files, export as .pdf, save so that Word users can open files, edit Powerpoint documents, etc. In fact, both are so much like Word that you still have to go turn off all the annoying autocorrect features. Ugh! But at least there’s no paperclip … I have no more compatibility issues than I had when I used Word itself. Support for multiple languages, including Asian languages (some features built in). Very familiar interface. Free to use; optional donation.
- Web browsing: Firefox (cross-platform) is safer than Internet Explorer. It’s less prone to viruses, etc., and less prone to crashing. It also has a lot of great features that, admittedly, IE eventually gets around to copying (like tabs). It has more useful add-ons, like Rikai-chan, which lets me read Japanese more easily. More about Firefox sometime in the future.
- Sound editing: Audacity (cross-platform) is a free sound editing and recording application. It’s particularly popular with TESOLers doing podcasts (here’s a tutorial). It’s fairly easy to use.
- Statistics: The R Project (crossplatform) was mentioned on Metafilter as a free substitute for expensive stat-crunching licenses, and may be useful for researchers. I haven’t used it myself.
- Course management: Sakai (online) is a free alternative to Blackboard and its ilk. Designed by actual educators and researchers at Stanford, Michigan, Indiana, MIT and Berkeley, I really recommend giving it a try (Blackboard is such a mess).
- Instant messaging: Pidgin (cross-platform) and Adium (OS X) are wonderful if you’re trying to stay in touch with friends, family, clients, and students around the world. Both applications put EVERYTHING in one wonderful chat interface. You don’t have to worry about whether different people are using Yahoo, MSN, AIM, or whatever anymore. I use Adium, which even lets me have both my Yahoo! Japan and my Yahoo! chat names signed on at once, and multiple accounts (for my teacher and real-person identities) with the same service. Additionally, it’s free of ads, which most of the proprietary free services aren’t.
These are just a few of the free and open-source programs out there. As for graphics, no one seems to be able to agree on a decent all-around package that’s also cross-platform. Your best bet is probably to search Lifehacker for your specific need (vector graphics, font creation, photo editing, 3D graphics, etc.) and see if they have a recommendation for your operating system. In general, Lifehacker and Ask Metafilter (may have adult content, textually speaking) are good places to find safe recommendations.
Another bonus of using these applications is that many of them are smaller than their commercial counterparts, so they take up less room on your hard drive. Many of them are available in even more stripped-down forms at Portable Apps, so that you can put them on a USB stick and use them on, for example, a school computer running Korean Windows and all Korean applications, or in an internet cafe where you really shouldn’t trust their software. (Internet cafes, library computers, etc., are favorite places for hackers to install keyloggers and grab your passwords…) Great for travel!
P. S. I was thinking of doing a conference presentation on this topic one of these days, but I’m not sure how interested people would be. What do you think?