free cool stuff

I thought in this post I would highlight a few products that have made my web experience a lot more productive and fun.  They are in no particular order, and it’s certainly not an exhaustive list.  I know I have many Google products on the list, but they are quite dominant these days in terms of very useful free software.  If you are looking for ways to save money – and you always should be – these are a few ways you can quickly and easily jettison your expensive applications from companies like Microsoft and Norton.

Open Office:  What can’t you say about Open Office.  I used to fork over hundreds of dollars for various Microsoft apps every couple of years when they upgraded their buggy operating system.  No more.  Open Office has word processing, spreadsheets, presentations, databases and more.  It is very stable and very similar to the Microsoft Office suite.  You may have to relearn a few keystrokes if you’re a keyboard person like me – instead of Ctrl-K to insert a hyperlink it’s Alt-I-H.  But these are easy to overcome, and Open Office works very smoothly.  It seems to crash far less than Microsoft’s products.  They can save anything in Microsoft format or a million other formats, including PDF.  I can’t see why anyone would choose to use the Microsoft product after using Open Office for a day or two.

Google Documents and Spreadsheets:  I have to be honest, these are a bit buggy for me, and the features are still very limited.  I can imagine eventually these will become stronger, and the online aspect is great as long as you can access them. I only use them for very basic files that I might need to access from anywhere.  I keep a copy of my phonebook in here, for example.  I keep a few ‘goals’ documents here, too.  However, an annoying number of my clients block Google docs so I don’t rely on it for my primary word processing and spreadsheet needs.  I probably would if I could, though, just for convenience’s sake.  I suppose the possibility of shifting confidential information around on the Internet worries some companies, although I’m sure a million sensitive documents get copied onto USB drives and sent by email to personal addresses every day.

Gmail:  I recently shut down my Yahoo! Mail account after using the same email address for almost eight years.  Yahoo! Mail has a lot to recommend it – unlimited storage, a neat little Outlook-like interface and a nice RSS reader.  However, the new mail beta crashed too often for my taste, and the new interface seemed like a step in a very unimaginative direction.  They basically said “let’s take Outlook and put it online”.  The web is moving in a different direction – tagging, what I call “light touch” interfaces and simple, pleasant design.  Yahoo is getting away from their original simplicity and creating a feature-heavy, complex interface for mail.  Gmail, on the other hand, allows multiple tags for emails to help keep them organized, and the search function has rendered any need for folders obsolete.  Need to check that email you received four months ago from what’s-his-name about the meeting at the Starbucks on something street on June 26?  Just search on “Starbucks” and there it is.  I have been using gmail for several months now and the tagging and search functions are incredibly useful.  I know it has other features, such as integration with Google Calendar and Google Maps, but I don’t use them as much.

Google Earth:  A massive timewaster and not terribly useful, but this is a sure crowd-pleaser.  I love to sit and ‘fly’ from one remote location to the next; from Miami to Red Square to the Forbidden City to the South Pole to Ulan Baator.  Try zooming in on your home, or your office, or even looking for famous landmarks.  It’s a lot of fun, although the practical application eludes me.

Firefox:  I tried using Internet Explorer for a while when version 7 came out.  It was an improvement, but Firefox has one tremendous advantage over IE:  it is open source and therefore anyone can develop add-ons for it.  It also works better with sites like Brip Blap.  I use a dozen different add-ons, and every one of them has greatly enhanced my web browsing experience.  LeechBlock is a great add-on, as are THIS and THIS.  Firefox is less susceptible to hacker attacks (for now) and if you aren’t using it, you really should give it a try for a while.

Picasa:  Unless you are a professional photographer, this photo editor/organizer is all you need.  It has a very easy-to-use interface, and the basic fixes like cropping and red-eye removal are simple to use.  I find that it’s the only photo editor I need 99% of the time.  Occasionally I might like to do something a little fancier, but not at the price of buying Photoshop.  I have heard of a free photo editing software (open source) called gimp but I’ve never tried it so I can’t speak to it.  It’s quite popular, though.  Who needs a Wii when you have this site?  I am no gamer.  For some reason that whole lifestyle just passed me by.  I played Doom II and Quake when they came out, and I enjoy Strategic Commander on my Palm, but for the most part I’m not that ‘into’ video games.  This site, though, has a few simple Flash games that I find really entertaining to blow off steam for ten minutes.  Try Samurai Sam or On The Run.  Simple and fun and most importantly, free.

Grand Central:  I am a very light user of this service, but so far it has blown me away.  If you aren’t familiar with it, it is a “unified number” for all of your phone numbers – home, work, office, even your hotel or temporary conference room.  If someone rings your GC number, all of your other phones ring – but that’s not the really amazing feature.  I can also set certain phones and certain voicemails to activate if certain people call.  If John from work calls, GC will ring my work and mobile phones from 9 to 5 but send him straight to voicemail after 5.  If Bubelah calls, every single phone I own will ring.  If someone I’m trying to avoid calls, I can have all of his calls sent straight to voicemail.  The possibilities are endless.  I’m sure that in the future I’ll have one number, my GC number, and all of my other phone numbers will be completely irrelevant.  There are rumors that Google is acquiring GC, which is great – one more way to give myself and all of my information over to Google.  Google has acquired Grand Central.  I figure as an early adopter they will spare me and my family when they seize control of Earth (not in an evil way, of course).

eVoice:  I have been using this service for years.  They give you a free number, although if you want a specific area code you’ll have to pay for it.  I use this number every time I apply for something:  an account with a random web service, a credit card, even an account with a job board.  This helps me screen calls and keep non-personal phone traffic from hitting my cell phone minutes or disturbing Little Buddy when the home phone rings.  You receive a small attachment in your email account and you can play it with their proprietary player or with QuickTime.  I wouldn’t recommend using it for anything you need to check quickly, since you have to be able to receive emails to hear your voicemails, but it’s great as a ‘second’ phone number.

Grisoft Anti-virus:  I have been using this free anti-virus software for years.  It is non-obtrusive and has – knock on wood – provided complete and flawless protection for several PCs over the last few years.  I don’t know how they do it, to be honest, but it’s a very good little program that does exactly what it advertises.  In my experience paid anti-virus programs (I’m thinking of Norton’s products) often had trouble performing self-updates and occasionally struggled with new viruses as they appeared.


On a final note:  when I first set up Brip Blap, I noticed that I couldn’t get my ads for Google AdSense or or to show up.  I tinkered with the code for a day before I suddenly remembered that I had an adblocker running.  I hate pop-up ads and noisy flashing motion ads, but I realized that by blocking static text ads I was only hurting myself.  The way sites like the New York Times remain free is through advertising.  If you want to continue to read sites like those, or enjoy Google apps, you probably should suffer through the ads, or else they will have to start charging someday in the future.  Personally I’m still blocking pop-ups.  I wouldn’t want a pop-up on my TV, obliterating my show until I hit a button on the remote.  Ads between segments of the show, fine.  Text ads to the side and around content on the Internet, fine.  But consider that advertising keeps these sites free when using any of the services above.

So what did I forget?  There are many others, of course – Remember the Milk, WordPress, Poisson Rouge, Wikipedia, etc. etc.  You could go on forever.