Free Software! What’s the catch?

Imagine that you have just bought a new computer. It might have cost you upwards of four hundred pounds. So you get it home, plug it in, manage to look at some web pages, and… then what?

You probably want to use it to type some letters. You want to create your Christmas cards on it. You want your children to do their homework on it. But there is a problem. You don’t have the right software to do it.

If you just want to jump to the list of recommended free software, click here

What is software?

Software is what tells your computer how to do a given task. It controls what you see on the screen, what your documents look like, and what you can create. You may have seen a lot of fuss recently about the iPhone and other mobile phones using ‘Apps.’ Apps is short for applications which is just another name for software.

Typical software on a home computer

A home computer typically has software installed for these tasks:

  • An operating system such as Windows or Mac OS X (Normally supplied with the computer.)
  • Security software to keep viruses away.
  • A web browser to view web pages with.
  • Web browser plugins including Flash, Java and a PDF viewer.
  • An office suite for producing documents.
  • Page layout software for desktop publishing.
  • Email software. (Not required if you use Web email)
  • A music player and store.
  • Instant Messaging and communications software.
  • A photo and image editor.
  • CD and DVD creation software.

What came with your computer?

Microsoft Office Professional 2007When you purchase a new computer it will come with some basic software that you need to get going, normally including Windows which tell the computer how to do the most basic things. You will probably also have a (time limited) trial copy of some anti virus software to keep your computer secure, and you might even get a copy of Microsoft Works which provides basic capabilities for typing documents and using spreadsheets. Most people will purchase some form of security software and a copy of Microsoft Office, at some considerable expense. A typical cost is around £40 for a copy of Norton Internet Security, and £90 for Microsoft Office Home and Student edition. If you are purchasing for business use, the price of Microsoft Office rises dramatically to around £190 for Microsoft Office Home and Business edition. (You will be breaking your license agreement if you use the home and student version for business.)

These costs are not small, especially if you consider the price of Microsoft Office for business can be more than half of the cost of your new laptop. So is there a way around these costs? Don’t worry, there is.

Free software. No, really!

No Money NeededIt may surprise you to learn that you can find much of the software that you need for free. Software can be free for a few different reasons, and there are some different classes of ‘free.’

The first kind of free is simply a loss leader for a business. Often software will be free for home use, but as soon as it is used for business a more costly license must be purchased.

The second kind of free is trial software, which lasts for a limited time before you must purchase the full version, or has less features than the full version.

The third kind of free is “Open Source” software. It is software that has been written by one or many people collaborating, often via the internet, to produce the software that they want to use. The result is given away for free to anyone that would like it. Not only that, but they also release the code and the documentation that was used to create it, so that anyone with the knowledge how can modify the software for their own purposes. The most popular license used for open source software, the GPL, specifies that the software can be sold or given away, but whoever receives it can also sell it or give it away, and the source code used to create it must also be available. The concept of open source software might be difficult to grasp if you are not a programmer, but it has given the world a wealth of software for every conceivable task, all available for free.

So what is the catch? Well, in some cases you might get a cut-down version of the software. You might be encouraged to pay to upgrade to a better version. In the case of most open source software, there is no catch at all for the end user!

Recommended free software

All of this software can be obtained by downloading from the internet. You will require a broadband internet connection for this purpose. This list is largely aimed at users of Microsoft Windows, a similar list for Macs will follow soon.

Security and Anti-virus

One of the most popular free anti-virus products is AVG Anti-virus. It is free for personal use only, with payment required for business use or if you need more features.

AvastMy personal favourite security software is Avast. It too is free for personal use, with payment getting you more features and a business license.

Microsoft have their own anti-virus product called Microsoft Security Essentials. It does not have as many features as the previous two, not scanning emails or web sites being obvious missing features. It is, however, free even for business use if your business has less than ten computers.

Office productivity suite

OpenOfficeThere is only one real free competitor to Microsoft Office, and that is (Usually referred to without the .org, but technically that is part of the name!) OpenOffice started life as Star Office, which was commercial software but it was then bought by Sun and released as open source after which it received many contributions from other programmers and is now a polished and successful product. Now owned by Oracle, OpenOffice is available free to all, even business users. Oracle also sell support contracts for OpenOffice if a business requires it. Please note that OpenOffice saves documents in Open Document Format, an standard that older versions of Microsoft Office do not support. If you need to open your documents with Microsoft Office then you should make sure that you choose the correct file type when you save them.

Google Docs is an interesting alternative to traditional office software. It is accessed entirely through a web browser and your documents are all stored on Google’s servers via the internet. Although fairly simplistic and lacking many features, Google Docs is capable enough for writing most standard documents and keeping simple spreadsheets updated for your accounts. A paid version is available which is aimed at businesses, allowing them to easily share documents within the business and providing support.

Desktop Publishing

The best free software for page layout work (desktop publishing) is produced by Serif Software. Serif PagePlus is a very capable application, and this writer uses it to produce all of his flyers, business cards and other advertising materials. Registration is required before it will function. The paid version offers a few extra features such as the ability to produce print-ready documents suitable for sending to a printing company.

The open source alternative is called Scribus, and like all GPL software is free for everyone. It does not have all that many features yet, but it might do what you need.

Music and Video

Windows is supplied with Media Player which does a reasonable job of listing your MP3 music collection and playing it in the order that you want.

If you want to play something that Media Player can’t handle, VLC is the answer. VLC, short for Video Lan Client (but you didn’t need to know that!) is open source software that can play back just about any kind of music or video file.

If you want to purchase music, iTunes is a pretty good place to go. A must if you have any Apple iPod, iPhone or iPad, it puts the music player, internet radio, and the purchasing of music all in the same place.

Spotify is a very nice system that will ‘stream’ music straight to you. You don’t get to keep the music that you listen to, and it has adverts between tracks, so it is a bit like a radio station where you choose the playlist.


There are quite a few options for photo editing. It is quite likely that you received some simple software with your digital camera or even your scanner. If that fits your needs, great. If not, the next alternative is Google Picasa. Picasa gives you simple tools to fix up your photos, and then provides an easy way to upload them to Google’s servers and share them with your friends. It’s completely free for everyone.

For more serious, more capable editing, is an open source tool with many features and also a ‘plugin’ system that can add many more. It can read and save just about every type of image too and is free for everyone.

Serif PhotoPlus might be what you need, especially if you are also using PagePlus. It requires registration and some features are not available unless you purchase a license but it’s a good bit of software.

Microsoft have their own offering as part of the Windows Live Essentials suite, called Live Photo Gallery.


Even accounting can be done with free software!

VT Cash Book is simple software that can be used for recording all transactions, and can produce reports such as profit and loss, balance sheet and ledgers reports. More capable versions are available from the same company should you outgrow Cash Book.

TAS Basics is a cut down version of TAS Books. It can be used for any size company, although lack of certain features may prompt you to upgrade once your business is large enough.

QuickBooks Simple start Free edition might do the job for you. It is the same software as used by much larger companies, but you will be limited to a maximum of 20 customers and suppliers. If you do business with the same few people all the time, it might work for you.

Brightbook is free for all, for any size business, and is accessed entirely through a web browser. It can produce invoices and even link to Google Checkout to process payments.

Web browser

FirefoxA web browser is what shows you most of the internet. When you click on the big blue ‘E’ you are using Internet Explorer. You got a copy of Internet Explorer bundled with Windows, so why would you want to use a different web browser? Security is one overwhelming reason, with just about any browser being more resistant to virus infection than Internet Explorer is. Speed is another reason. Some alternative browsers include Mozilla Firefox, Google Chrome, Apple Safari and Opera. Of those, Firefox is the most popular, and Chrome is the fastest, simplest, and most secure.


ThunderbirdMost home computer users have web based email these days. That is, they access their email via a web page. Most people in offices use email software such as Microsoft Outlook. If you have Windows XP, then you have Outlook Express supplied with it. I strongly recommend that you do not use it. Windows Vista comes with a more up to date application called Windows Mail. Windows 7 does not supply an email application but instead Microsoft now provides a suite of software called Windows Live Essentials which includes Windows Live Mail.

Our recommended email software is Mozilla Thunderbird. You may notice that it is made by the same people as Firefox. It is open source software and is free for everyone to use.

Making life easier

It can be quite inconvenient and time consuming to install all of this software. Fortunately there is a handy tool that can download and install a lot of this software for you. It is called Ninite, and it too is free for personal use. You simply visit the website, tick the boxes to indicate which software that you require, then click ‘Get Software’ and go a get a cup of tea while it does it’s stuff. When you return all that software will be ready to go.

This is our recommended list of software for any new computer. This whole list is available via Ninite.

  • Firefox
  • iTunes
  • VLC
  • Picasa
  • OpenOffice
  • Adobe Reader
  • Avast
  • Flash, Flash (IE)
  • Java
  • Silverlight
  • 7-Zip

Software download links