Writings on technology and society from Wellington, New Zealand

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Free stuff on the Internet

Today on Radio New Zealand National I’ll talk mainly about a free stuff you can use and downoad legally from the Internet. My point is that a huge amount of useful and world-class stuff is just there for the using. No cash required. Who said the best things in life weren’t free?

I put out a call for suggestions for this program by email and on my blog a few days ago. If you were one of the helpful people who replied – thanks. This program’s yours as much as mine. Don’t you love the Internet!

Listen live at 11:05 or download the audio as Ogg or MP3.

Q: Your main topic today – free things. What sort of thing do you mean?

A: Mostly software and services. Let’s start with the canonical example that most of use every day – Google search. We all know it, of course. That’s a free service supplied by a private company, and using the Internet is almost inconceivable without it.

Q: It’s supported by advertising.

A: Yes, it is. And a lot of free stuff is only free in the sense that the users aren’t paying but someone is.

Q: You’ve talked about free software before – that means something more than that you don’t have to pay for it, right?

A: Yes, there’s a definition of free software – Richard Stallman originated the term in this sense. And, by free software, Stallman means that the software itself is available for people to modify and pass on. It’s a strong form of open source. But that’s one meaning of free software. I thought to day I’d concentrate on the less idealogical meaning, the straightforward alternative meaning that it doesn’t cost you any money to use it.

Q: That’s not the same thing?

A: No – it’s possible to have free software in the Stallman sense of the word that you have to pay for, and quite a lot of software you don’t have to pay for is not free in the Stallman sense. The terms ‘libre’ and ‘gratis’ get used sometimes to make the distinction – both translate as ‘free’ in English, but one is about freedom and the other about cost.

The other thing we are not talking about here is software that’s been placed on sites for unlawful download. There’s no excuse for using pay for software without paying for it. It’s just wrong. And there’s so much legitimately free to use software and services out there that, if you don’t want to pay for some specific thing, there’s a high chance that there is a free to use alternative. Just use Google.

Q: OK – we’ve got that straight. So, what sort of thing is out there legitimately cost-free?

A: there’s a whole array of amazing stuff just waiting for you to use it!

Let’s start with OpenOffice, which is a free replacement for word processing and spreadsheet software. Lots of people have OpenOffice, and its often distributed on a new PC. If you want to do word processing – writing letters etc and you don’t have a program to do that – you can either buy one of get OpenOffice for absolutely nothing.

Q: Is it any good? And does it open the same files as the other programs?

A: Yes, OpenOffice opens files from all the main word processing packages including the ones you have to pay for. And it’s pretty good. Just go download it from

And then there’s Ubuntu – or Linux in general, which can completely replace Windows on your computer if you want it to. If you do install that you find a huge list of free software in the menus. But you don’t have to be a fully piad-up Linux-loving tree-hugging hippie to like getting stuff for free. Assuming we are staying with Windows, there are some great things available just for the download.


Web browsers: Firefox, Chrome, Safari, Opera

Mail software:Pegasus Mail, Thunderbird

Web-based mail: Google’s Gmail and Microsoft’s Hotmail

Notes and backup: Evernote, Dropbox

Applications online: Google Apps and Microsoft Office live

Word processing and spreadsheets for your computer.

Maps: Google Earth, Google Maps, Windows Live Maps, and for the stars: Stellarium, Celestia

Skype for free calls and inkstand messaging, also Microsoft’s and Google’s equivalents

Security software: AVG free edition. HijackThis for advanced security users trying to diagnose problems.

Play audio and video: VLC

Social Media – Facebook, Twitter, and Twitter clients Twitterrific, Tweetdeck

Air New Zealand’s superb mobile phone software – mPass

Doodle – meeting scheduling – if you have people around the world, check Time and Date

VirtualBox – for running several operating systems simultaneously.

Published materials – TV, NZ Onscreen, Radio

Books – TOR science fiction, Bantam DoubleDay Dell has some free stuff as well, so does O’Reilly technical publishers, and some books about open source software.

Tripit – trip planner, puts together an itinerary from all your tickets and bookings. – stats and charts form your own data. See also for analyzing statistics about world population, health, wealth etc.

posted by colin at 7:17 am  


  1. thank you for the list.
    what about LINUX.
    as a free operating system.
    But where is the best, easiest, plan language, step by step guide to using LINUX please.
    there is lots info on net but it seems to start way up there instead of step by step like how does one install a program?
    thank max.

    also best free program text to speech.

    Comment by max — 2 April 2009 @ 11:32 am

  2. Max

    The best thing to do to try Linux is to get an Ubuntu CD – Dick Smith’s may have them for a few bucks, or Google is your friend – and start up a PC with the CD in the drive. Then, follow instructions on the screen. I would start my exploration by just letting it run from the CD and only install it onto the computer’s hard drive once I was happy with it. The screen instructions should make it clear how to do this. If you do decide to install Linux onto an existing computer, make sure you save a copy of your data from that computer onto a CD or on another machine.

    I have a couple of Linux machines and I am very happy with their capabilities.


    Colin Jackson

    Comment by colin — 2 April 2009 @ 12:50 pm

  3. The Australian “PC User” magazine has had a long-running series of tutorials on “UserOS”, which is their own customized version of Ubuntu, included on various of their cover discs. That could be another as-painless-as-possible path into Linux.

    Comment by Lawrence D'Oliveiro — 2 April 2009 @ 4:35 pm

  4. Where do I place the inkstand in order to do the messaging, please?


    Comment by Mark Harris — 3 April 2009 @ 2:41 pm

  5. thanks. I have a pc with linux already on it. I have a basic knowledge in DOS but need to find how to load applications into linux, like skype. That is what I have not found on the web, a how to do step wise of the adding new applications and doing updates that are not already there, and getting wireless to work. There is lots on configuring but need the steps before that. thanks max.

    Comment by max — 4 April 2009 @ 7:49 pm

  6. Thought you might like to know that the link to VirtualBox has the wrong URL . It’s pointing at a download of HiJackThis.

    Comment by Richard — 7 April 2009 @ 12:39 pm

  7. @Richard – fixed, thanks.


    In Ubuntu, look for a menu item labelled “Synaptic Package Manager’. I appreciate that’s not an immediately obvious name, but that’s where you get to the huge list of software that Ubuntu can just download and install for free.



    Comment by colin — 7 April 2009 @ 6:13 pm

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    Comment by Peter — 17 May 2009 @ 7:19 am

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