“Free” has two meanings: (1) gratis, and (2) libertas. When I say free software, I mean libertas, although much free software is gratis, as well.
There are two parts to choice: (1) different software that does the same thing, and (2) the ability to modify software to do what you want.
Don’t like the way Word handles bulleted lists? Try OpenOffice.org. Or AbiWord. Or KOffice. Or . . .
There are many brilliant programmers developing free software, and you might like one better than what you are using now. For text documents, there are a ton of options, and most of them will open and edit your .doc files just like Word.
Most free software is low- or no-cost. This can be a huge savings, especially when you factor in the cost of upgrading your proprietary software every couple of years (or less).
Office Standard 2007 (Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and Outlook) costs $400 per user. And in a few years, you will have to shell out another $250 for the upgrade to Office 2009. The free software equivalents, OpenOffice.org and Novell Evolution, are no cost, including upgrades.
It may sound odd to talk about support after mentioning that free software is often cheaper than proprietary software, but support can be a benefit, depending on what kind of support you want.
For those willing to fix their own problems, most free software projects have an active community of developers, contributors, and users, willing and able to help. Usually, a quick search on Google will give you the answer, since chances are good someone else has had the same problem.
For those who want to pay someone else to fix their problems, most well-established free software projects (including OpenOffice.org and Evolution) offer paid support. If you decide to go with a full free system using Linux, the major distributions like SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop (SLED) and Ubuntu offer paid support for the whole system, not just one program at a time. This can be a huge advantage, since you will not have to deal with customer service reps blaming each other for your problem.
Try these first
Firefox is a web browser that grew out of the now-dead Netscape company. It is fast, secure, extensible, and complies with international standards (unlike Internet Explorer). It is so good that Microsoft tried (unsuccessfully) to copy many of Firefox’s best features. You can get Firefox here.
OpenOffice.orgOpenOffice.org is a full office suite, similar to Microsoft Office. It contains a word processor, spreadsheet program, slideshow creator, and more. Get OpenOffice.org here.
TrueCrypt is a top-notch file encryption utility. If you want to make sure your clients’ files are secure, especially on a laptop or thumb drive you take with you, it is a good idea to encrypt them, and TrueCrypt makes it easy. Get TrueCrypt here.
Warning: TrueCrypt is not secure. See this post for details and information on migrating to Bitlocker or FileVault.
GIMP is a powerful image editor, similar to Adobe Photoshop. Most amateurs will find that GIMP does everything they need when it comes to photo editing. If you are stuck using the stripped-down image editor that came with your digital camera, give GIMP a try and see what else you could be doing.
While most free software is no-cost, if you wind up using free software, consider sending a little money to the project to help defray the cost of keeping the project going, such as website hosting, domain registration, and beer and pizza.