As a natural-born cheapskate, I tremble at the thought of paying for any software. My fear of software rip-offs can be traced to the 1990s, when I actually paid $20 for RealPlayer media program and $35 for the old Netscape Navigator browser.
Back in 2011 I wrote about the best free alternatives to top-selling software. Most of the products and services described in that article are still around, although I no longer recommend OpenOffice.org as the best free alternative to Microsoft Office. Now I prefer either LibreOffice or Google Docs, which are two of the five free open-source office suites described by CIO's Vangie Beal in an article from September 2012. (The other three are NeoOffice, Apache OpenOffice, and KOffice, none of which I've never tried.)
My favorite free word processor remains Jarte, which is based on Windows' built-in WordPad text editor but features a tremendously improved interface. I still rely on Microsoft's free Security Essentials to protect my three Windows PCs, and I continue to use the DropBox online storage service. Another freebie I use regularly is the Foxit Reader PDF software. Likewise, Belarc Advisor remains my Windows utility of choice.
Your best one-stop resource for all things related to free software is Gizmo Richards' Tech Support Alert, although geeks may prefer the open-source mecca SourceForge. The only problem with the latter is that many of the free, open-source programs available on SourceForge require a computer science degree to operate (not really, but close). The free programs listed on Tech Support Alert have been vetted by the site's staff of volunteer moderators.
Unfortunately, many of the "free" apps reviewed on Tech Support Alert are merely come-ons for the paid versions of the programs. For example, I recently downloaded and installed a PDF editor that promised more editing and management features than Foxit Reader or Adobe Reader X offer, only to find the free version added watermarks to all the PDFs it created. To get rid of the watermarks, I'd have to shell out $20. No thank you.
A great resource for people looking for truly free software is the Free Software Foundation, whose mission is to "promote computer user freedom and to defend the rights of all free software users." Sounds good to me. The site'sresources page links to services offering free-software downloads and organizations that provide material and support for promoting the free-software movement.
The pros and cons of cloud computing
My friend Zarpaden contacted me recently to ask about a cloud storage service his Mac was prompting him to use. Zarp had plenty of storage space on his system and was rightly concerned about his pictures and letters and other personal stuff on who-knows-which Web server for anyone and his Uncle Pacheco to view at their pleasure and Zarp's pain.
It seems everybody's confused about cloud services these days. Business Insider's Tony Danova explains the current state of the consumer cloud-storage landscape. Danova explains that no single company has come to dominate the industry: iCloud has a slight lead due to its early start with iPhone and iPad users, but Google, Microsoft, and Dropbox are neck-and-neck for the second spot. Analysts agree that the trend is toward more storage (and other computer activities) in the cloud.
In recent years I've done a 180 on storing my files in the cloud -- except for iTunes and iCloud, which let me listen to my music on up to five computers or devices no matter which machine the songs reside on. The downside of iCloud for accessing and backing up your media files is that Apple owns you. There's no simple way to export your media library to other players. (Demand Media's Kirk Bennett explains how to export your iTunes library to Windows Media Player.)
At one time or another I've used Google Docs, Dropbox, Microsoft's OneDrive, and other cloud storage services to sync the files I save on my local machines to the online accounts automatically. I no longer auto-sync my files with any cloud service, simply because I no longer need to access the files remotely. I back up my Document and Picture folders manually once or twice a week. My most important files I attach to emails I send to myself to ensure I have a right-now backup.
Of course, the big money for cloud services is in enterprises, which is where companies such as Cisco Systems and Amazon come into the picture. InfoWorld's David Linthicum explains the effect of the cloud-services trend on corporate IT departments. While many folks in IT freak out at the prospect of business units turning to the cloud for their system needs, Linthicum points out that IT staff actually become more important to users in their organizations because they can "bring order to chaos, while still providing the benefits of flexibility and immediacy that got users to go to the cloud in the first place."
As with previous transformative technologies, cloud computing will integrate with and enhance home-grown, local systems rather than replace them altogether. Count on technology keeping you on your toes!
Apropos of nothing much: Help your server by leaving your tip in cash
The baseline hourly wage for waiters, waitresses, bartenders, and other tipped workers has been set at $2.13 since 1991. The belief is that tips will increase the workers' hourly wage to the minimum of $7.25 an hour. Sylvia A. Allegretto and David Cooper of the Economic Policy Institute found that tipped workers now make up a much larger percentage of the overall U.S. job market. According to figures compiled by the Bureau of Labor Statistics and cited by EPI, "[e]mployment in the full-service restaurant industry has grown over 85 percent" since 1990, while overall private-sector employment grew by only 24 percent."
Any way you look at it, your server is probably living right on the edge of poverty. But there's one relatively simple way you can help. One of the tips presented by USA Today's Kitty Yancey in last month's "Five myths about tipping" is to write "Cash" in the tip line of your credit-card receipt and leave your tip in cash. As Yancey reports, some restaurants make the servers pay the credit-card company's service fee on the tip, which can be 2% to 3% of the total bill. Servers may also have to wait several days before they're paid the tip.
If you've got the cash handy, think about spending it for the tip the next time you're squaring up with your restaurant server. That little bit can make a big difference for the folks who count on tips to make it through the week.