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Notes from the free software panel

These are my notes from the Convergence panel on free (but legal) software. We had many excellent recommendations from the panelists and the audience.


  • Most free software is actually payment-optional. Please consider contributing if you find something useful and use if often. Writing software is surprisingly time-consuming work and the authors could usually be using that time for paying work if they chose.
  • Be careful where you download from. Setting up a site for free downloads is a popular way to distribute viruses. Get your stuff from the organization that produces it, or check for review of the download site to see whether they’re legitimate and diligent about checking their stuff.
Finding free software:
  • LifeHacker & PCWorld
  • subscribe to web design ledger – good places to look for things to download.
  • How to find free programs that are like paid programs: search the web for “similar to _____”
Online resources:
  • – get mini versions of a lot of these things to run from USB drives. They only have free stuff.
  • Twitter – a great marketing tool if you’re a creative person
  • Etsy – ebay for crafters (
  • gmail
  • Google Sites is a place to get free website hosting. Rob Callahan set up, an ecommerce site (only paypal is supported) as an example.
  • Google Alerts will let you know when someone is copying your stuff without authorization.
  • Google generally is pretty useful!

Utilities, OS-related software, communications:

  • Use Wine for running Windows software on Linux.
  • Firefox – The more secure alternative to IE. Chrome is also a good choice.
  • Thunderbird – Better than Outlook Express, less expensive than Outlook.
  • Skype – free voice and video over IP, cheap overseas phone calls.
  • PDF Xchange – Adobe alternative that’s simple, loads quickly, includes editing functions, and has never had a security hole.
  • Process Explorer – like the Task Manager but much more thorough.


  • TrueCrypt – Encrypt flash drives or your whole disk. Written by extremely paranoid people.
  • Get a free antivirus. Microsoft Security Essentials <– is good enough, says our security expert. AVG, Avira and Avast. For the Mac, ClamAV is ok but not great.
  • Firewalls: all the free ones are linux-based and industrial quality. Someone mentioned ZoneAlarm
  • Password managers: LastPass is cloud based, uses master password. Highly secure.
  • Non-cloud based password manager: Keypass. Windows only, with versions for other platforms.

File sharing, backup, synchronization:

  • Google Documents – for sharing, collaboration.
  • SugarSync – Automatically sync selected folders between multiple computers; access your files from anywhere online.
  • DropBox – free backup. If you recommend someone you get more free space. 2GB to start.
  • CrashPlan free version – exchange codes with someone else and back up each other’s computers, encrypted backups, to have a secure offsite backup.
  • Toucan – for backup (one click backup solution).

Word processing and other MS-office like applications

  • OpenOffice – Your main alternative to MS Office. The earlier versions were a bit feature-poor but the more recent releases are pretty good even with MS word docs, and the UI is cleaner. Also see the spinoff LibreOffice which is a little better with MS Office docs.

Storyboarding, plotting, note-keeping:

  • Storyist (for Mac only?) to keep track of notes about a story. YWriter for windows.
  • Evernote – Quick notes and screen shots. Categorize, search. store audio clips, search text from screen shots, very versatile. Synchronizes automatically to the cloud and to other computers. Access your data from any web browser.
  • Celtx – for film scripting, also for organizing characters and locations for novel writing

  • Kindle book maker to make a Kindle file.
  • then use Calibre – Turn your kindle book into other e-reader compatible formats
  • Or just upload your .doc file to Smashwords.

Image editing:

  • Gimp – The UI takes a little getting used to because it’s a dozen mini windows, but it’s a reasonably good free alternative to PhotoPaint. There are a few simple things that seem to be ridiculously hard, like drawing a circle. YouTube has great demos.
  • There are also various sites that let you upload your image to a website and work on it online (good for quick photo editing, etc).
  • SketchUp – CAD software.
  • inkscape – vector graphics, better than OpenOffice, not quite to professional level.


  • Audacity – Recording and audio editing. Any number of tracks, nice filtering functions. There are numerous plugins for additional filtering functions.
  • “Garage Band” software for Mac is a nice virtual recording studio.
  • For MIDI composition: Rosegarden (Linux only)

Free music, audiobooks, etc:

  • free music
  • Grooveshark – ditto.
  • Huhu for free TV
  • Jangle
  • – movies, all public domain.

Free clipart and photos:

  • Library of congress has public domain photos
  • Any image captured by a government employee on duty.
  • Flickr – “creative commons” images. Please note: it generally matters whether it’s a commercial or personal use. If you’re making money from their work, people generally expect (and deserve!) to be paid.
  • Google image search has a public domain option.
  • StockExchange – photos and vector art.
  • Wikimedia commons.


  • VLC DVD player –
  • Videopad – video editing software.
  • Lightworks – professional grade video app, now open source in beta (Windows only)

Software coding:

  • WinMerge – I’ve used this for years; it’s a great way to compare and resolve differences between two text files. I’m told it works for Word docs also but I haven’t tested this.
  • notepad++ – a code editor with highlighting.

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