If you’re a student like I am, you know how important it is to save money. Some students are too busy with their studies to work at all, and those who can are usually only able to do so part-time. And, like books and tuition, software is a significant source of financial burden to the average student. While it’s true that student licensed versions of software are significantly discounted, popular titles such as Microsoft Office will still cost you somewhere in the ballpark of $130. And of course, that’s only if you don’t intend to use the software for anything other than your academic or personal endeavours. If you utilize the same applications on the job, you’ll find that you’re no longer eligible for student licenses, and suddenly you’ll discover that $130 magically turns into $300.
Fortunately, the current digital climate is rife with free software alternatives, which have the potential to save students (or parents!) hundreds of dollars.
The Operating System
Let’s start with the most fundamental bundle of software, the operating system (hereby abbreviated as OS.) The OS is what sits between the hardware and the user’s applications. Some examples are Microsoft Windows and Mac OS X.
For many students, purchasing an OS will be a non-issue, as most computers come with one pre-installed. For those in this category, most of the software mentioned below will run on both Windows and Mac. That being said, there are also a significant number of people who need to include an OS in their financial plans. Perhaps you purchased your computer used and without software. Or, maybe the OS on your machine is old and needs to be upgraded. You could have even assembled your own computer, as many hobbyists do.
It’s true that students can purchase Microsoft Windows at a discount of 30-60% off, but why would you do that when you can get your OS for free? Over the last few years, a veritable cornicopia of easy-to-use free software-based OSes have emerged, the most popular, and in my opinion, the easiest to install and use, being Ubuntu (http://www.ubuntu.com/). For the more technically inclined and perpetually curious, there are a slew of other Linux distributions, as well as the *BSD family of OSes — FreeBSD (http://www.freebsd.org/), NetBSD (http://www.netbsd.org/), OpenBSD (http://www.openbsd.org), PC BSD (http://www.pcbsd.org/) and Dragonfly BSD (http://www.dragonflybsd.org) — and Sun’s OpenSolaris (http://www.opensolaris.org/).
In reality, we do still live in a Windows world, so you may find yourself in a position where you have to use a program that only runs on Windows. Luckily, there’s a very mature and very complete open source implementation of the Windows API that’s been actively developed since 1993 called WINE (http://www.winehq.org/) You simply install WINE through the point-and-click interface provided by your OS and install your Windows applications on top of it. Many will run out of the box, and others will run with a minimal amount of tweaking.
As mentioned earlier, a student copy of Microsoft Office will cost roughly $130, and in some cases, students won’t even qualify for the student license, making the product much more expensive. So then, simply by installing a single free software replacement, you’ve literally saved hundreds. There’s a fantastic open source alternative called OpenOffice (http://www.openoffice.org/), a spin-off from Sun Microsystems, Inc. The download is a little large (over 100MB), but the price tag is worth it (it’s free), and OpenOffice really is a solid application capable of doing anything Office can. It includes components that replace Word, Excel, Powerpoint and Access, as well as additional components for drawing and for editing HTML documents.
In addition, you’ll find Scribus (http://www.scribus.net/) for desktop publishing and the creation of professional quality PDFs and Dia (http://live.gnome.org/Dia) for drawing diagrams, roughly like Microsoft Visio.
Of course, no college-ready system is complete without the ability to play movies and music! Fortunately, open source has you covered there as well. With Totem (http://projects.gnome.org/totem/) and Xine (http://www.xine-project.org/), playing your videos on Linux is a snap (Windows and Mac users of course have their own respective built-in players and don’t have to worry about this.) As well, there are applications like Banshee (http://www.banshee-project.org/) that do a great job of managing your music (it also plays videos.)
You’ll also more than likely be managing a great deal of pictures. For editing them, you’ll find the GIMP (http://www.gimp.org/), which is very similiar to Adobe’s Photoshop, and for browsing and managing your pictures there’s F-Spot (http://f-spot.org/).
You’ll only run into a couple of hitches when dealing with multimedia on an open source OS. The first is that you won’t be able to play many Windows Media files. Fortunately, this can remedied by purchasing the Fluendo Windows Media Playback Bundle (http://www.fluendo.com/shop/product/windows-media-playback-bundle/). True, it’s not free, but for $20 it’s a small price to pay compared to all the hundreds of dollars you’ll be saving on everything else, and if you can live without Windows Media, you can save yourself the expense. The second is that technically, according to the controversial Digital Millenium Copyright Act (http://www.copyright.gov/legislation/dmca.pdf), you’re in a legal predicament if you install software to decrypt your DVDs. More than likely nobody’s going to care, and the software to do so is readily available and in common widespread use, but if you choose to play your DVDs on an open source OS you should first take the time to thoroughly understand where you stand from a legal perspective. [Ed. note: there are fully licensed DVD players available for Linux, but even so, legal scholars now feel that this area of the DMCA has not yet been fully tested in court, but recent precendents suggest that if it were, in the end, that Fair Use doctrine would win out in the end over the DMCA – Ed.]
A Plethora of Other Goodies
Depending on your field of study, you’ll find many other professional-quality free and open source applications that are outside the scope of this blog that will save you even more money. Just google around. You’ll find all sorts of amazing applications, all of them free.
Fellow students, let loose the shackles of expensive proprietary software and embrace the freedom of open source. Not only will you save hundreds of dollars, you’ll be drawn into a community of users and developers that are passionate about writing and supporting software. Once you get used to using free software alternatives, you’ll wonder how you ever got by without it.
Here at eRacks, we specialize in providing users of all kinds with open source solutions to meet their needs. So contact us today, and ask us how we can help you save money and get even more out of your academic experience!
james April 20th, 2009