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Frugal computer users turn to free software

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Customers look at new laptop computers in a New York City electronics store. As many new computers no longer come bundled for free with essential programs like Microsoft Word, open-source software have become the generic drug for users with ailing wallets. (Amanda Rivkin/CNS)

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As many new computers no longer come bundled with essential programs like Microsoft Word, open-source software have become the generic drug for users with ailing wallets. Firefox and OpenOffice.org are two examples. (Andi Balla/CNS Illustration)

Avery Bowron, a computer-savvy 19-year-old, readily acknowledges that he learned something valuable about technology from senior citizens: good software can be obtained at no cost.

He learned that lesson two years ago in Olympia, Wash., when he volunteered to refurbish old computers for low-income elderly people.

With no money to buy software licenses, Bowron took some advice from an elderly volunteer and used OpenOffice.org, a free software package that mimics the widely used Microsoft Office, just not in price.

“It was free, and it worked well,” Bowron said.

Today, the freshman at Macalester College in St. Paul is a big fan of OpenOffice.org. He has installed it on his laptop and his parents' computer and founded a group of about 1,900 open-source software supporters on the popular networking site Facebook.com.

Many new computers no longer come bundled with essential programs like Microsoft Word, so open-source software has become the generic drug for computer users with ailing wallets.

The software is dubbed “open source” because the programs allow anyone with the know-how to view and edit the underlying programming code, much like users edit articles on Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia. The process is supervised by nonprofit organizations that license the best versions of the software at no charge.

The more visible face of the trend has been Firefox, the open-source Internet browser that reduced Microsoft Internet Explorer's control of the market. Firefox's global market share is now about 14 percent and continues to grow, according to data compiled by Net Applications, based in California.

The available data on OpenOffice.org usage is less specific. Louis Suarez-Potts, OpenOffice.org’s community manager, said that it “depends on the location. For instance, in the United States, I figure far fewer use it than in, say, Europe, where it is actually quite popular.”

Because they are distributed by nonprofit organizations, open-source programs often rely on word-of-mouth to get customers' attention.

“We have no advertising budget,” Suarez-Potts said.

That doesn’t mean open-source software has no ties to the corporate world. Sun Microsystems, a champion of open-source software, is the primary sponsor and contributor to OpenOffice.org. Though many of the programmers are volunteers, some are paid to work on the product, Suarez-Potts said.

In other cases, some programs that started as for-profit ventures have been transformed into open-source software. Qualcomm, the maker of the e-mail program Eudora, recently announced that it would turn the program over to open-source development. In the past, users had to pay to get the full version of Eudora.

So what's the catch? Open-source software programs don’t have any of the guarantees or the free technical support that come with proprietary software.

Even an avid fan like Bowron says there are limitations in working with OpenOffice.org. When he tried to use the package’s spreadsheet application for his chemistry class, it wasn’t able to do everything Microsoft Office Excel does.

“Certainly there are situations in which it makes sense to buy Microsoft products, but for the vast majority of people who don’t need the more specialized features, it is unnecessary,” he said. “The difference is only in the very high-end features, and very few people will encounter them in their everyday use.”

There is also a growing debate about the security of open-source programs.

Russell Dean Vines, the author of several books on computer security, said there were advantages to the disparate open-source development effort.

“Experts are somewhat divided, however, as to how that relates to security,” Vines said.

OpenOffice.org says there are fewer risks with its open-source package programs than with a proprietary system. And when compared with Microsoft Office, there are far fewer defined security advisories for OpenOffice.org.

But Vines thinks that's probably because it “has been running under the radar,” meaning that the number of users around the world is not high enough for it to become a target for hackers. It's the same reason many other experts say Firefox is safer than Internet Explorer.

“I disagree that there are inherently fewer security vulnerabilities in open-source products over proprietary systems," Vines said, "as commercial products generally have the resources and motivation to patch products.”

Another advantage of open-source software is compatibility. Versions of OpenOffice.org and Firefox, for example, are available in all three main operating systems: Windows, Apple and Linux, itself a popular open-source product.

OpenOffice.org has also found a way around the fact that most people use the format of Microsoft documents. It has given users the ability to automatically save in Microsoft formats or the more universal OpenDocument format.

Like Microsoft Office, OpenOffice.org comprises several integrated applications, including a word processor, presentation creator, spreadsheet, mathematical editor and drawing module. So instead of using Microsoft Word, the open-source users would work with OpenOffice.org’s word processor, Writer.

Microsoft, for its part, says it is confident that Microsoft Office will continue to be the software of choice for the vast majority of consumers.

“Competition is good for the industry and good for customers,” a Microsoft spokesman said in an e-mailed statement. “That said, Microsoft Office continues to be the overwhelming choice for a broad range of organizations and individuals, primarily due to its usability, functionality and longstanding leadership in the category.”

In the end, all the arguments about merit and competition could be moot: Programs like Google Documents allow users to type, edit and share text and spreadsheet documents for free directly on the Web, and could one day eliminate the need for computer-based software like OpenOffice.org and Microsoft Office.

E-mail: anb2118@columbia.edu