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“You get what you pay for?” Retire that bromide!

Filed under: General, Reviews and Impressions — Charlie Summers @ 4:23 pm

A while back I asked via Twitter for help in converting the format of some “e-books” I have here; since a lifetime ago I used to have a Palm PDA (Personal Digital Assistant…geez, how quaint!) I have a butload of public domain books in various formats that worked on the Handspring, mostly PalmDOC .prc files, and wanted to convert them to the more modern ePub format (basically a ZIP file containing XHTML files and support files like graphics, etc.).

One of the responses I received was from a sales drone trying to sell me on a commercial web-based application for authors; it’s basically an on-line word processor and export application that charges a whopping $19.00 every time you export a book to .epub and .mobi format!

(This same company had started a micropay service in competition with PayPal. Never heard of it? Me, neither.)

Clearly I had and have no intention of paying $20 per book to convert a public domain .prc file to .epub…heck, I doubt this commercial service would even handle the input of .prc, so the response was inappropriate and nothing more than some sleazy salesguy searching Twitter for mentions of e-books. I admit I was annoyed, and called him out on it suggesting his “service” was massively over-priced; if you are an author of nitch books and want to convert to a non-DRMed e-book, there are much cheaper (read, free) ways of getting there, so this “service” depends on authors uneducated in the concept of free software.

The salesdrone responded, “You get what you pay for.” Which got me thinking about this old bromide, one I’ve used myself quite often.

In the world of the Internet, I think it’s time to retire this nonsense.

Hear me out…as a proponent of free (as in beer and as in speech) software, I know something about it, and can usually recommend some open-source or free software to accomplish almost any task. But the argument of the bromide is, the free stuff simply cannot be as good as the software you pay for. So let me throw out a few examples where the freeware alternative is near the equal of the commercial version, at least for the common consumer:

  • OpenOffice: The OpenOffice suite of productivity applications is designed to directly compete with the wildly expensive Microsoft Office package. OpenOffice is available to anyone on the Internet with just a simple download; it’s even available in a PortableApps version, so you can load it on your flashdrive or memory card and carry it wherever you go. OpenOffice is based on the concept of the standard, something Microsoft never really understood; instead of creating files that are intentionally proprietary in an attempt to limit the user’s future path to upgrades of your expensive product, OpenOffice creates standard files that can be opened in other open-source products, and even in Microsoft Office, should you have the thing sitting on a computer at work. In case you have Luddite friends still drinking the proprietary kool-aid, though, you can export your files in boatloads of proprietary formats, even some ancient ones perfect for the uncle with the 486…

    Is OpenOffice missing some things MS Office has? A few, yes, but nothing 98% of the users would notice. It does do things a bit differently, but you can get there from here without spending a close to $300 buy-in and frequent $100 upgrade fees.

  • GIMP: I admit it’s a pretty unfortunate name, especially when used as a verb, as in, “I GIMP’ed the photo.” But the GNU Image Manipulation Program out-Photoshops Adobe Photoshop in some areas, costs no more than a download, and is a tool everyone, not just graphic artists, should have installed on their computers. Next time you have a photo with red-eye, GIMP comes to the recsue. Nasty divorce? Erase the ex from vacation photos with ease. Need to print a pic of Fluffy without that pesky neighbor dog sniffing unmentionables? GIMP’s your tool.

    Ok, I’ll stop being flip. I use GIMP for everything from acquiring old photos to TIFF format (using my scanner’s TWAIN connector) to making the graphics for this blog. It’s free, it’s easy to use, and it’s constantly being improved. What more, exactly, do you need?

  • Audacity: You’ve hopefully heard SummersTime, the OTR radio show on Radio Once More hosted by my daughter Katie and your obedient servant. Everything on that show and every sound file you’ll find on this blog is edited using the freeware Audacity, sound editing software that is not only free but the equal, or the superior, of pretty much every commercial sound editing package around. There is practically nothing Audacity can’t do…mostly natively, sometimes requiring plugins. The only people still using Audition or Sound Forge are those who choose to keep spending money so as not to spend the little time required in a learning curve…like everything else, Audacity does things its own way, not necessarily like its brethren. Spend a little time learning how Audacity works, and I guarantee you’ll stop wasting money on the commercial stuff.

  • KeePass: This is required software for me, and probably the software I use the most on a daily basis. I keep really strong passwords for all my logins…not words or combinations of words, but rather random-character generated passwords like:


    Now how the hades is anyone going to remember one of those, let alone hundreds including servers, clients, banking, and other passwords? Not me, that’s for sure…most days I can’t remember my car keys, let alone strong passwords. So I use KeePass software to maintain them; I use a long and ugly password into KeePass I did memorize, and KeePass does the rest. I have the portable version on my carry-everywhere flashdrive I call my “brains” which is my main password file and the only one I update, while keeping a copy of this database on my Android phone and tablets using the KeePassDroid application, so wherever I am I have access to every password I need. And if I lose a device with the database on it, it’s encrypted with enough strength that by the time anyone could crack the main password, I will already have the others changed, using new ugly strong passwords generated by the application itself.

  • PortableApps: The PortableApps system is a really easy-to-use master system for flash drives and memory cards that allows you to take whatever applications you find useful along with you wherever you go. I simply cannot tout the importance of this enough…all of the application examples I’ve listed above are on my microSDHC card in PortableApps format, available anywhere I am able to get my hands on a Windows machine (which is almost anywhere). I admit the central application has become bloated and slow especially on older machines (it even drags on contemporary quad-cores), but that’s ok since you can easily launch individual applications directly, bypassing the bloat of the central application should you choose. (You can also search for older versions of the PortableApps application which work much faster.) I’m also a little annoyed by the “apps store,” a pile-on from mobile devices that mostly gets in the way, but my guess is there’s an attempt to monetize the system, and that does tend to be an inevitable result of popular freeware. Still, you owe it to yourself to look at the PortableApps system, and to understand the concept of the “portable application,” one that you bring and take with you while leaving no trace of itself on the host computer.

So the idea that you have to pay for something for it to have quality is something we need to retire, at least when it comes to software. And good riddance. Please feel free to use the comment section below to list your personal freeware software favorites!

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