There has never been as much good quality free software out there for computer users, which begs the question of how the developers are making any money.
Some are probably selling some of your personal information, others are bundling free stuff with paid stuff - or using free stuff to get you hooked enough to pay for the upgrade. Some are probably covering their costs by soliciting donations from users that feel guilty/grateful enough to contribute. Some are selling advertising. Some are hoping to land enough marketshare that they can be bought out by bigger companies, who will then sell their product or offer it to customers as a perk for using their other software.
And some software is just free - developed by well-meaning students or programming hobbyists as a free alternative to pay software out there, and then shared with the general public in the spirit of open source computing.
Whatever their reasons, I'm immensely grateful for the quality and quantity of free software out there (although I wish a lot of companies would start to charge a nominal fee like $5 or $10 so I wouldn't feel as much like a freeloader and could be sure of long-term support).
PC World recently put together a list of the Best Free Software of 2010 - and the year's just getting started. I've already used or mentioned some of the titles but many were news to me. Here's my best of their best:
Launchy (www.launchy.net) - A few weeks ago I wrote a column on shortcuts, but neglected to mention this tool, probably because I only use a handful of programs. Launchy is basically a key-stroke application launching tool that lets you launch any program from the keyboard with no mouse required.
Audacity (http://audacity.sourceforge.net) - This program can record and manipulate any type of file and is a solid way to create your own podcast or mix music. If manipulation is the key, you might also want to check out www.foobar2000.org.
Adobe (www.adobe.com) - While Adobe is typically known for its powerful but incredibly expensive software, the company is taking a serious run at Web 2.0 and Google Docs with a variety of free online software. One of the most useful online programs is Adobe ConnectNow, an online video conference tool that lets you create PDF files, text chat, doodle on a whiteboard and more. (Also see Dabbleboard and Doodle). While you're at Adobe check out Acrobat.com for online documents, spreadsheets and presentations.
Inbox2 (www.inbox2.com) - This free app combines all of your e-mail inboxes, including your social media inboxes from Facebook, Twitter, etc.
Voxox (www.voxox.com) - This is the ultimate communication tool with video calls, voice calls, SMS text messaging, instant messaging, file sharing, e-mail, faxing, translation and a digital personal assistance. Some voice calls can cost money but the international rates are so low you probably won't mind.
1DayLater (http://1daylater.com) - If you run your own business, track business expenses or just want to see where all your time goes, 1DayLater will track everything - miles traveled, tasks performed, time and money spent.
SweetHome3D (www.sweethome3d.eu) - If you can create a 2D layout of your house you can turn it into a 3D model with this program. Why would you want to do that? How about seeing how your house would look after a renovation or changes to the interior design. How about seeing how furniture might look before you purchase it, or experimenting with new layouts for your rooms without actually moving any furniture around.
Aviary (http://aviary.com) - A complete online suite of graphic tools and audio tools. Also check out Gimp (www.gimp.org) for a Photoshop-style image editor, Inkscape (www.inkscape.org) for an Illustrator-style image creator, Google Sketchup (http://sketchup.google.com) to do some free on-the-fly 3D modeling, Photoshop.com for some basic photo editing.
Fishbowl (www.fishbowlclient.com) - This was developed by Microsoft to allow you to keep up to date with Facebook on your desktop without checking in every 10 minutes. You can't manage your Farmville, but it will keep track of status, photos and other updates.
Ccleaner (www.piriform.com/ccleaner) - This has quickly become one of my favourite programs, deleting all the useless information your computer collects while making it easy to uninstall programs. It can actually increase the speed and performance of your computer.
Speccy (www.piriform.com/speccy) - Also by Piriform, speccy will tell you exactly what hardware your computer is running, which comes in handy when you want to know whether your computer meets the system specs for a game or software program. Also helps diagnose performance issues.
Handbrake (http://handbrake.fr) - Make digital backups of your favourite DVDs and convert/compress those video files into whatever format you prefer. This is a must-have for anyone serious about maintaining a media PC. Also check out XBMC and Boxxee if you're super-serious, and every computer should have a copy of VLC (www.videolan.org) by now.
Windows Live - Windows 7 didn't come bundled with any software this time around, but Microsoft has made applications like Movie Maker, Photo Gallery and Mail available for free. Windows Security Essentials is also a smart move for PCs.