John's Computer Tips

Much to my wife's chagrin, I'm a collector of things.  Here you will find some of the computer related tips and tricks I have picked up along the way.  Hopefully you will find them useful.

Maps & Mapping Software - Open Street Map

posted Apr 1, 2010, 6:14 AM by John Werner   [ updated Apr 21, 2010, 12:24 PM ]

Open Street Map - A Free, Editable, Street Level Map of the World

Wikipedia has revolutionized the world of encyclopedias.  Who would have thought 15 years ago that a community maintained encyclopedia could exist, yet alone be so complete and (for the most part) well written?  The Open Street Map (OSM) project seeks to do the same thing for cartography that Wikipedia did for reference books.

For most people, the power of Open Street Map is that the maps are freely available to everyone.  There are no subscriptions to buy or special software you need to access them.  Quite the contrary, there are actually many ways you can use the data.

Web Interfaces

The simplest way to view the map data is to visit the Open Street Map website (http://www.openstreetmap.org).  From there, you can do simple searches, zoom in/out, and pan around the maps.  The image at the left is an actual screen shot of the a map of the downtown Chicago, IL area.  (You can go directly to that map by visiting through this link.)

Since the Open Street Map data is freely available and different people want to see different information, there have been many different web viewers made.  Here are some of my favorites:

  • Townguide - This will generate a "poster" of an area of the map with selected points of interest (click for Townguide Example PDF)
  • Open Cycle Map - This generates a map that includes topographic lines and bike routes.  I don't care much about the bike routes, the the topographic lines are a big plus for me. (click for Sample Open Cycle Map)
  • CloudMade Maps - This is a great site for customizing the map you want to see.  You can choose different styles and even create your own!
For more different viewers, you might want to look at the Geohack US Map Page.

Other Mapping Software

If I tried to list all of the different packages and applications of the Open Street Map data, I would quickly run out space.  There are many different programs available that can use the map data and allow you to add your own information.  There are even programs that allow you to load routable OSM maps onto your Garmin GPS (see this link).  Having done this with my Garmin iQue 3600, I can say the result are impressive: I now have corrected maps on my GPS.

My current favorite piece of mapping software, Viking GPS, can use data from the Open Street Map project to draw map layers.  The main thrust of Viking GPS is presenting GPS data, but it can also be used to generate annotated maps of your own.

Editable Maps?

Have you ever come across a problem in a map?  How about finding out that a road you thought went through doesn't exist?  Maybe you live in a new development and your street doesn't show up so your friends can't find you.  What really makes the Open Street Map different from other maps is that you can fix the maps.   You can also add / remove / edit points of interest (churches, stores, etc.)  Editing the maps is not difficult, but it should be done carefully.  More information on this can be found on the Open Street Map web site, and there are several different packages (both online and local to you PC) that allow updating the data.

Conclusion

The Open Street Map project is changing the way maps are made and map data is shared.  The project is a world wide effort to provide street level mapping.  Best of all, the information is freely, and easily available.  There are many tools for viewing, printing, and even updating the Open Street Map.

Some of the Best Things Are Free: Pt. 4 - Office Suites

posted Jan 6, 2010, 9:24 AM by John Werner   [ updated Jan 11, 2010, 10:16 AM ]

Every office PC seems to come with a basic set of tools: E-mail, Web Browser, Word Processor, and Spreadsheet. In this article, I'll take a look at some free alternatives for E-mail, Word Processing, and Spreadsheets.  (I'm going to very consciously avoid the "browser wars.")

Word Processors and Spreadsheets are often part of a broader group of tools called an Office Suite.  I am leaving E-mail to a separate article as many people choose one "office suite" and another e-mail program.

Office Suites
Office suites are the basis of every electronic document these days.  When I first started using computers, a Word Processor was just that.  If you needed to create a spreadsheet, you used VisiCalc.  Presentation files were unheard of.  Now, we expect to be able to get a single package that provides Word Processing, Spreadsheets, Drawings, and Presentations.

OpenOffice.org - http://openoffice.org

Back in the early part of this millennium, I was introduced to a would be competitor to Microsoft Office (tm).  StarOffice was made by a German company and it worked very well.  One of the distinguishing features was that it was written from the ground up to be an integrated suite, something that it's more popular Redmond based competitor could not say about its offering.

About the same time I noticed StarOffice, Sun Microsystems also noticed them.  Soon after Sun acquired StarOffice and added it to their portfolio.  They also did something rather remarkable, they released an Open Source version of StarOffice called OpenOffice.org.  Both products are still offered.  The only real difference between the products is that StarOffice comes with some "elements" that aren't available in OpenOffice.org.  Quiet honestly, I can't tell you what those "elements" are, and Sun's own website doesn't say much more than "With the core binaries between StarOffice Software and OpenOffice.org the same,..." (http://www.sun.com/software/staroffice/faqs.jsp#g4)

Since this really is about OpenOffice.org, the free version, I'll stop talking about StarOffice except to say that the cost is only $35, which I believe essentially pays royalties from some of the extra elements.

OpenOffice.org runs on Linux, Mac, and Windows machines, just to name a few.  Since it is Open Source (which means the source code is freely available) it has been ported to some very interesting platforms, including the Nokia n810 Internet Tablet.  With a palm sized screen of 800x480 resolution, it is not the best device to use an office suite, but it is an interesting case study.  There is also a large community of people who have put together both template and extensions you can integrate.

One of my favorite features about OpenOffice.org is that every document, no matter what type, opens in it's own window.  This allows you to arrange your views of documents to suit your needs.  It may sound like a little thing, but some times it is the little things that really delight.

File Formats & Microsoft Compatibility

OpenOffice.org natively uses the ISO  standard Open Document Format (ODF) for storing it's files.  This format was developed to allow consistent document interchange between differing office products from differing manufactures (i.e. IBM, SUN, etc.).   Since the information in the document is stored in a compressed format, documents stored in ODF tend to be much smaller then those stored in some other formats.

Like it or not, Microsoft Office is well entrenched.  That means Microsoft Office's file formats are also well entrenched.  Luckily, OpenOffice.org can read and write all the standard Microsoft Office formats, including Microsoft's proprietary  XML formats (introduced in MS Office 2007).  Great lengths have been taken to make sure that both content and format are preserved.  I have very rarely seen any formatting issues when moving between Microsoft Office and OpenOffice.org.  I almost always see a speed improvement when working with OpenOffice.org, especially on very large MS Word files.

OpenOffice.org also supports both creating and editing PDF documents.  The creation is done by exporting the document as a PDF file.  The editing is actually done in the Drawing component.  All of the PDF docuements located in John's Documents were creat
ed with OpenOffice.org.

One of the common questions I have heard has to do with Macro compatibility.  In my experience, most Visual Basic macros written for MS Office work.  I can't really say that I have seen any VB macros that don't work.  I can say that I have been surprised that some very complex MS Excel macros for creating and scoring TSD road rallies worked without an issue in OpenOffice.org.

If you study the screen shots in this document, you will also see another difference - the layout of the menus is similar, but not quite the same.  The one thing that is probably the most confusing is how page settings are done.   IMHO, OpenOffice.org has put the page settings in the right place in the "Format" menu.

Another key difference between OpenOffice.org and MS Office is that OpenOffice.org does not include an e-mail client.  There are several good alternatives discussed later in this article.

Components

The major components of OpenOffice.org are Text Editor, Spreadsheet, Presentation, Drawing, Database, and Equation Editor.  I'll give a brief overview of each of these below.

Text Document - Writer

To me, the bread and butter of any office suite is the word processor.  OpenOffice.org Writer provides all of the features you would expect from a modern word processor, plus a couple you might not think of: tables, spell checking, outline numbering, WYSIWYG, page settings, character formats, mail merge, etc.  Writer also supports the export of your document as a PDF -- a great feature if you are worried that the format of your document could be changed.

For years, OpenOffice.org Writer has provided a Styles and Formatting window that allows the easy modifying of document styles, something that is fairly recent in MS Word.

Another winning feature is the Navigator Window.  This window provides a great view into your documents, and it allows the re-arranging of
sections.  It also can be used as a navigation window to quickly jump to different locations in your document.

So what is missing?  Having used both MS Word and OpenOffice.org side-by-side for nearly a decade, I can honestly say I have only found one feature missing: outline view.   Depending on who you are, this may or may not be important.  MS Word provides an Outline view of your document that allows you to both edit and re-arrange the document.  OpenOffice.org Writer does not.  The closest view thing that is offered is the Navigator Window.  While this allows you to re-arrange the document and see the overall structure, it does not allow actual editting of anything that is below the heading level.

Spreadsheet - Calc

It's hard to underestimate the usage and value of spreadsheets
.  I have seen spreadsheets used for everything from calculating numbers, to storing data, to creating forms, and even creating very complex table driven documents. OpenOffice.org Calc supports all of the standard features one expects from a spreadsheet program, including the ability to read and write MS Excel files, write formulas, sum areas, do statistics, and create graphs.  Like Writer, OpenOffice.org Calc supports the direct exporting of a spreadsheet to a PDF file.

Like with Writer, Calc also has a Navigator Window.

Having used both MS Excel and OpenOffice.org Calc at the same time, I did find one interesting difference worth noting: many calculation functions that have to be specifically enabled (or added) to MS Excel are always available in Calc.

Presentations - Impress


OpenOffice.org uses the same program, Impress, to create presentations as it does to create drawings, Impress.

In presentation mode, Impress is your standard presentation authoring program.  It comes with the normal views you expect from a presentation program: Outline, Slide Sorter, Notes, Hand-outs, and Normal (or single slide).  Impress can read and write MS PowerPoint files, along with the Open Document Format Presentation format.

Compatibility with Microsoft PowerPoint is very good, but not always perfect -- sometimes the appearances change subtly.  Since presentations tend to be very carefully laid out, I would recommend that if you expect to be using PowerPoint to display it, you should at least check your presentation with a Microsoft PowerPoint Viewer just to check them.

Drawings - Impress

As a drawing tool, Impress does just that.  Impress is a vector drawing program.OpenOffice.org's drawing tool, Impress, is a quite powerful tool. I have found myself using it for doing everything from simple Org-charts to flowcharts to even creating birthday cards.

Impress has the standard vector drawing program features, including basic shapes, lines, textures, and gradients.  It also supports connectors (lines that remain connected to objects no matter where they are moved) and multi-page drawings.  One of the particularly interesting features about Impress is its ability to convert a bitmap image into a vector image.
  This can yield some very interesting effects, especially if the 2D image is then converted into a 3D, perspective image.

Impress does fail to impress with the list of supported file formats it can read and save.  In addition to saving PDF files, it can also edit them.  As for reading / writing standard vector drawing formats other than ODG, I have been as yet unable to find anything.

Database

The database component of OpenOffice.org, Base, does not support the reading and writing of Microsoft Access files.  There.  I've said it.  It does, however, allow you to create relation databases against a variety of database connections, including JDBC, ODBC, Oracle, MySQL, dBase, spreadsheets and others.   Yes, I did say spreadsheets.  The data for a database can be stored in a spreadsheet, and SQL queries can be run against it in OpenOffice.org's database application.

[In the first paragraph, I said that Microsoft Access files are not supported.  While technically correct, it is not entirely true.  On a computer with Microsoft Access, MS Access files can be opened through the ODBC interface.]

OpenOffice.org Database allow the creation and manipulation of tables, queries, forms, and reports.  Queries can be created in SQL, through a graphical editor, much like the one available in MS Access.  Wizards are provided for creating tables (the storage for the data), queries, forms, and reports.

As with other components in OpenOffice.org, PDF exporting is well supported.  Reports and forms can be exported to PDF and HTML.



Templates

Often, the usability of a particular office suite program comes down to the templates that are available to make your life easier. While OpenOffice.org does not come with a large number of templates when you download it, there is a very active community that is creating templates (and other add-ons) for it, and to be quite honest, I am very impressed with how much they have created.

Access to new templates is found by going to the File menu, selecting "New", then selecting "Templates and Documents."  At the bottom of the window that opens up, there is an option to "Get more templates online...."




Some of the Best Things Are Free: Pt. 3 - Banking Software

posted Dec 31, 2009, 6:29 AM by John Werner   [ updated Jan 2, 2010, 11:02 AM ]

I know this is not quite the blog-entry I had promised, but I did get a question about it, so I thought I'd throw in the answer as best I could....

I've been using Quicken to do my personal finances since 1994, back when it was still a DOS based application.  That's well over 15 years now.  There's only one small problem with that: a little over 5 years ago, I decided to cut myself loose from the Redmond owned operating system and run Linux.  Why was that a problem?  Because Quicken isn't available for Linux.  Since that time I have been looking for a good alternative, and I am starting to think I am close.

If you are a die-hard Quicken fan, you may want to consider just staying with it as there are some things it does that no one else can do because of patent restrictions.  If you are just looking for something to do you own banking or run a business, and you are not partial to Quicken, then there are some alternatives.  I have also included some pointers on how to use Quicken under Linux if that's a road you want to go down.

Before I go to far, I should make a quick disclaimer that I have only a passing knowledge of these alternatives.  I have played around with them, but I still don't use them full-time.  This is also not a complete list of alternatives.

BTW, I am not sure if I mentioned it in my previous blogs, but you can click on any picture to see it in full size!

HomeBank - http://homebank.free.fr/

For personal use, my favorite free personal banking software is HomeBank.  It is fairly intuitive in it's interface, and it offers some nice charting features.  It also runs on a variety of platforms including Mac OS X, Windows, Linux, and even the Nokia n810 Internet Tablet.  For me, the last
one is a big plus because it should enable me to take my accounts with me wherever I go -- even if it is just to the store.  (note: I'm not sure how well it synchronizes data files between multiple machines, so this may or may not work
as well as I think it could.)

HomeBank provides the ability to import standard format banking files (QIF, QXF/OXF, CSV) and to export QIF files.  I played around with importing 15 years of Quicken data, and it worked very well.  It also showed me just why credit-cards and I are not a good mix.

I really like HomeBank's User Interface.  The first window you come to shows all of your accounts and any automated transactions that are pending.  If you want to look at an account, you simply open it by clicking. That will open a window that shows the details of the transactions in the account and allows you to add or edit transactions.  Reports are also quick and easy to make.  Just select "Reports" from the top menu of the main window, and you are off and running.

There are a few quirks in moving to HomeBank from Quicken.  The first one is that a "Reconciled" transaction is called "Validated" in HomeBank.  The other is creating repeating (or "automated") transactions.  To create an automated transaction, one has to first create the basic transaction, then archive it, then go to the list of archived transaction, select the transaction, then click automate and fill in the appropriate data.

There are also a couple of important to know differences in how HomeBank and Quicken store their data.  The first one has to do with data integrity & a vailabilty.  In Quicken, additions or changes to transactions are immediately stored to disk.  If something goes wrong, you don't loose anything.  In HomeBank, the data file is stored only when you explicitly save it.  That means you should consider saving regularly.

The other important difference is that HomeBank stores its data in a simple XML file.   While very transportable, it does not provide any sort of security.  If you wish to either protect your data from prying eyes or ensure data integrity, you will need to do some sort of outside encryption or data signing.  [Data signing let's you check that the data has not been altered, but it may not prevent someone from reading the data, that's the job of encryption.]   There are tools that do provide that, and if there is interest I will be glad to point out a few I know and have used.

GnuCash - http://gnucash.org/

GnuCash is not personal banking software.  It is accounting software.  As such, it scares me.  I'm not an accountant.  Having said that, let me tell you what I know about it from my experience with it.

To someone use to simply (not) balancing their checkbook, the road into GnuCash is a little steep. 
First, you need to get some basic understanding of accounting principles. 


From the Quicken world view, accounts are things you hold at a bank, and categories are things you assign transactions to.  In the GnuCash view, categories are just special accounts.  This is related to the double-entry system of book keeping that GnuCash employs.  Some invaluable introductory information for non-accountants can be found here: http://svn.gnucash.org/docs/guide/appendixa_accts_vs_cats1.html.  How this really works starts to become quite clear if you look at the ledger from "John's Checking" account (left).  This is the same data as from the HomeBank examples above, so you can see the difference in how it is represented.  [The data was simply exported as a QIF file form HomeBank and then re-imported into GnuCash.]  If you click on the picture with the green lines of text, you can see that every entry is shown as a transfer to an account.  The pay check (1st line) is shown as a transfer from account "Paycheck" into account "John's Checking."  The same idea applies to the payment to "Fairport Telcom."  It is shown as a transfer from "John's Checking" to the "Telephone" Account.  

The picture on the right shows the list of accounts that were created when I set up the data file.  This also highlights the categories-as-accounts idea.

The User Interface to GnuCash uses a different approach from HomeBank.  Where HomeBank uses different windows, GnuCash uses different Tabs within the same window.  (The tabs are visible in all of the screen shots in this section.)  While not my favorite way of presenting things, it does work.

Reporting in GnuCash is geared towards accounts.  It offers a wide variety of business type reports.  It does not do as well as HomeBank on some of the more interesting "personal" style bank reports, but that is as much a reflection on the target audience as anything else.

GnuCash runs under Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux.  Since it is open source, it is also buildable on most Unix platforms. GnuCash does support importing of QIF files, but it does not support QXF format.  It will export into QIF files.

GnuCash is a little safer in how it handles it's data than HomeBank. While it still stores the data in an unencrypted, XML file, it does store log files of the changes that you have made.  This allows some degree of recoverability, but saving often is still a good idea.  Again, if you are interested in ensuring data integrity or privacy, you should investigate signing and encrypting software.

Conclusion

In this article, I looked at two different pieces of free financial software.  The two of them represent [to me] the extremes of the financial software field.  GnuCash is designed for the accountant who wants to do double entry bookkeeping.  HomeBank is designed for the average person who just wants to be able to keep track of their bank accounts.  Which is better? That depends on your needs.

There are other free accounting packages out there, including Grimsbi, that I have not mentioned.  Feel free to leave a comment if you find one you really like.

Addendum: Running Quicken under Linux

There are two ways to run Quicken under Linux.  

CrossOver Office - http://www.codeweavers.com/

The first method is to run a commercial package called CrossOver Office.  This Linux package is based on the WINE project and provides a Windows API interface that runs on Linux.  It does not emulate Windows, it just provides the functions and methods Windows software expects to use.  CrossOver Office is more advanced than Wine and has been specially tuned to run some programs, like Quicken.

The biggest issue I have with this solution is that it is a bit slow, especially in the screen repaints.

Use a Virtual Machine

The second way to run Quicken under Linux is to run Windows under Linux and then run Quicken under Windows.  There are several packages out there that allow you to create a Virtual Machine (VM) under Linux.  A Virtual Machine can be thought of as a virtual computer that has been created within the Operating System you are running.  It acts and behaves like a real computer, except that there is no extra hardware being run.  This has great possibilities for many things, including running Windows in a Virtual Machine while running Linux.

While there are several different VM packages available, my personal favorite is VirtualBox.  Since Virtual Machine software is a topic for a different post, I'll leave it here for now.

Some of the Best Things Are Free: Pt. 2 - More Google Goods

posted Dec 23, 2009, 6:46 AM by John Werner   [ updated Dec 31, 2009, 11:09 AM ]

In the first installment of this series, I talked about some of the free web based applications that have been put together by Google.  In this installment, I'll discuss some more Google products including both some Web Based ones, and some that run on your own PC.

More Google Web Goods

I'll start off with looking at some other web based services from Google.

Google Translate - http://translate.google.com
When I was working for a German based company, I occasionally received links to web pages written in German.  While I studied German in high school, and even claim to still know enough to survive on my own, reading an article entirely in German is still difficult.  Enter Google Transl
ate.

Google Translate provides the ability both to translate individual phrases or entire web pages.  Like most translation software, it is not perfect, but it is usually more than good enough to allow you to understand what was written, even if the phrasing is a bit strange.  Here is an example from one of Germany's magazines, Der Spiegel:  Original GermanTranslated into English.

Google Translate also supports the translating of documents.  The picture below shows part of one of my introductory letters translated into German.  The document was in MS Word format, that I uploaded to Google Translate.  The image at the left shows part of the translation, and you can even see the dialog balloon Google opened to show the original text.  Would I send this out to anyone? Probably not, but it does give a good start.

Google Reader - http://reader.google.com
This is one of those Google tools I use and I don't use.  Google Reader is an RSS news reader. What does that mean?  It means it takes RSS news feeds and presents them to you so you can read them. So what is an "RSS News Feed?"  Quite simply it is a way publishers of web content can let you know about there newest articles and features without having to have you load their entire web page.  I use RSS News feeds to let me know what is going on at sites I love.

One of my personal favorites in the RSS News feed from The Register.  It's IT news with a twist, and it's available here: http://www.theregister.co.uk/headlines.rss.

So why don't I use Google Reader more often? Because I have integrated a "gadget" for it into my "igoogle" page.

iGoogle - http://igoogle.com
iGoogle is simply Google's personalized home page. 
You can add almost any content to it by adding "gadgets" and changing the theme of the page.  The number of gadgets available is simply staggering.  They range from weather applications to news readers to chat clients to calendars to games to a mail reader to...  well, if you have thought about it, someone has probably written it by now.

The image shows part of my iGoogle page, which I have heavily customized.

Google Books - http://books.google.com
While not a complete library, it is amazing to see just how far Google has gotten in its quest to digitize all of the world's literature.  Even I didn't realize just how far they had gone until I was at a major US bookseller's website and found a link to preview a book i was considering buying.  The link went into Google Books.

Other Web Tools

While I have mentioned many of Google's free tools, I have by no means exhausted the list.  Google also have a whole host of tools for webmasters.  I should also mention that one of the Internet's biggest video posting services is also part of the Google empire: YouTube.

Google PC Goods
In addition to it's large portfolio of web based tools, Google has a large number of tools that run on your own personal computer.  Most of these tools are supported under Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux.

Picasa - http://picasa.google.com
Picasa is one of the best photo management programs available.  Originally developed by an outside company, Picasa was purchased by Google a few years ago.

Picasa installs on your own computer and can run without an network connection. It allows you to edit and organize photos as well as creating collages and slideshows you can send to friends or blog  You can also create web photo albums that you can share.  Here's a web photo album from a trip to the Daimler Benz Museum in Stuttgart.

Best of all, Picasa is available for Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux.

Google Earth - http://earth.google.com
Depending on your view point, Google Earth is either a "gee-wiz" application or a useful tool.  I find it a little bit of both.  In it's simplest form, Google Earth allows you to explore the world (and the night sky).  When "used in anger," it can become an incredibly powerful tool.  I have used it for everything from getting directions, to exploring an area I was going to visit, to laying out a road rally, to checking on the weather, to looking up APRS users, to finding Geocaches.

And once again, the best feature I like about it is that it runs on Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux.   There is also a commercial version available that offers even more features.

Google Desktop Search - http://desktop.google.com
If you are like me, you find it very easy to remember that you wrote something in a document somewhere, but you just can't seem to ever find it when you are looking for it.  That's the problem Google Desktop Search solves so very well.  Google Desktop Search puts the power of Google's search engine to work on your own computer so that you can find that document containing the recipe for butter-cream icing that you saved.

Google Talk - http://talk.google.com
Google Talk is Google's Instant Messaging client.  Although I do have a Google Talk account, the Google Talk Client is one of those tools I really haven't used much and don't use very often.  The reason?  It's only really supported under Windows.  Never the less, there are many IM clients that do support using Google Talk, so I still use my account for most of my IM'ing, even if I don't you the PC Client.

Gizmo - http://www.gizmo5.com
Gizmo is a new addition to Google's empire.  It is a VOIP (Voice Over IP) program that allows you to make computer-to-computer and computer-to-phone calls much like Skype.   I use the Gizmo client on Nokian n810 Internet Tablet to receive and make calls through my Google Voice account.  Unfortunately, since the recent aquisition, new Gizmo accounts are not being created.  Hopefully this will change soon.

While exactly what the future holds as Gizmo is being integrated into Google, there are clients available for Windows, Mac, and Linux.

Onwards
Wow, Google certainly has come a long way from a search engine.

In the next installment of this series, I will look at some non-Google free tools that you may find useful.  These include the cross platform OpenOffice.org, Firefox, Thunderbird, GIMP, and Pidgin.  Further down the road, I will dive into some mouth watering tools that run primarily on Linux, the world's best free OS.

Enjoy,
- John

Some of the Best Things Are Free: Pt. 1 - The Google Web Things

posted Dec 22, 2009, 6:30 PM by John Werner   [ updated Dec 23, 2009, 12:18 PM ]

I wouldn't say I am frugal, but I am certainly careful on how I spend my money.  I'd rather drive a very good condition, used car and take my family out to eat than struggle to make a new car payment and wonder how I am going to afford groceries.  Now that I find myself "between jobs," I'm even more careful about how and where I spend my money.

With my love of computers and software, one might think that I spend a lot of money on them.  Actually, I don't.  I don't even resort to software piracy.  It's not the legal issues that bother me with that, it's the moral ones:  I used to write software for a living, and if I were to steal some one else's work, wouldn't I being saying it was alright if my work was stolen?  So, how do I do it?  Simple, I look for the free alternatives.

So, what are these alternatives.  That's what this series of articles is about.  All of these software tools I mention are free (or nearly free) to use.  With only one or two exceptions, they are all things I use and would hardily recommend to others.   The tools range everywhere from e-mail clients to mapping software to translation services to photo-albums to calendars.  Some tools are web based, and some run on your own computer, and I'm not just talking Windows PC -- Max and Linux users can use them also. Unfortunately, there are also some tools that I have just not found a good alternative to, and I will cover those in a future article and point out the best of the alternatives I have found.

Having spent so much time on the introduction, I think it is time to get down to business.   Fortunately, Google provides a great place to start.

The Google Web Things

I'll start with one of the biggest and most cross-functional tools I have found:  Google.   The name itself has become synonymous with searching the web: "I'll just 'Google' around for a good site."  Apart from being a blatant misuse of a trade name (much like Xerox is a company, not a verb for making photocopies), it is also a complete understatement.  Google is massive.  Let's look at just some of the free tools you could be using right now to run your business.

Google Maps - http://maps.google.com
If you have never tried Google Maps, you owe it to yourself to see just how powerful a web application it is.  Need to find some place?  Just surf to http://maps.google.com, enter the address, and let the map pop up.  It will even give you directions on how to or from get there.  

That's all good, but that's just the start.  It's also great for finding things.  Let's say your in Fairport, NY and want some pizza, just go to Google Maps and do a search for "Pizza in Fairport, NY".  If you click on the link, you'll see just how many pizza places I have to choose from!

Gmail - http://www.gmail.com
Gmail is Google's answer to e-mail.  It offers a free email that you can read from the web or download to you favorite e-mail reader on your PC, handheld, or phone.  Storage space is virtually unlimited (I'm currently using 13M of my 7404 MB!), and the SPAM catching if well above par.  It also interfaces directly with Google Chat, so you can IM your friends or business associates quickly and easily.

Google Calendar - http://calendar.google.com
Need a calendar you can access from anywhere and that you can share with others, Google comes to the rescue.  You can create and edit events right through your favorite web browser.  You can also share calendars with others.  If you wish to take your calendar with you, you can synchronise it easily with most other calendar applications.  I actually keep the calendar on my Nokia n810 Internet Tablet synced with with my Google calendar so my family knows what I'm up to.

Google Voice - http://voice.google.com

This is probably my current favorite Google application.   It has just come out of Beta, and it is really cool.

Imagine what it would be like if you could give everyone who wanted to talk to you just one phone number they could call you on and that phone number would reach you whether or not you were at home, in the office, in the car, or even just sitting at Borders surfing the web while sipping on your latte.  That's what Google Voice does.  Google Voice provides you with a phone number of your choosing which will automatically connect to any phone(s) you choose.  You can tell Google Voice what "phones" to ring when it gets a call so that you can answer it on whatever is most convenient.  For most people, the cost of this is Free [there are some "special" area codes that for various reasons are not free].  I should also mention, that a phone might even be a VOIP client like Gizmo.

To augment the simple phone forwarding, there are a host of other cool features including transcribing voice mail, and free long distance.   "What free long distance?"  Yes.  Google Voice allows you to place a call through it's website.  How it does this is that you tell it both the number you call and which of your phone you want it connected to.  It then rings you phone.  When you answer, it starts ringing the phone at the phone number your are calling.

The transcribing voice mail is a feature I have grown to love.  If you fail to answer a call to your Google Voice number, it will go to voice mail.  You can set up Google Voice to transcribe the voice mail and forward it to your e-mail and/or even send it as an SMS message to your cell phone.  You can also listen to it through a web browser.

Google Documents - http://docs.google.com
Imagine being able to edit and share text documents and spreadsheets on-line.  That's what Google Documents allows you to do.   Google Documents integrates with Gmail, so you can view and edit that MS Word (tm) document right from your web browser.  I'd like to say more about it, but I really haven't used it that much.  I prefer OpenOffice.org running on a real computer over the web experience.

Google Sites - http://sites.google.com
Need a website for free?  Google to the rescue.  Google Sites allows you to create your own websites.  These sites are hosted by Google.   How well does it work?  that depends what you are looking for.   It wouldn't work well for the full out version of The Snow Tire FAQ (http://www.snowtire.info)* which I run, but it does work well for other sites, like the one you are reading now..

(* at the time of this writing, The Snow Tire FAQ is running on 2 of the 8 cylinders as I switch hosting providers yet again :-( )


Part 1 Conclusion

As you can see, Google is more than just a search engine.  It's a way of life.  I have covered just a few of the web based Google tools.  In the next installment, I will look at Picasa, Google Earth, Google Desktop Search, Google Talk, and even Google Translate.

Enjoy,
- John

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