Free is a bargain-hunter's delight, and the Internet has recently become a hotbed of Web-based freebies that could be alternatives to pricey retail software.
This new generation of software, sometimes dubbed Web 2.0, doesn't even live on your computer. Instead, it resides on computers at a company, such as Google. You use your regular Web browser to access the tools and get to your saved data.
For example, instead of writing a letter to your mother in Microsoft Word, retail cost $200, you would direct your Web browser to www.zohowriter.com, and write the letter there for free. It has the same basic tools as Word, including the ability to print the letter. You can go back months later to retrieve it.
Or, instead of organizing plans for a wedding on a spreadsheet in Microsoft Excel, which sells for about $190 retail, go to www.spreadsheets.google.com and use free spreadsheet software. There, bride, groom and mothers can easily log on to the sheet and even edit it at the same time.
Besides being free, advantages of these online applications include no need for installing or updating software. They are easy to use because they mimic familiar software. Your data is accessible anywhere you have a browser and Internet access, and it won't be lost if your computer disk fails. It's easier to share and collaborate with other people. And you can often import from and export to common file formats, such as .doc and .xls.
Disadvantages include a need for continuous Internet access. Online tools have fewer options, such as font sizes and styles for word processing. Your data is stored on servers at a large company, not your computer hard disk drive, which might make you uneasy. And some tools have advertisements on the page.
You also run the risk that a small Web-tool provider will go out of business and shut you off from access to your data. That's why you should opt, all else being equal, for the bigger companies less likely to go bankrupt, and choose tools that allow you to export your data, said PC Magazine's editor-in-chief Jim Louderback, who has tested many of the applications.
Make no mistake, retail software, including the Microsoft Office products, are mostly superior tools because of their depth of options. But how many bells and whistles do you need for basic computing?
"The features [of Web-based software] may not be as good, but most people don't use all the features of their desktop applications anyway," said Rafe Needleman, Cnet.com editor. "If my mother needed a spreadsheet, I would tell her to use one of these."
Many people might prefer fewer options, said Scott Testa, chief operating officer of Mindbridge Software, a developer of Intranet products. "A lot of users want simplicity over complexity," he said. "If I were to start over again with a clean slate, I'd try to do as much online as possible."
Some Web sites offer suites of Web-based products -- www.google.com, www.zoho.com, www.jot.com, www.goffice.com and www.thinkfree.com. A software alternative that lives on your computer instead of the Web includes the free OpenOffice, www.openoffice.org.
Below are common tasks and examples of the many free online alternatives, as suggested by Louderback, Needleman, Testa, and Ismael Ghalimi, creator of the Web 2.0 list of office software at www.itredux.com.
E-mail. This is perhaps the most useful data to have stored online instead of sitting in such software as Microsoft Outlook. And it's a great way to dip your toe in the Web-tool pool. With online e-mail, you can get your e-mail from any computer with an Internet connection. You simply sign in and view your mail in a Web browser.
Check out Yahoo Mail, Gmail by Google and Hotmail by Microsoft, which is being renamed Windows Live Mail. There are many others, too, including the new Lycos mail program, www.lycos.com, which allows unlimited size file attachments and provides a generous 3 gigabytes of free storage space.
Google has the reputation for the best ability to search through e-mails. The new Yahoo Mail is not widely available yet but is getting rave reviews, and Hotmail has just been redesigned and upgraded. Beware that to have a Gmail account you need to be invited by someone who has an account, or you can go to the Gmail Web site (www.gmail.com) and find how to retrieve an invitation code using your cell phone.
Word processing. Many experts agree a program called Writely may be the cream of the crop here. But Google bought Writely and isn't yet accepting new users. Meanwhile, check out previously mentioned Zoho Writer, ajaxWrite at www.ajaxwrite.com and Writeboard at www.writeboard.com.
Calendars. Mom, dad and teenagers may all keep their own calendars. To keep in sync you might want to try an online calendar that everyone can gain access to. It will get everyone, literally, on the same page. Examples of online calendars are at Google, Hotmail, Yahoo, Jot, CalendarHub and 30 Boxes. Louderback said PC Magazine is partial to the AirSet calendar program (www.airset.com).
Spreadsheets. These pages of rows and columns aren't for everyone, but they're great at organizing data and working with tables of numbers. Just don't expect them to be as robust in features as Microsoft Excel, Louderback said. Try Google spreadsheets or use a search engine to find these: iRows, ThinkFree Office, Zoho Sheet, Num Sum and ajaxXLS.
Similar online applications exist for keeping to-do lists, creating presentations, building Web sites, backing up data and storing and sharing photos. Are these online applications for you? Maybe not. But it won't cost you a thing to find out.
Gregory Karp is a personal finance writer for The Morning Call, Allentown, Pa., a Tribune Co. newspaper. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. For additional discussion on spending wisely, see the Spending Smart blog at http://blogs.mcall.com/spendingsmart/.