Andrew Snowdon

11 Free Substitutes for Software You Don’t Have

In Uncategorized on Monday 12 July 2010 at 23:04

Working in the private or public sector, you don’t necessarily have control over what software is installed on your computer system. There are good IT security reasons for this, of course, but sometimes it’s inconvenient. Likely you have Microsoft Office, or the equivalent, at your disposal. But do you have Visio? Project? Publisher?

I cannot count the number of cringeworthy graphics I have seen hacked together from WordArt and AutoShapes in Powerpoint presentations over the decade I worked for my last employer. They were made by people who understood what they wanted to convey, but lacked the tools to do it.

Somehow I managed to get myself Visio and Publisher, so that I could draw real flowcharts and make print-ready posters. Licenses for MS Project, however, were scarce. That’s when I started looking farther afield and found OpenProj—as a Java implementation it ran easily on both my MacBook and the corporate mainframe. I was able to produce professional GANTT charts and project timelines without messing about turning Excel into graph paper.

Given that other people might on occasion run into similar problems, I’m linking to a few of my favourite “free” alternatives to expensive software. Not all of these qualify as Open Source in the strictest sense of the term, but they are freely available. They may not do everything that high-end commercial software does, or they may do more. They may not do it as well, or they may do it much better. Some of them may not work under Windows (I’m sorry, I haven’t been without a Linux box or a Mac since 1995) without some inventiveness on your part.

Of course, it is your responsibility to know what your company or government’s policy is with regards to software. If you find yourself in a courtroom or the basement of the CSE, I’m really sorry, but I did not tell you to breach any policies or break any laws. Install and use what you are allowed to install and use on the systems that you have access to. If you do otherwise, it is on your own recognizance.

Substitute for: Microsoft Office
OpenOffice is a pretty good substitute for MS Office; it will output files readable by MS Office if you let it, and it will read them in just fine, for the most part. Unfortunately, like everything Sun makes (coughJAVAcough), it is bloaty and is processor-hungry. Unless you really don’t have MS Office, try to avoid it.

Substitute for: some aspects of Visio
Graphviz is really neat. At its core, it is an interpreter that turns a text file into a directed graph (like a flowchart, or a network diagram). There are whole hosts of user interfaces that mean you never have to open a text editor (including Instaviz, a universal iOS app that is worth the price). If you’re adventurous, you can write scripts (PERL, PHP, Python, anything you like, really) that turn any data you have into a Graphviz datafile for some powerful data visualization. There’s a bit of a learning curve, but it’s well worth the effort.

Substitute for: Visio, expensive vector drawing software packages
The interface takes a little getting used to, but Inkscape is a powerful little vector drawing package. It’s a bit processor-heavy, but the ability to edit paths and bezier curves over multiple levels is

Substitute for: MS Publisher
Have you spent hours formatting a document in Word, painstakingly setting tabs, defining columns, and rearranging margins, just to have it print out ever-so-slightly off? MS Publisher lets you create a WYSIWYG layout just like real layout people who use Quark Xpress do (sort of). Of course, for the five times a year you will use it, it’s unlikely that your employer will pay for a license. Scribus is a decent substitute; it’s not perfect, and less intuitive than Publisher, but once you get the hang of it, you can get the job done.

Substitute for: Microsoft Project
Never used MS Project? You’re missing out. Make a list of interdependent tasks, interconnect them, give them durations, and watch your critical path and GANTT chart materialize in front of you. It’s pretty hard to get a hold of MS Project these days (at my last job, it was like pulling teeth from a chicken); OpenProj is a pretty good knock-off, and ships as a Java executable, so it will run on pretty much anything. People over the age of thirty will automatically respect you if you show up with a GANTT chart on paper. It’s magical. Seriously, though, no matter what new GTD theory is in vogue this week, PERT, Critical Path Analysis, and the GANTT chart have stood the test of time and are still in use by project managers everywhere. Why? Because they work, and they are an efficient representation of task information.

Substitute for: 2D and 3D graphing software
Yes, Excel is very good at making slick graphs. It’s not so good at graphing in three dimensions, graphing continuous functions, or evaluating large numbers like 10^307. I have used GNUPlot to model Erlang-C math that made Excel give up early in the game. Oh, and there’s integrated curvefitting, in case you have, for example, direct mailing response data that you want to fit to an exponential decay model. Contour graphs are a breeze. Everything is customizable. There is a slight learning curve, but with a bit of work you can create stunning, informative graphs and export them in a number of formats for use in your documents.

Substitute for: SAS, any statistical analysis software
Don’t say the US Government never did anything for you. NIST, besides having the best freely available manual on data analysis, provides Dataplot free of charge. It runs on practically everything: don’t laugh, but the source code is in FORTRAN. It will read data in a ridiculous number of formats and automatically perform a surprising number of statistical tests right out of the box. With Dataplot alone, you can develop and test complex models for the seasonality of data. The more statistics you know, the more use Dataplot will be to you; conversely, the more you use Dataplot, the more statistics you will learn.

Octave and Scilab
Substitute for: Matlab
If you don’t know what Matlab is, you don’t need Octave or Scilab. Basically, they are powerful matrix math interpreters that are largely equivalent to Matlab, except not so expensive. Experiment with both and find out which one suits your needs best; there are subtle differences.

Substitute for: Photoshop
You probably already have GIMP. If you don’t, you should get it. Even if you have Photoshop, you should have GIMP installed too. It’s far less bloaty than Adobe has let Photoshop become, and it’s just as easy and intuitive to use.

Substitute for: Commercial font editing software
The likelihood that you will ever need to edit a font is minute. The likelihood that you will edit a font without violating someone’s trademark, copyright, or patent is even smaller. That being said, if you’re the kind of person who likes to do such things (and lacks a program (Quark Xpress, for example) that allows you to turn text into vector paths), here’s your new toy.

That’s all I can think of for the moment. If I’ve left anything out that you feel is essential, let everyone know in the comments.

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Andrew Snowdon, Ms_CL. Ms_CL said: RT @snobiwan Thanks to @nickcharney, I've made a list of some of my fav useful free work-related software. Enjoy &share […]

  2. Great list Andrew. Some of these I was familiar with (and use regularly) others not.

    I will give GNUPlot a try. I am looking for the ability to add small notes (call outs) to points on a graph and have them track as I add or subtract data.

    I am a big fan of GIMP for all the reasons you stated. I really prefer the user interface over Adobe. Especially the Open and Save As dialogues.

  3. Awesome list, very helpful. Now I can just grab all of these rather than tweeting out those questions all the time ;p

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