Free Software Competition Good for Consumers
It's amazing how high-tech companies have highs and lows and how their public perception changes accordingly.
A while back, IBM (Big Blue) was the big bad guy. Then Microsoft hit its peak and quickly took over the title of the company that "everyone loved to hate." Now, the hate-mongers are starting to go after Google.
But all of these companies and the competition between them have been good for the average consumer.
IBM brought us the personal computer revolution. Microsoft provided the software for the PC. Google brought us the idea of free software, making ad-support the main focus. IBM has pretty much bowed out of the consumer end of the equation, and Microsoft and Google are now battling it out.
Free software is one area of the battleground, and it is a boon for the average computer user. Not only is the software that these companies offer free, but also it is amazingly good. Here are a few free programs from each company that you won't want to miss.
The most spectacular program of the group may well be the one called Google Earth (earth.google.com). This program lets you fly to any place in the world to view satellite imagery, terrain and 3-D maps. You can also view outer space through images provided by the likes of the Hubble Space Telescope. The satellite imagery and pictures that Google Earth provides are truly amazing.
One of the most useful programs is one that I have previously recommended. It is called Microsoft Security Essentials (www.microsoft.com/security_essentials). It is an excellent anti-virus program that guards against viruses, spyware and other malicious software.
It's free. It's easy. It runs quietly in the background without using a lot of precious computer resources. As with other programs of this type, it has automatic updates which make it pretty hassle-free.
If you have a video camera, Microsoft's Movie Maker software may be just what you need. It has special effects, transitions, sound and captions.
If you have a digital camera, you don't want to miss the two competing photo programs from Microsoft and Google. Microsoft offers the free Live Photo Gallery (explore.live.com/windows-live-photo-gallery). Google has a comparable free program called Picasa (picasa.google.com).
Both are similar, and you may want to try them both. They do everything from helping your transfer your photos from your camera or memory card to organizing them to making them look good.
The editing and organizational tools in these programs are extensive. You can crop, rotate, adjust brightness, adjust color and fix red eye. You can turn your color photos into black and white or sepia.
You can tag the photos with names, places or any identification of your choosing. You can even let the computer perform face identification to find every picture of your spouse, child or friend.
Other areas where Microsoft and Google are in direct competition for free software are their online mail programs. Microsoft has Hot Mail, which is now called Live Hot Mail (explore.live.com/windows-live-hotmail). Google has Gmail (mail.google.com/mail). Both have junk mail filters and organizational tools.
Google and Microsoft also both have toolbars that work with Internet Explorer and Firefox to help make your Web surfing easier. Microsoft's search engine is called Bing, so its Internet toolbar is called the Bing Bar (www.discoverbing.com/toolbar). Google's is simply called Google Toolbar.
The idea behind these toolbars is really to give you access to a search engine directly from your browser, but they have become much more than that. They are really tools that can help you surf the Web. Both can give you instant access to information such as news and weather and can perform tasks such as auto filling a Web form.
The Google Toolbar, which has been around much longer, is really filled with wonderful tools. It can highlight search words on a page, translate Web pages, share a Web page that you see with others and much more. I highly recommend it.
Microsoft and Google also have online applications such as word processing programs, spreadsheets and presentation software that are all free. They also have special software to use for writing blogs.
Google puts many of its programs together in a package called Google Pack (pack.google.com). Microsoft rolls some of its into a bundle called Windows Live Essentials (explore.live.com/windows-live-photo-gallery). Google also has a listing of many of their free products at www.google.com/options. You are sure to be amazed by the number and scope of the offering. And all are free.
Be sure to check out both the Google and Microsoft offerings.
There may be no such thing as a free lunch, but there certainly are plenty of free software programs out there. Thanks to Microsoft and to Google for providing all of these. And thanks to the American ingenuity and competition that helped make them possible!
Send your computer-related questions for publication in this column to Sandy Berger at Computer Living Corp., P.O. Box 5895, Pinehurst N.C. 28374; or by e-mail at email@example.com.
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