As back-to-school shoppers exhibit parsimonious traits in the face of uncertain economic times, the question arises: Can you do what you need to do with a computer for less money, or even no money?
In many cases, perhaps most, the answer is yes. Herewith, some ideas after a brief but important caveat.
The caveat is this: There are many, many alternatives to standard applications the ones that can cost what seems like an arm and a leg but almost none of the alternative programs I have seen is the true equal of its higher-priced counterpart. Some offer more or better features; some offer fewer features. None, so far as I'm aware, is totally analogous to, for example, Microsoft Office.
I mention this upfront to spare readers some potential disappointment. Free programs are, well, free software, and sometimes you get what you pay for. On the other hand, you might be very pleasantly surprised by what you find.
Let's start with what I'm guessing is the "big" application for most people: word processing. Here, for my money (or not), my favorite remains OpenOffice.org's productivity suite, found, oddly enough, at www.openoffice.org. The program, available for Microsoft Windows, Linux and Apple Macintosh users, tries to ape just about every function and feature of the Microsoft Office applications suite, including word processing, spreadsheet and presentations. As I've said before, there's a database, but I'm as unimpressed with Base, the OpenOffice answer to Microsoft Access as, frankly, I am with the real thing.
The OpenOffice word processor is more than sufficient for most tasks, and many users likely will find it a very good replacement for Microsoft Word. (My wife isn't one of them; she prefers the genuine article.) The menu and command structure are very similar to those of Word, and although it has been reported that not every platform version of OpenOffice will open Microsoft Word XML 2007-formatted files (commonly known by the extension ".docx") they all will open and write the 2004 format, which all versions of Microsoft Word will read.
I'm also impressed with Calc, the OpenOffice spreadsheet. Unlike the latest version of Microsoft Excel for Mac, the OpenOffice version will support Visual Basic macros, the little bits of microcode that automate some spreadsheet functions. While we wait and wait for Microsoft to fix this on the Mac side, you still can get your work done.
Some students may want or need a presentation graphics program; those who do will likely not be disappointed with Impress, which is the OpenOffice answer to Microsoft PowerPoint. Impress also creates presentations in PDF and Adobe Flash formats, which can let you distribute them in smaller, nonalterable packages.
Web browsing is free in terms of software. Microsoft's Internet Explorer 8, Google's Chrome, Mozilla.org's Firefox and Apple's Safari are all available for Windows users. Firefox supports Linux as well as Macintosh, the latter being the home platform for Safari, of course. Opera, the Norwegian browser I've discussed many times, also spans just about every major computing platform. Many users swear by it.
E-mail, however, is a different challenge. Many people use Web-based services such as AOL, Google's Gmail, Microsoft's Hotmail or Yahoo Mail. All of these, in their most basic incarnations, are free and merely require an Internet browser for access.
However, if you want to access some specific e-mail services and prefer to have a separate e-mail "client" for this, Mozilla's Thunderbird available, as is Firefox, via www.mozilla.com is my personal favorite among the free programs. It's elegant, practical, versatile and lets you request a return receipt for your e-mail no matter what computing platform you're using. (In Mac-land, Apple and Microsoft, among others, seem to think a return-receipt function is unnecessary.)
If you're committed to doing everything online, Google Docs, part of the Google world-cradling platform of applications, will cover your word-processing, spreadsheet and presentation needs. It's free unless, you're paying for a connection to the Internet or wireless airtime.