Recently I talked about when to consider industry-specific software. This month let’s look at the other end of the spectrum: free software. You can find free (or very cheap) replacements for almost any piece of commercial business software you can think of.

  • Don’t want to spend $500 on a seat of Microsoft Office? Try OpenOffice,
  • Need an org chart but can’t justify Visio? There’s Gliffy,
  • WinZip costs $40, but IzArc is just as good for free,
  • Microsoft Project too costly? Check out GanttProject for free,
  • My favorite freeware of all, Google SketchUp,, is legal for commercial or personal use and is a must for any remodeler.

I have hundreds more suggestions. Drop me a line and I’ll send you my “Cheap Tricks” guide.
So what’s the catch? Not much. Most freeware is safe to use, and many titles are better than their commercial counterparts, but there are a few things to be mindful of:

  • For personal use only: Freeware versions of commercial products often restrict how you can use them. Read the user license carefully.
  • Privacy and security: Freeware may contain viruses, malware, or even “features” that compromise your privacy. It can also be so poorly written that it does more harm than good. Your best weapon here is research and sticking with quality download sites. Projects associated with SourceForge, a community of open-source developers ( are generally very good. If in doubt, post a question at my Computer Solutions forum at and we’ll try to research it for you.
  • Here today, gone tomorrow: Your favorite freeware could suddenly disappear, either swallowed up by a bigger fish or simply shelved by the developer. No problem if your freeware uses standard file formats such as .doc (MS Word); .xls (MS Excel); .mpp (MS Project). Worst case: you have to migrate to a commercial software application that can open your files.

—Joe Stoddard is a process and technology consultant to the building industry. To request a copy of his “Cheap Tricks” software guide, send e-mail to