Updated on 09.17.14

Open Source Software: 7 Free Solutions

Trent Hamm

As I’ve become more and more interested in the open source movement, I’ve gradually replaced almost all of my closed source software with open source applications.

At first, I bought in because of the “free your money” aspect. Open source software doesn’t cost a penny – just go download it. It’s also reasonably safe, given that the source is open to the world and there are a lot of very intelligent people out there constantly improving it, particularly the more popular packages. As a personal finance blogger, this aspect is a very powerful one, but it was only the first step.

Soon, I began to really appreciate the “free your freedom” concept. I began to see the political and social ramifications of open source software: how it affects the marketplace and how the open source concept affects everything.

But after a while, the sheer creativity of some of these packages came through, packages I would have never found without the open source concept, and I began to understand the “free yourself” perspective. You see, the power of it isn’t the fact that it doesn’t cost me anything, or even the potential for social change that it has. It’s the fact that the really profound packages can transform your life. There are a lot of bright people out there producing open source software, and they often hit upon niches that commercial packages wouldn’t hit upon – but they can sure fill a niche in your life!

Here are seven open source packages that have become a part of my daily life – and enabled me to find, record, store, and analyze my own thoughts and information about the world around me in ways I would have never dreamed possible even a few years ago. These software pieces have literally transformed my life.

note taking / information organization


Of all of the software I have ever tried in my life, this has been the most transformative. In terms of enabling, extending, recording, and organizing my thoughts, I have never found anything as amazing as KeyNote. Quite simply, KeyNote has made it possible for me to maintain this blog and to keep track of literally thousands of freeform ideas.

So what exactly is KeyNote? It’s not one of the “big” open source packages, so an overview is in order. KeyNote is a tool that lets you record a hierarchical series of notes in a single file. The interface for doing this takes about two minutes to learn and about two hours to really understand; once you “get” it, though, it can have a massive transformative effect on how you record your thoughts and information.

Here’s an example: I have a “default” KeyNote file. Within that file are a series of about twenty notes: To-Do, Finances, Readings, Writing Ideas, Diary, and so on. Under each one of these is a series of sub-notes, much like an outline: details on specific tasks to be done, notes on the bills to be paid and investments to review, and so on. It’s all free-form text pieces, which enables me to write three words or a thousand words, whatever I want. I also keep reviews of CDs, books, and films I enjoy, recipes I might try someday, and some general scratchpad sections for writing down things to think about later – and when I return to them, I update the note. My wife is starting to use it for student assessment notes and class attendance records. This stuff just scratches the surface of what’s possible, but they’re the tasks that I use KeyNote for on a daily basis.

blog management software


Obviously, WordPress has made The Simple Dollar possible. It provides the backbone for writing this site, managing all of the posts, and the public display that you see. Writing this blog has had a transformative effect on my personal finances (and on other aspects of my life), and for that I have WordPress to thank.

But if it were only that simple, I wouldn’t be mentioning WordPress here. The extensibility and customizability of WordPress has enabled me to start several personally important projects with it that may or may not ever see the light of day to the public, but have enabled me to figure out and understand aspects of my own life that I didn’t understand before. I use WordPress for a highly personal blog that resides (effectively) offline, a place where I can record my innermost thoughts and tag and categorize them. For me, it’s not so much a desire to journal but a desire to figure out who I am. I used to use various diaries for this, but they never led me to greater understanding of myself; however, WordPress (and the capabilities you can add to it, such as customized fields) has made it possible for me to start tying a lot of different threads of my psyche together.

Generally, I use Keynote to keep my interactions with the world straight, but I use WordPress to understand myself better, and I feel more happy, alive, and free than I have ever felt in my life.

mind mapping software


Whenever I am in a meeting, you’ll likely catch me doing one of two things: making a list (i.e., what KeyNote does well) or writing a word and surrounding it with lots of other related words, then branching out from there. This second activity is exactly what FreeMind does: it lets you map connections between concepts in a very simple fashion.

I’ll use an example: let’s say I’m thinking about Milton Friedman. Around him, I might write words like “free market” and “economics.” I might then think a bit and connect “eBay” to “free market,” then start connecting stuff to eBay. Where do I go from there? Who knows, but when I look at the diagram at the end, I’ll see some interesting pairings at opposite ends, and by following the path connecting them, I’ll make some very interesting connections that, if nothing else, cause my thoughts to flow in a different fashion.

FreeMind makes this mind mapping process incredibly easy. Because of it, I’ve grown the ability to do effective mind mapping in my head on the fly and thus I now rely on FreeMind mostly just for very complex maps. In other words, regular use of FreeMind has literally changed the way I think and understand things – for the better, I believe. I now am able to make connections between disparate things that before seemed to be completely unrelated; in short, I understand the world better.

Mozilla Firefox
extensible web browsing


There’s not much about Firefox as a web browser that hasn’t already been said; it’s pretty much the best one you’ll find in wide release for one big reason: it’s insanely extensible. How so? Here are ten extensions to Firefox that I use on a daily basis to keep my crazy life straight (including keeping up on the news, keeping track of my cell phone minutes, making phone calls, managing my grocery list, and so on):

  • Sage is an RSS feed reader that integrates into Firefox. With one click, I get a listing of about 200 of my favorite blogs, along with the new postings for all of them. It’s completely changed the way I keep up with the blogosphere.
  • Cell Minute Trackers I used to have to jump through a bunch of hoops to keep track of my wireless minutes. Now there are extensions for Firefox that let me know immediately upon firing up my browser how much talk time I have left – keeping me from overextending myself in a very expensive way. They’re available for T-Mobile, Verizon, and Cingular, with rumors of more providers on the way.
  • GMail Space Firefox also acts as a backup tool for a lot of my creative writings by letting me use my GMail account as a file archiver. I just click a few times and data is archived at GMail, which I can retrieve anytime. I very rarely use a memory stick thanks to this.
  • Skype Sidebar If you have broadband, this plugin will pretty much transform the way you think about telephones. Just using headphones and a little mic, I can call pretty much anyone I wish and talk as long as I want for peanuts while doing other productive stuff.
  • del.icio.us Bookmarks One thing that used to frustrate me is that when I would change computers, all of my bookmarks would vanish, so if I wanted to find my useful resources, I had to remember them. Now Firefox integrates with del.icio.us, which allows you to have all of your bookmarks on any computer you want, even if it’s not your own, and it’s just as easy as adding bookmarks was before. This is invaluable if you travel very much.
  • Answers I’m fairly literate, but sometimes when I’m reading a document, I hit a word or phrase that I don’t understand. If it’s in Firefox, I just hit “Alt” and click on the word to get a complete definition and explanation, allowing me immediately to comprehend what’s going on.
  • Grocery List Generator I’m a foodie, so when I find a great recipe or concept on the internet, I tend to want to pick up the ingredients and try it. A click or two and I add it to my grocery list. I also keep my laptop open when building my grocery list on Friday evenings.
  • All-In-One Gestures The final piece is a tool that lets you use quick finger gestures to do common things like switch tabs and scroll down the page and such. I have about four gestures I use over and over and over again that speeds up the surfing process greatly.

thunderbird.jpgMozilla Thunderbird
extensible email client


I used to be a Microsoft Outlook junkie for my personal needs, using it as an email client as well as a calendar for managing important events in my life. When Thunderbird was released, I basically yawned – it didn’t do half of the stuff that Outlook did, even though I was a bit jealous of the great spam filtering that was integrated into Thunderbird. I didn’t get on board, in fact, until I heard about a wonderful extension for Thunderbird called Lightning that turns a cool application into something completely amazing.

Lightning takes a strong email client and adds in a lightweight calendaring and to-do system that creates a suite on par with Outlook, except with strong spam filtering and fantastic email-to-task linkage. Great, you think, he’s all enthralled by an Outlook clone. Where this gets transcendent is the integration with Google Calendar, allowing me to be sitting at a conference, fire up a web browser, add an event to my Google Calendar, and then have it automatically add itself to Thunderbird when I get home. I can print off gorgeous calendars to post on the wall for my wife to let her know when I’m on the road, and perhaps best of all, I use it as a GTD manager for many aspects of my life.

Thunderbird alone has saved me hours of hassle in dealing with an address book, a datebook, a to-do list, a personal planner, a task documentation manager, and a method of keeping my wife informed of what I’m up to.

word processing, spreadsheet, and presentation software


I used to get by with just the basic utilities that came with Windows for my long-form writing and calculations (namely WordPad and Calculator). I envied Microsoft Office users, but not only did the price tag keep me away, I didn’t really understand how great the productivity could be if you really understood the tools; I used them in college in computer labs, but only to do immediate tasks. Now I understand their power.

First of all, OpenOffice Writer has simply made it possible for me to write and manage lengthy documents. I’ve been working on a novel for a year now, and the internal controls offered by Writer have enabled me to keep track of the characters and the narrative flow with just a few clicks. Even better, I can export the whole thing to PDF and ship it to others to read without breaking a sweat. This program has enabled me to fit my dream of writing The Great American Novel into my busy life – and has made me a more content person.

OpenOffice Calc (i.e., an Excel replacement) has singlehandedly made the personal financial transformations I’ve described on this site possible. I use it to handle my monthly budget, do investment calculations, model what my mortgage might look like, analyze what I might do for retirement, and so on. Every time I model anything to understand how money works – usually to finish a post here at The Simple Dollar – I use Calc. Software is no longer a limitation on people understanding their finances, and this is especially true for me. Calc is literally making me money on a daily basis because it has enabled me to finally understand my own finances.

Although I don’t use the other pieces of OpenOffice, these two elements alone have had a major effect on how I live my life.

instant messaging software


This is perhaps the most “expected” item that I would list here, as most people are familiar with the power of instant messaging software. Gaim has literally made it possible for me to maintain old friendships, build new friendships, and provide the launching pad for some great life experiences. It’s basically platform agnostic, which means that I can simultaneously converse with my friend on Linux using Yahoo, another friend on a Mac using iChat, three other people in an IRC chat room, and yet another friend on Windows Messenger.

It seems so simple and commonplace, yet the human relationships I’ve maintained or built because of Gaim (as well as social networking sites) are numerous, and that alone makes this software an essential part of my life.

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  1. Chris says:

    Didn’t realize you were such a nerd. That’s awesome that you’ve found open source software.

    As for spreadsheets, there are lightweight ones out there as well that function fine for the kind of budgeting and planning most people need to do. I personally like Gnumeric for that lightweight purpose. When it doesn’t take 2-3 minutes to really get started, I am more inclined to do it.

    On the Mac, there is a little open source app called Cashbox that I’ve been using to keep track of my Misc and Food budget. It’s not quite to the point where you can do your whole budget on it, but it is great to have running in the background all the time to remove the barrier to keeping track.

  2. Daniel says:

    This a great post! My laptop is just over a year old, and I bought it in haste when my last one failed (during graduation portfolio creation). I was thinking of going even farther into debt to get a newer one a few months ago. I stumbled across your blog and found new ways of thinking about money, and also a new way to use my computer. Using various posts about software you’re reviewed or suggested, I feel like I have an entirely new laptop! I love it! I do more, and have more fun doing it. It also brings a smile to my face that with a little effort to clean up a hard drive and some GREAT free software, I feel as if I’ve beaten “the man!”

  3. Serena says:

    Thanks for the great and useful post – I love firefox and thunderbird, but I never heard of the grocery list add on. One tip – I love Google calendar, and I just started using it for meal planning too – my husband can see it and add to it too, and this will let us get ideas from our past meals to plan dinner for the upcoming week. Combined with the add-ons you’ve mentioned it gets even easier to make the grocery list!

  4. If you use Windows, I’m a huge fan of the MyStickies Firefox extension. It’s probably something like Scrapbook, but it’s well worth looking into. I only wish they had a way to import and export the stickies to text files. I need to control my own data.

  5. Leah says:

    Danial said it best, using open source makes me feel like I’ve beaten the system, or “the man.” In a high demand, technical and creative industry, I use open source whenever I can which saves me money at home and saves my company money.

  6. jhn says:

    I use a fancy note-taking app sometimes (OmniOutliner), but nothing beats learning a powerful text editor and keeping track of your life via plain ASCII. It’s more powerful (like the snippets feature of TextMate) than anything else I’ve every used, software-wise. It’s cross-platform, and comptaible with almost every program on earth. (There’s a reason why Project Gutenberg puts all of there etexts into ASCII– they want to make sure they can still be read in 100 years.) And if you use a system like Markdown you can easily convert to good-looking HTML.

  7. Rob says:

    If you really want to go all Opensource may I suggest switching from Win to Linux? I did it a few years ago (Fedora) and haven’t looked back. Best thing is, with most of the apps you’ve listed they are standard on systems like Ubuntu, Fedora etc.

    Of course you don’t have to switch, you could just download and burn a live CD which allows you to test drive linux without making changes to your system. Then when your ready, install.

    FYI, my Fedora install also has Tomboy notes -similar to your note taking app, and a sweet desktop search called Beagle. Far better than anything else in my opinion. I also use Gnucash for keeping my books it too is opensource and free and very good!

  8. Jocko says:

    Hey, that was pretty interesting, man, if only for the info about a few Firefox plugins I was unaware of (I’m a longtime user of most of these already). One thing you missed: Ubuntu. Ubuntu Linux is an open-source OS that has been set up for users of Windows or Mac GUIs and it streamlines everything, from file management to installing new software. I use a DSL modem; when I installed Ubuntu, the first time I started it it was able to connect to the internet immediately, and once you can do that you have access to tutorials, message boards, and documentation galore. All my hardware works fine, I don’t have to pay for the OS or any future upgrades, and if I feel like it I can even tweak it myself.

    Most of the stuff you mentioned above runs on it; it even _comes_ with Open Office. I’m thinking of switching my laptop over so I can take Ubuntu on the road. It seems like a big step, but once I took it on my desktop at home I realized it was actually quite painless. One piece of advice: download Automatix2 fairly early; it helps consolidate the initial setup.

    Thanks for the good article. Keep spreading the Open Source word!

  9. Jason says:

    …anyone ever sent a dollar to an open source movement ? It’s not about the ‘free’ its the about the ‘open’. Send ten bucks. Now !

    the alternative is having your sensitive data locked in applications that only one company knows exactly what it does.Thats why open source grew.

    Although now we have google….which does just the samething but smiles while it does it :-)

  10. ToddZ says:

    I love FreeMind too, but there are some situations where a hierarchy — even if it’s not vertical — doesn’t quite work. For those things I fire up CMapTools. It allows you to create multiple connections between nodes. I use it quite a bit to help think my way through complex problems. It can do a lot of sophisticated stuff that I haven’t touched yet, like real-time collaboration over the net, but even the basics are very useful.

  11. regeya says:

    Jason-I’m dealing with a wonky MS Works Calendar db right now, so I can sympathize. Anyone have any idea why Works Cal insists on exporting only if you specify a date range? Ugh. I’m making it a priority to convert the whole kit ‘n kaboodle to iCalendar format, so anything at all can be used.

  12. john says:

    i feel the same about keynote. i absolutely love and depend on this program. after trying dozens of programs free and commercial, i still haven’t found anything that rival it. hard to believe this program is free. it helps me to store and organize my most important ideas and data. the only thing that doesn’t get stored into this program is my mathematical notes which goes into “scientific notebook” and snapshots of webpages which gets stored into the free “evernote” program.
    keynote is the reason my last laptop was a windows and not a mac. i know you can run a windows emulation program on the mac, but i didn’t want to bother.

    there is one free program you might want to check out if you do most of your computing on a laptop with a sd or smart card slot. the program is called karen’s replicator and is nothing more than a simple backup program. i use it to save my most important files and folders on my sd card. all it takes is two or three clicks and i have my most important files like keynote backed up.

  13. Jeff says:

    Nice list. I keep downloading Open Office, but I can’t seem to give up Word and Excel. Not sure what’s wrong with me…

    That Firefox, and especially Thunderbird, extension list is worth the price of admission alone. You’ve got me curious about KeyNote and FreeMind too.

  14. Lou says:

    My little gem of a program is Index Your Files (free home edition) and you can get it here: http://www.indexyourfiles.com/home.html
    Indispensible to me for indexing and searching for files. I’ve found it is better and more efficent than Google Desktop Search or Copernicus . I can instantly find almost any file on my hard drive, usually in less than a second.
    Btw, nice software list. I installed the Answers Firefox extension a few minutes ago….Excellent.

  15. G says:

    I’m sure everyone knows already, but Google personal page has tons of useful widgets including many types of sticky notes and lists you can use. I use different types to help me keep my life organized. Definately not to be missed.

  16. Motocrossed says:

    I too have tried keynote but he stopped development in 05 and I am afraid to rely on anything that is no longer in development or upgraded. I agree, it is an excellent program. I continue to use Google Notebook, seems to work for me and can be used anywhere I have a connection. The one thing that does bother me is I cannot replicate on my USB drive

  17. Wise Bread says:

    The Software of Starving Students foundation packages the best open source (or at least, free) software into a downloadable CD.

    It’s a good way for people to check out open source software without having to download each app.

    Other than WP, Freemind and Keynote, I use all the other apps you mention on a daily basis as well! In fact, OO, Gaim, Firefox and Thunderbird are the default applications my company uses — just one example of open source being enterprise worthy.

    Keynote sounds really interesting… I’ll have to check it out. Vim is my favorite text editor, but it may be too geeky for general purpose usage. ;)


  18. dd says:

    i’m interesting in the combination of google calender and thunderbird(lightning) as you sead bellow.

    Where this gets transcendent is the integration with Google Calendar, allowing me to be sitting at a conference, fire up a web browser, add an event to my Google Calendar, and then have it automatically add itself to Thunderbird when I get home.

    could you elaborate on that? because i cannot find print to print out the lightning calender. and how to automatically feed the lightning from google calender.

  19. Eric Stern says:

    Just wondering if anybody has tried CellSwapper (http://www.cellswapper.com)
    to get out of their phone contracts without paying any early termination

  20. b says:

    This is a great list.

    It’s been mentioned here before but I highly recommend Ubuntu.

    I am a long term Mac and Windows user and have installed Ubuntu on an old Mac laptop. Now it is the system I use out of choice.

    Ubuntu on the old mac laptop (12″ PowerBook) is faster than OSX on my new Intel Mac mini. The penny finally dropped and I realised that as OSX and Windows develop they render old hardware useless. Ubuntu (and other Linux builds) allows you to continue using your old hardware. A fantastic cost saver.

    For me it is a simple joy to use and you have the very personal support of a friendly, helpful community.

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  22. Mohsin says:

    Wow, I love the WordPress.
    And Joomla is another CMS,open source,
    you will love it. It can be used to run
    any type of site or of any size.

    I am searching for nice,
    light, simple, TODO list manager open source.
    But i have not found in both your lists
    related to open source.

    Have anyone any suggestion in this regard?

  23. Dean says:

    There’s a phrase in the free software community, “I came for the freedom, and stayed for the quality”.

    Mohsin: Try gtdtiddlywiki

  24. altofiddler says:

    This article would be improved if you noted somewhere that you are a Windows user. I tried to download KeyNote, only to discover that it is Windows Only and there is no version available for Mac OSX. This proved to be true also for some of the Firefox add-ons that you mentioned.

    KeyNote sounds great, but it is of no use to Mac users, you see.

  25. Frustrated Author says:

    I have been frustrated with keeping track of all of my ideas for most of my life. I used to write them down on paper, then usually misplaced or lost the paper/notebooks. I spend so much of my time on my desktop, that organizing them on it was potentially my salvation.

    I had never heard of keynote, although I have used open source and freeware apps for years.

    The best I have been able to do so far was to have a .rtf text file in wordpad titled “random notes” with a shortcut on my quicklaunch bar. I use it to jot down immediate ideas, but it’s so long that I have trouble finding things in it. Every now and then I move things from it to other text files, which I then mostly forget about, lol.

    I’m working on a bunch of articles to start a blog with or use in an ebook, or both. I’ve been using a program I think may be similar to keynote–treepad. It allows me to organize articles in a tree structure and drag and drop them around to organize them better as I add to them. I have a major issue with treepad however. It doesn’t allow me to format what I write in it.

    My eyes aren’t as good as they used to be and the text size is a bit small for me. As soon as I post this, I’m going to download keynote and give it a try. It looks like this article was a great read if just for that one program. I do intend to try FreeMind, at least as well.

    I know this is about open source software, but there is a freeware image viewer I have been using for years now that I think everyone should have that I want to mention. Irfanview, it’s one of my most used programs. Try it if you don’t already have it, you’ll be glad you did.

    Oh, and I’ve been a fan of Firefox since it was Firebird 0.5, and use it as my default browser, I love it.

  26. abovocom says:

    You will need to use the add on “Provider for Google Calendar” to make the synchronization work. https://addons.mozilla.org/en-US/thunderbird/addon/4631

  27. Billy Bob says:

    Many free/try/pay programs from download.com
    Cutepdf Writer makes a PDF from a printed document
    Advanced Clipboard Manager from sourceforge.net
    Picasa2 is a nice photo manager from Google.
    VideoInspector, KC Software, tells tech video info
    Winnff is a handy video converter

    Firefox has hundreds of addons and you can find them at the mozilla website or use a search engine with terms “firefox+addons” without the quotes. Absolutely a must for any firefox user.

    Systernals.com (now owned by MS) has many free system utilities for maintenance, monitoring and security. Some are sod but a few are god.

    Cool thread, thanks.

  28. Karl Fogel says:

    Welcome to the movement, Trent :-).

  29. Michael says:

    Great post.

    I would like to suggest Launchy as an addition to your list. I use it more than any other piece of software on my computer.

    – Michael

  30. I second Michael on Launchy. Its pretty awesome. I even install on people at my work’s computers because I am lost without my keyboard based task launching.

    Quicksilver for mac is better than Launchy for windows…but as far as I know Launchy is the best windows option.

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