Open Source Software: 7 Free Solutions

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.
  • 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, 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.

Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.