Wednesday, May 20, 2015


Microsoft Office has dominated the Office Productivity Suite market for years.  MS Word, Excel and PowerPoint have become industry standards.  But MS Office can be expensive, many hundreds of dollars depending on the version you want.  The less expensive versions also come with onerous licensing restrictions and burdensome registration requirements.  Fortunately, there is a good alternative that should meet all of your needs: LibreOffice.

LibreOffice has a complicated and long history. Back in 1999, Sun Microsystems bought a company called StarDivision.  It included a product called StarOffice, an office suite in direct competition with Microsoft Office.  Microsoft, of course, dominated the market at the time and most people had not even heard of StarOffice.  Rather than try to compete, Sun made the program free and open source, so anyone could work on it.  The name changed to OpenOffice.  It remained a free download but continued to be developed and improved.  Sun did not seem to have any business model for the program, as it did not even try to collect advertising revenue or use it as a loss leader for other product.   Personally, I think they just liked having a thorn in Microsoft's side.

In 2010, Oracle acquired Sun.  Oracle really had no interest paying to maintain and improve OpenOffice.  It saw no financial benefit and liked remaining on good terms with Microsoft.  It did not kill OpenOffice, but rather in 2011, donated it to the Apache Foundation, a nonprofit group.

Many OpenOffice users grew frustrated at this point because Apache really didn't put the money and resources into improving and upgrading the project.  Because it remained open source, anyone could take the code and improve it themselves.  A group of volunteers who had been working on OpenOffice for years, took the source code and started the Documents Foundation to continue work on the software.  This derivation was called LibreOffice which continues to be developed and upgraded to this day.  OpenOffice also still exists, but by the time it started development again, many people had already moved to Libre and saw no need to go back.  OpenOffice source code  is still freely available to all.  Other companies use it as well.  IBM Lotus Symphony Office suite is based on OpenOffice.  If you are so inclined, you could also download the source code and make your own variant.

Just because Libre is free does not mean it is substandard in any way.  It is a feature rich fully functioning office suite which can do virtually anything you want.  In the unlikely event you need it to do something it cannot, there are free downloadable add-ons available, or you can work with other online developers to build your own customizations or improvements.

Of  course, most of us are not coders or developers.  We just want a great program that works right way.  Libre absolutely delivers on this front.  The Suite includes Writer, a top of the line word processor. Calc, is its spreadsheet. Impress handles presentations.  Draw is used for graphics and diagrams,  The Base database program works great on its own or as a front end for other more complex databases such as the also free MySQL.  Math is great for developing formulas.  If you are a mathematician, scientist, economist, etc. you have got to try this.  Finally there is Charts for easy creation of charts.  People used to having a Mail program included in their office suite will be disappointed.  There is no program the corresponds to MS Outlook.  Of course, there are other very good mail programs available to replace Outlook.  They just aren't part of LibreOffice.

The most popular applications are Writer and Calc.  By default, both use an open document format that is compatible with a great many other programs.  But if you are working with others who have MS Office, you can set the defaults to save in Word or Excel format.  As far as features, I have yet to find anything that I can't do in LibreOffice that I can do in MS Office.

The program is updated every few weeks, but most updates are quite minor.  I like this method as it allows me to get used to changes over time, rather than a single major upgrade like the pay programs do.  But it is also not necessary to have the latest version.   Most changes are quite minor and often deal with issues that never impact you.  So don't feel like you must download new versions constantly.

I have only used the Windows version of LibreOffice, but there are also versions for Linux and Mac.  There is also a portable version which you can stick on a flash drive and use without having to install.

One nice thing about freeware such as LibreOffice, is that you don't have to spend a long time researching the product or reading here how everything works before you buy it.  It is a free download that you can install and immediately start using without cost.  If you are interested, download it from this link.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Google Apps

I figure that since my blog is being hosted on Google, it's only fair that my first review should be about Google Apps.  Sure, Google Apps in not exactly a secret discovery.  It is among the most popular and commonly used email systems in the world today.  Still, for anyone who has not yet given it a try, I heartily recommend it.

My History with Google
I started using Google in late 1998, shortly after it went live. I was amazed by the search results and never looked back.  In early 2005, I signed up for my first gmail account while it was still in beta.  I still use that account to this day.  I have watched Google and its products grow and evolve almost from the beginning.


Over the last decade, Gmail has evolved into Google Apps, providing a host of free online services.  Anyone can sign up for a free account, providing 15 GB of free online storage space, effective anti-spam filters, and easy to use email software, all online.

The easiest way to access your email is via the web browser.  Just go to and sign in.  Gmail and all other apps are designed to work online without any special software installed.  This is the way I use it almost always.

However, when I originally started with Gmail, I was still using a mail program to download mail mail offline.  At that time, I used a (free) program called Pegasus Mail.  Later I moved on to another free one called Mozilla Thunderbird.  Many folks not as faithfully tied to freeware may have used MS Outlook. The great thing about Gmail is that it has always worked with all of these programs.  Most free mail at the time Gmail first arrived did not support offline readers.  If you use a mail read r with POP3 or IMAP to access your mail, Gmail will work seamlessly with whatever program you use.

If you have a phone or tablet, connecting to Gmail is not a problem.  Virtually all mail programs use the POP3 or IMAP standard described above.  Most are set up to allow a connnection simply by entering your name and password, although there are ways to set up manually if needed.  Even better, download the free Gmail app, which is available for IOS or Android, or even for Windows phones and Blackberries.  Just sign into your account from the App and you are all set.

Google Drive

In addition to Gmail, I am a big fan of Google Drive, which is included with your free Gmail account.  It allows you to work on documents, spreadsheets and presentations all using free online software.  You an upload files, or create new ones through your browsers.  New documents you create in Google Docs do not count against your total 15 GB limit on data, so you essentially have unlimited space.  You can also share documents with other users, or with the public

While you can use Google Drive entirely online, there is a Windows app (free download) that lets you sync your online drive documents to your computer.  There are similar Drive Apps for your phone or tablet (also free).  These are great if you need to save documents for offline viewing or editing.   The downloads may also be needed if you want to edit documents originally created in MS Office format.

More Google Apps

There are also a host of other Google applications available as part of your account, including a great calendar, Picasa for online photo storage and display, Google Sites for creating your own websites and Blogspot, which hosts this blog.   I may address the details of many of these other benefits in future posts. Suffice it to say that when you sign up for your Gmail account,  you open open up a whole ecosystem of services available to you.

Use Google Chrome

Google Apps will work with just about any browser on the market, as long as it is up to date.  But the recommended browser is Google Chrome.  You will find there are a great many advanced features that you can only use in the Chrome Browser. If you don't already use Chrome (also a free product) you can download that too.

You "pay" by being subjected to Ads

The main criticism of Gmail is that computers scan all your emails for content and use that to present advertising to you.  Google assures use that no human beings read our mail, only a computer.  There is a small line of advertising above your inbox, but it is very subtle and unobtrusive compared to many other sites.

Google uses your information across platforms.  So if you mention in an email that you are looking to buy a new car, you will start seeing ads for cars on lots of websites you visit (since those sites use Google Ads).  It can sometimes be a little unnerving,

I find the advertising acceptable as the condition of using this great free product.  After all, Google has to make some money if we expect it to provide this service.  Google is up front about what it does and I accept this "cost."

Google for Work

Lately, Google has been pushing people to upgrade to Google for Work.   As you might guess from its name, it is primarily targeted at businesses.  This is essentially the same as the free Gmail account, although you get twice the storage space and don't have an ad banner above your inbox. The other big benefit is that you can use your own name.  So, for example, my gmail address would not have to be (if that were even available).  If I have my own domain registered, like, I could get mail at

Google for work is not free.  It costs $50 per year for each account.  I mention it in this "free" site only because you can get it for free, assuming you already own a domain.

When you sign up for Google for Work Google tries to get you to choose the business account which is $5 a month or $50 a year per user.  You do NOT need to sign up for the paid version.  Provided your will have 10 or fewer people using this domain, just click the blue Get Started button.  Enter your domain name.  If you already have a registered domain, you can use it with Google at no additional cost.  Otherwise, Google will help you register a domain through for $10/year.  Ok, so it's not completely free unless you already have a domain registured.  But $10 for 10 users is still better than $50 per user per year for the full Work account.

If you already have your own domain, you will need to change the MX records for your domain with whatever company you have it registered.  You just point them to Google’s Servers.  If you register your domain as part of the Gmail setup, this is all done for you.


As I said at the outset, I am a big fan of Google as a free provider of email and many other applications.  Unlike many other companies, Google does not cripple its free services in an attempt to get you to upgrade to a pay account.  It provides great interactivity with other programs and services.  It give generous storage space.  Finally, it works well with many other products and services.  If you need free email, I heartily recommend Gmail.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015


The Internet is full of amazing products and services.  Many of them are free.  Many people fear taking advantage of free software or services because it could be a scam, attempts to take personal information, or could just be a waste of time compared to tried and true paid products.

I have been using the Internet for decades, and have been a patron of "freeware" long before the public generally had access to the Internet.  While sometimes pay software is the way to go, I often find that freeware is just as good or even better than most of the payware that competes with it.

In this blog, I hope to pass along some of the best freeware that I have found and explain why you might want to give it a try.

First, a little about me.  In addition to being a home networking enthusiast, I am an IT Director for a mid-sized law firm.  I spend a great deal of time testing a wide range of products and services for work as well as personal use.

My first computer was an Apple II back in the mid 1980's.  I actually became rather soured with Apple and have a rather strong bias against it.  I soon moved to a Tandy 1000, an IBM clone running MS-DOS 2.0.  I soon started sending away for "freeware" and "shareware" that was mailed on floppy disks.  I the 1990's I got involved on local BBS clubs where people could swap messages via mode. Eventually this led to the Internet and the World Wide Web.

I have been a long time fan of Windows for my PC and laptop.  I never got into Linux, which I'll admit is a big part of things for people who like free and open source.  I focused more on Windows applications.  When mobile became popular, I was an early adopter of Android for my phone and later a tablet.

Please feel free to comment on my posts and provide feedback.  I hope that you will find my thoughts useful.