Campbell Creative Services

Knowledge Worker Free/Open Source Toolbox

Maintained by Barry Campbell.  
Your comments, notes, corrections and additions are invited and encouraged.

See the Knowledge Work blog for more tips and tools for Knowledge Workers.

Version 0.3 -- Last updated 27 February 2006.

Current version can always be found here:

This list is primarily useful for users of Microsoft Windows (although most of the Open-Source programs are available for Linux users and quite a few for Macintosh users as well.)  Note that it includes both closed-source "freeware" and free, open-source software in the same list; this does not mean that we are confused about the concepts, just that our primary criteria for inclusion are (a) high quality and (b) zero cost of acquisition.

Related articles:
Sections in this document include:

Introduction and Overview

A knowledge worker (a term coined by Peter Drucker in 1959) is one who works primarily with information or one who develops and uses knowledge in the workplace.

Why is the topic of "free software for knowledge workers" interesting?  Well, there are certainly philosophical, political, and practical reasons to support the use of Open-Source tools and technologies that have nothing to do with economics, but let's face it: outfitting a personal computer with the software that you need to do your job, if you manipulate information for a living, is incredibly expensive!

Just to whet your appetite, let's do a quick price-comparison.  We're assuming that you're starting from scratch with a new PC that has a recent Microsoft Windows OS installed, and you need to set yourself up to do "knowledge work" - writing documents, crunching numbers, creating presentations, drawing business diagrams, creating electronic documentation for online distribution, and so forth.

What's it going to cost you?  Let's look at a bare minimum configuration - office productivity suite (word processor, spreadsheet, presentation tool); a drawing package for doing diagrams; a graphics package for editing photographs and creating/editing bitmapped graphics; and tools for creating HTML and PDF files for electronic distribution of your documents.  (We'll be charitable and won't inflict the Professional editions of any of the Adobe or Microsoft products on you, and we'll pick Corel PaintShop Pro instead of the much more expensive Adobe PhotoShop.)  Unless otherwise noted, each free alternative to commercial software packages can read and write the same file formats that the commercial package uses, so exchanging documents with colleagues or project collaborators doesn't present huge logistical difficulties.

Commercial tool Approximate "Street Price" (all prices in USD, reference: CompUSA, February 2006) Free/Open Source Tool
Microsoft Office 2003 Standard $400 $0
Adobe Acrobat 7.0 Standard Edition $300 CutePDF Writer + Ghostscript + Ghostview $0
Microsoft Visio 2003 Standard Edition $200 Dia (note: not file-compatible with Visio)  $0
Macromedia Dreamweaver MX $410 Nvu $0
Corel Paint Shop Pro X  $100 (after mail-in rebate of $30) The GIMP $0
TOTAL $1410 TOTAL $0

If we'd gone with the Professional editions of the Adobe and Microsoft products, and picked PhotoShop instead of PaintShop Pro, we'd already be well north of $2000.  And these are just bare-bones requirements for "knowledge work"... we're not doing anything interesting with multimedia authoring, we haven't installed any security (anti-virus, anti-spyware) software...

Interested yet?

Back to top of page.

Freeware and/or Open-Source alternatives to popular commercial packages

Commercial application... What it does... Freeware and/or Open-Source equivalent...
(unless otherwise noted, free tools are file-compatible with commercial tools)
Adobe Acrobat Create, edit and read PDF files (Adobe Reader is, of course, free) CutePDF Writer + Ghostscript + Ghostview
Adobe Audition (formerly "CoolEdit Pro") Digital sound editor Audacity
Adobe Illustrator, Macromedia FreehandCorelDraw, Xara X Create and edit vector (line) drawings and illustrations  Inkscape

As of November 2005, Inkscape is not as full-featured as many commercial vector graphics packages, but it is under active development and very promising.
Adobe PhotoShop,
Corel Paint Shop Pro
Create and edit bitmap graphics (photographs) The GIMP (GNU Image Processor)
AOL Instant Messenger, Yahoo Messenger, MSN Messenger, Google Talk, various IRC and ICQ clients... Send and receive instant text messages over the Internet; many programs support sending data files, voice and video as well.

(All of these clients are typically free, but to a greater or lesser extent proprietary, meaning, e.g.,  that you can only use AOL IM to talk to people on the AOL IM network.  The new GoogleTalk uses the open-source Jabber protocol, but that isn't widely implemented yet in other tools.)
GAIM is a free, open-source, multiple-platform (Linux, Windows, Mac OSX) IM client that handles communications over nine different IM networks:  AIM, ICQ, MSN Messenger, Yahoo, IRC, SILC, Jabber, Gadu-Gadu, GroupWise Messenger, and Zephyr.  (Note: Jabber compatibility means that it should work with the new GoogleTalk.)

Trillian Basic is a freeware application that consolidates IM communications over the Big Five major networks: AIM, MSN, Yahoo, IRC and ICQ. (An inexpensive for-pay version, Trillian Pro, adds some other features.)
Macromedia Dreamweaver Create, edit and manage HTML pages and web sites Nvu

As of November 2005, Nvu is in full release version 1.0; it offers reliable and well-developed WYSIWYG editing of HTML and basic CSS and site management features.  It is not a complete functional replacement for Dreamweaver, as it lacks (e.g.) that product's team/collaboration features; very usable for authoring, however.
Microsoft Internet Explorer Web browser Mozilla Firefox
Microsoft Office 2003 (Word, Excel, Powerpoint in Standard edition; plus Access, Outlook in Professional Edition) Office productivity (word processor, spreadsheet, presentation, database) (Writer, Calc, Impress, Base) + Draw (line drawing application)

Version 2.01 is very stable and full-featured as of February 2006.
Microsoft Outlook 2003 E-mail client (also does calendar/schedule, contact management/address book, etc.) Mozilla Thunderbird (for e-mail, newsgroups, contact management, RSS)
For calendaring functions: Yahoo! Mail provides online calendars with meeting reminders, schedule management, invitations, group calendaring, etc.
Microsoft Visio 2003 Template-based line drawing package Dia

(Note: not file-compatible with Visio)

Dia is still in relatively early development but appears very promising.  It's especially useful for people working with UML.
Microsoft Project 2003 Project management: scheduling, charting, resource management and leveling Open Workbench (Computer Associates) is a free, open-source, full-featured replacement for Microsoft Projcet.

Related: There is a comprehensive list of open-source project management tools here. And see also: Startwright's Project Management Templates and Tools directory.
Norton Internet Security Suite Antivirus + Software firewall AVG Antivirus + ZoneAlarm Free
Windows Notepad Plain-text editor (not very powerful, can't open large files) ConTEXT (programmers' text editor with syntax highlighting)

jEdit (cross-platform, Java-based programmers' text editor)
WS-FTP Pro File Transfer Protocol client; supports Secure FTP FileZilla

Back to top of page.

Free software with no close commercial equivalent

Application... What it does... What it costs...
Google Desktop Search Indexes the documents on your hard drive and enables fast full-text search.  New version 2.0 offers additional desktop features. Free
IrfanView Multiformat graphics viewer and (light) editor Free
Skype Free voice-over-IP telephony to other Skype clients; very inexpensive dialout to landline and cell phones around the world. Software: free.  

Skype-to-Skype calls: free.

Calls to phones in most of the developed world cost about two Eurocents per minute (as of February 2006)

Back to top of page.

Commercial software with no close freeware/open source equivalent

Application... What it does... Potential alternative(s)...
Adobe Framemaker Industrial-strength technical publishing A combination of open-source XML editing, parsing and production tools, used with a standard XML DTD for technical documentation, such as DocBook.

Bruce Byfield argues in this article that OpenOffice Writer can be seriously considered as a functional replacement for FrameMaker.  
Macromedia Robohelp, Madcap Flare Authoring system for online help file creation Create non-proprietary help systems using a standard HTML editor.

Back to top of page.

Inexpensive best-of-breed commercial software that you really ought to consider buying

Application... What it does... What it costs...
Sunbelt Software CounterSpy Anti-spyware software; finds and removes spyware and other malware; provides active protection against malware installation. Winner of numerous awards as "best in class," including PC World's "World Class" and "Best Buy" awards. $20/single license

NOTE:  Microsoft's currently free beta version AntiSpyware Tool uses the same codebase as CounterSpy, though Microsoft provides their own malware definitions, which is a subject of some controversy.

The former "usual suspects" in the freeware anti-spyware category, AdAware Personal Edition and Spybot Search and Destroy, have slipped badly in recent months and do not offer active protection. Strongly consider a commercial product in this category.
TechSmith Snagit Screen capture and editing program.  If you write documentation or develop training for software, this program will save you enormous amounts of time and frustration; best bang-for-the-buck currently installed on my computer. 30-day free trial; $40 to buy
Textpad Very full-featured plaintext editor with macros 30-day free trial; $30 to buy
ZoneAlarm Security Suite Software firewall, antivirus, anti-spam in a single package. Winner of numerous awards as "best in class," including PC World's Editor's Choice. $70

Back to top of page.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.5 License.