What does it cost to set yourself up at home with a decent computer, internet and e-mail access, plus all the software you'll need? Buy your computer from a mainstream retailer and you'll pay pounds 1,000 or more. Add in the cost of the software and you might have to double that figure. But you can slash that bill, and avoid further enriching some of the world's biggest companies.
The story opposite explains how to reduce the cost of computer hardware. But the most interesting developments in computers over the past five years have taken place online: with internet access, you can download free versions of software packages, from word- processing packages to games and picture-editing suites - even the operating system that powers your machine. This software is free and it's often much better than the stuff you pay for, plus it's easy to download and use.
Computer users today are the beneficiaries of what started as an underground movement. For 10 years or more, the dominance of companies such as Microsoft has so worried some computer buffs that they've developed their own alternative products and made them freely available.
"Open-source" software is developed by a community of volunteers and is continually improved and updated. The codes that make the programmes work can be accessed, improved made, and then offered back to the original authors. But for most computer users, the software is simply there to be downloaded and installed in preference to costly or inferior commercial alternatives.
The best-known open-source software is Firefox, a web browser that has become so popular that it now has 12 per cent of the global market. Tristan Nito, of Mozilla, the organisation that offers Firefox, says the software is the product of commercial realities and idealistic principles.
Mozilla was set up as a not-for-profit organisation in 1998, after Netscape, the only company that had pr o-vided competition to Microsoft's Internet Explorer, conceded defeat in the battle. "The internet is too important to be left to one single company," Nito argues. He points out that once Microsoft had defeated the competition, it stopped investing in Explorer, which has not been updated since 2001 - a lifetime in the computer world.
The first versions of Firefox were launched in 2002, but it has been significantly improved since. "Explorer is now an out-of-date product," Nito says. "We believe Firefox is more reliable, more comfortable, better designed and more adaptable, with more than 1,000 extensions available for people who want to use it in different ways."
He also argues that while Microsoft does not charge for Explorer, it will make money in other ways from users. He predicts that subsequent updates of the browser will only work fully for Microsoft customers who have the latest versions of its other paid-for products. Firefox, on the other hand, has no such compatibility issues.
Other open-source software packages are in open competition with commercial programmes that for which users pay significant sums. For example, 40 million people have downloaded Open Office, which offers alternatives to Word, Excel and PowerPoint, the Office package for which Microsoft charges several hundred pounds.
Hitesh Patel, business partner manager at the consultancy Red Hat, says: "There is now a good open-source equivalent of almost any software you can think of: there's simply no reason to use products from Microsoft, or the other large companies, if you don't want to do so."
Red Hat itself offers Fedora, a free version of Linux, the operating system that is popular with computing enthusiasts. Most casual users may not be happy to dispense with Microsoft Windows, the standard system on most home PCs, but if you want to do so, you can download Fedora and other Linux systems for free.
"We'd only advise confident computer users to go as far as Linux," says Rob Jones, the editor of PC World magazine. …