With this mythical universal operating system, we could do all kinds of things in "the cloud" -- on the Internet, through instantly available connections.
Al Fasoldt's reviews and commentaries, continuously available online since 1983


Stop Paying for Software
Free Web-based helper programs

Feb. 28, 2010

By Al Fasoldt
Copyright © 2010, Al Fasoldt
Copyright © 2010, The Post-Standard

   The best way to save money is to stop spending it. That's the idea behind my series on the best free software for Windows and Macs. This week I'm recommending free Internet helpers.
   Most of us are connected to the Internet nearly all the time. This means we could run a program off an Internet site just about as easily as we could run one off our computer's hard drive.
   Following me so far? Let's jump forward. If we had a universal operating system, one that doesn't rely on Apple or Microsoft, we could skip all those problems of finding programs just for a Mac or just for Windows.
   In fact, with this mythical universal operating system, we could do all kinds of things in "the cloud" -- on the Internet, through instantly available connections.
   Wouldn't this be cool?
   I've got good news. The cool factor is here already. You're already using it. The universal operating system is called HTML. That's the programming code that your Web browser uses when you view a Web site. It's what your browser uses when you do all sorts of things on the Web. And it doesn't matter whether you're running a Mac, a Windows PC or a Linux computer.
   Your Web browser's coolness knows no end. It can run programs on remote sites -- in the cloud, as the current jargon goes. Of course, this means you don't have to own that software at all. Your browser just finds it and runs it in the cloud.
   This opens up a new category of programs for our series on free software. This week I'll take a look at five surprisingly useful helper programs that you access from your browser.
   Saving Web pages is a pain. If you save them using Internet Explorer, only Internet Explorer can view them. If you save them in Firefox, you get a mess of scattered files. What could be better than saving them as a single PDF document?
   That's what PDFmyURL does. PDFs can be viewed on any computer (even on a smartphone or iPad) and they're easy to store. Go to www.PDFmyURL.com and type the Web address of the site you want turned into a PDF. After a few seconds, you'll find the PDF where you normally keep downloaded files.
   If you have sort of the opposite problem -- a bunch of PDFs that you'd like to make into a pamphlet or magazine -- you'll love www.youblisher.com, where you can astound your friends (and your boss) with cool results. You end up with a link you can put on your blog or Web site -- and an amazing page-flippable master PDF document.
   If you're always jotting down things you have to do, make life easier by using Remember The Milk at www.rememberthemilk.com. You can make to-do lists with e-mailed reminders and you can share your tasks with others. My wife has used this for a couple of years.
   When you need a better photo editor than the uglyware that came with your camera, you could hardly top Picnik, an online alternative to Adobe's princely-summed Photoshop. It's simple to use and powerful, too. Go to www.picnik.com.
   Finally, a popular way to share files -- and to keep your own files handy when you're at someone else's keyboard -- is Dropbox at www.dropbox.com. You do have to download a small helper program, but it's available for Macs, Windows, Linux and even iPhone and iPad. You just choose the file to make available online and Dropbox does the rest.