It used to be that if you wanted something like Adobe Photoshop, the digital age's ne plus ultra of expensive pro-level software, you had two choices: Plunk down $650 (plus several hundreds more down the road for upgrades), or quickly and easily (and illegally) grab it via BitTorrent and have it up and running in an hour, for free. The sheer ubiquity of Photoshop in mainstream culture (Photoshopped isn't in Webster's yet, but it won't be long) seems to suggest that most people, unsurprisingly, tend to go with option B.
Thankfully, a much less insidious third option is gaining momentum: the world of free and open-source alternatives. Although the Internet might be the largest black-market trading post in the history of the world, it's also, lest we forget, a tool that facilitates other kinds of collaborations that no one before could have possibly imagined. So whereas it once took a team of well-paid and overworked engineers to develop complex professional software programs like Photoshop, the same high-quality work can be done with much greater efficiency and drastically less cost through open-source software projects that harness the talents of amateur and professional software engineers the world over. Better yet, the fruits of all this next-level labor are almost always made available free of charge.
OSalt.com is an incredibly handy guide to this constantly evolving world. It pairs open-source projects with their traditional expensive equivalents, making it easy to find what you need. All the heavy hitters are there: Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator, the Adobe Premier video-editing suite, Microsoft Office (including the diagramming software Visio), Dreamweaver, Maya (for 3-D modeling) and many more—all told, thousands of dollars worth of pro software with surprisingly capable and, best of all, free alternatives. And since their source code is open to everyone, several open-source apps have interesting spin-offs, such as Gimpshop, the version of the GIMP image-processing application that mirrors Photoshop's menus and keyboard shortcuts exactly, making power users feel instantly closer to home.
There aren't too many things able to liberate your conscience and your wallet at the same time. And it's only going to get better from here. —John Mahoney