Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Free tools for consultants

As independent consultant we are always on the lookout of tools that help us to service our clients better... this post helps in answering some (10 tools) of my needs ... hope yours too..

Source: by Ken Hardin, Clarity Answers  

Dia > The Dia diagram editor (current version, 0.97.1) is a GPL, v2 is very similar to Microsoft's standard Visio tool set. Dia supports layering, some advanced drawing methods such as Beziergon point manipulation, and AntiAliasing when you really want your output to shine. More importantly, it includes a menu of more than 30 conventional icon sets, and exports to a wide range of open and proprietary formats, including Visio XML and the LaTeX doc preparation system. Free, unlimited use.

PDF-XChange Viewer > Suggesting a free alternative to an already free product (Adobe's Reader X) may seem like a stretch, but PDF-XChange Viewer from Tracker Software is so feature-rich that Ken scores brownie points by recommending it to folks. You can actually create visible type inside a PDF with PDF-XChange Viewer, which makes filling out business docs a snap. There are also embedded screen grab tools, a slew of drawing tools (including one for "thought bubbles"), opacity controls, and a tabbed view for multiple docs. It even has built-in zip compression for sending PDFs via email. Tracker Software uses the freeware to upsell to a pro version (you still can't extract or combine files) and its development competitors to Acrobat, so you will see some menus for non-available functionality. Still, PDF-XChange Viewer is just great free software.

Express Invoice > Depending on the complexity of your business, a simple invoicing solution may be all you need to track billables without worrying about payroll or inventory. NCH Software offers a free version of its Express Invoice package for small shops with five or fewer employees (be sure to use the "Get it Free" link on the left of this page). The free version of Express Invoice is not as graphical as many of its competitors, but I've found it easy to create a simple database of customers, quotes and billable items, complete with presumptive tax rates. Minimal invoice customization is available, mostly in the form of logo insertion, and there's even a simple Web-based access to a backup of your account info.

There are a ton of free spreadsheet-based Gantt chart tools out there, but for Ken’s money, if the project is complex enough to merit a Gantt chart to begin with, he wants the data to be in a database, not a spreadsheet. The best free tool he has found for this joyous task is GanttProject, a GPL 2.0 freeware project. You can import resources from standard contacts, assign hard dependencies between tasks, and toggle views between Gantt and the friendlier PERT model. You can post the project to a Web server account, and most importantly, you can export to the MS Project format or CSV. A handy set of tutorials at the project's Web page can walk new users through the basics of Gantting out a project. Free, unlimited use.

Email & Calender
Recommending software from the Mozilla foundation is not exactly a bold move, but with the addition of the Lightning calendaring add-on (now in beta 1.0), Mozilla's Thunderbird 3.1 email client is now officially the best one Ken has ever used. Lightning integrates the retired Sunbird calendaring applet closely with Thunderbird, adding an Events and Tasks menu and a handy calendar sidebar to the intuitive tab-based Mozilla interface. Attachments, recurrence, event-level privacy for shared calendars – it's all there. The only drawback to Thunderbird now is that it does not play seamlessly with Microsoft’s messaging systems, but then again, what does? Ken just copies himself when using a client's Web-based Outlook account – inelegant, but it works.  Free, unlimited use.

Ken has found that a picture is often worth at least several hundred words, and the best free tool he has found for doing mock-ups is Inkscape, an incredibly sophisticated open source vector drawing tool – so sophisticated, in fact, that you can actually buy a user's guide for it. The comparable proprietary tool is Adobe's Illustrator, but the interface most reminds Ken of the late, great FreeHand. On the most rudimentary level, you can combine simple shapes and join text to paths or shapes to spice up your PowerPoint presentations. The tool goes a lot deeper, supporting cloning of linked objects, glyphs, and of course a slew of embellishments and filters. It can import and export virtually every format (including Illustrator and Corel DRAW), and if you ever need to do a flowchart, it has a neat "connectors" function to create persistent binds as you shuffle your label boxes. It's actually way more drawing power than the typical consultant needs. Free, unlimited use.

Microsoft – yes, Microsoft – actually gives away a real-time AV solution that, by most accounts, is quite viable. And it's already in version 2.0.657.0. Of course, since Microsoft's operating system is constantly under attack, most folks might say it's about time Redmond protected its own turbulent ecosystem. All the expected features – real-time updates, removable drive scanning, process exclusion – are there, and Security Essentials also can be set to check for anomalous patterns. The one knock on Security Essentials tends to be resource consumption; the malware agent runs at about 65,000K on Ken’s Windows 7 laptop, but he has seen no real lags in overall system performance.
Free, unlimited use.

Screen Capture
Little things mean a lot sometimes, and DuckCapture from DuckLink Software succeeds where so many screen grabbers fail – it can catch scrolling Web pages in any browser you may be using. (Ken’s guess is that it's because it requires Microsoft Visual C++ 2010, but so be it.) The interface is very simple – captures queue up in a preview window where you can annotate them and even snap a second image for composite before saving your grab. There is a paid version of DuckCapture, but unless you want to extend it with your own scripts, there's no need – the free version is quite robust. Free version with no upsell, unlimited use.

FBackup Even in the era of "the cloud," backing up your important data to a local source (i.e., a cheap USB 2.0 hard drive) is always a good idea. Ken really likes FBackup from Softland, now in version 4.5. You can set regular backups to either zip files or true mirrors locally or on a network resource. (Actually backing up a network resource, or posting your backup remotely via FTP, requires an upgrade to the paid version.) Managing multiple backup jobs for specific tasks is a snap, and there are handy tutorials about setting up jobs for common applications, such as Outlook. Really, there's nothing to complain about with Fbackup. Free, unlimited use.

HTML Editing & Site Manager
Ken first came across Trellian WebPage when he was looking for a handy tool to do some very basic HTML content editing inside a page that was loaded with scripts. Trellian became his editor of choice because it is stable – other "free" editors tended to crash. A lot. In addition to its stability, WebPage has a built-in script editor, absolute positioning of HTML elements, embedded image editing tools, and a generally usable layout reminiscent of the Windows "ribbon" interface. And of course a built-in FTP client, etc. Trellian uses its freeware editor to upsell to SEO and keyword marketing services, and some buttons led to a sales pitch, but all the functionality you need is there for simple page/site management. 
Free with some upsell, unlimited use.

Interesting Twist - Idolize Bill Gates, Not Steve Jobs

Read this interesting post in HBR blog.. when every website, blog and news mag is talking about Steve.. this is a refreshing post

Apple is undoubtedly the gold standard of today's tech world. In fact, it's probably the gold standard of American industry at the moment. Its innovative design, user interface, and ecosystem make it a titan in any category it enters. And it's clear that Steve Jobs was the reason Apple rose to its current heights from the brink of bankruptcy. In the wake of his death, HBR espoused his greatness — something I've done as well. And he was great. Steve Jobs has likely been our generation's most important leader in the world of business. But Steve Jobs is not the most important leader from the world of business. While Jobs should be who MBAs and industrial designers try to emulate, I'm not sure he's who we should idolize. That respect should be bestowed on someone we talk less and less about, Bill Gates.

Both Jobs and Gates had immeasurable impacts on the world. Apple ushered in the era of personal computing in many respects. Microsoft's platform made it possible for a generation of computer scientists to learn and flourish. Apple seems to have perfected the art of delivering fantastic consumer products. Microsoft has worked diligently to make the enterprise more and more efficient. Regardless of which camp you fall in today, it's impossible to deny each corporation's contribution. Jobs and Gates each deeply respected each other's contributions.

But at the end of his life, Steve Jobs worried about Apple, Inc. Walter Isaacson quoted the wizard of Cupertino saying, "Hewlett and Packard built a great company, and they thought they had left it in good hands. But now it's being dismembered and destroyed. I hope I've left a stronger legacy so that will never happen at Apple." At the end of his life, Jobs saw his legacy as Apple.

Bill Gates stepped away from Microsoft in 2006 and, despite the company's growing troubles in the face of the mobile disruption, has devoted his genius to solving the world's biggest problems, despite the fact that solving those problems doesn't create profit or fame.* Gates committed his talents to eliminating diseases, increasing development standards, and generally fighting inequality.

Since 1994, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation amassed an endowment of over $31 billion in funds to fight the world's most difficult issues. But it hasn't merely accumulated funds, the foundation has already given away over $25 billion. Those aren't trivial numbers. In seventeen years, the foundation has raised and given away more than one-tenth of Apple's extraordinary market capitalization. While the developed world takes things like clean water, basic healthcare, and the availability of food for granted — there are billions of human beings that don't have such fundamental resources.

Gandhi famously said, "Be the change you want to see in the world." I don't doubt that, in recent years, both Gates and Jobs did just that. Jobs made the world more beautiful and the billion of us with resources loved him for it. Gates is making the world ideal, and the billions of us with no voice will be forever impacted.

Yesterday, I read a note Gates wrote to members of the Harvard community. It speaks for itself:

I hope you will reflect on what you've done with your talent and energy. I hope you will judge yourselves not on your professional accomplishments alone, but also on how well you work to address the world's deepest inequities, on how well you treat people a world away who have nothing in common with you but their humanity.

Those are not the words of a leader of business. Those are the words of a leader of people. Those are the words of an idol.

As much as I love Apple, Inc, I would happily give up my iPhone to put food on the plates of starving children. Steve Jobs turned his company into a decade long leader in the truly new space of mobile computing. Bill Gates decided to eliminate malaria. Who do you think we should be putting up on a pedestal for our children to emulate?

*While you might disagree with that claim, a quick reference of Google trends shows that since leaving Microsoft, Bill Gates star has dramatically faded — and in 2010 was eclipsed by that of Jobs.