I read an article today, that corresponds with my thoughts on software completely. That is the fact that some of the very best things available are free.

Many large producers of software have places where you are able to find little gems which are offered freely, many times because someone that works at the producer has been as frustrated by something as you, but because they have the inside track on how to incorporate a change or an addition, they have done something about that frustration.

The article comes from ComputerWorld, a site that is aimed at the computer cogniscenti, but can be a useful place to hang out for anyone who is interested in the computing world at large, or bettering their knowledge and skills.

What, you’re not using Microsoft Speed Launch? It’s a free application that lets you instantly launch any application, Web site or document using any word or phrase you choose.

The app places a “bulls-eye” on your desktop. When you encounter anything you want to be able to quickly launch in the future, just drag and drop it on the “bulls-eye.” It will prompt you for a name.

For example, let’s say you run across a YouTube video that comically explores what would happen if Lassie were a cat. If you want to show people later, just drag the URL into Speed Launch and type “Cat.” Later, just enter Windows+C and type “cat,” and the video pops up.

This is just one of thousands of examples of apps that hardly anyone knows about, but that are free, powerful and — let’s face it — really should be part of Windows.

Yes, amazing as it seems, Microsoft has software freely available at several sites. The problem is that they don’t make it readily known, nor do they make it easy to find using any tools from their sites. There is Microsoft Research, for a start, where many things are found that will never make it into the production version of Windows, or Office, but there is no reason you cannot add them to your installation. Following the link above will get you started, but you’re not even 10% there, as a lot of looking around is still necessary to see if something will suit your specific needs.

Where Labs come from

The whole “Labs” idea was pioneered by Microsoft in the 1990s. Back then, Microsoft offered a range of “Power Tools” for Windows that brought features and functionality that could have been baked right into Windows, but for whatever reason was not.

The best of these was a Power Tool called TweakUI, which added more than 100 new capabilities to Windows. For example, you could speed up menus, get rid of those little arrows on shortcut icons and do a lot of other things.

The Windows XP set of Powertoys was/is a great addition to anyone’s XP install. Too bad Microsoft never saw fit to release any collection for Vista. It also looks as though there won’t be any collection for Windows 7 – the users will have to be happy with any bits and pieces that Microsoft allows out of the back rooms. All the more reason to develop some spelunking skills for free software on their sites.

Companies that make software tend to create far more applications, features, add-ons and plug-ins than they ship. Many of these are really great. But why do companies do this?

They know that every app and feature shipped will have to be tested against the full range of hardware and software supported by the hosting platform, will have to be supported and will add complexity and confuse newbies.

The solution is to post this software on a Web page, add “use-at-your-own-risk” caveats, and boldly claim that these are “real” products, only “experiments” that won’t be supported by the company. In general, however, I’ve found “Labs” products every bit as stable as supported apps. Maybe even more so, on average.

Most people have at least heard about Google Labs. The company allows engineers to spend 20% of their work time developing projects of their own. Many of these end up in their Labs sites. The Lab sites themselves often serve as a kind of “farm program” for apps and features that might later become “real.” Like Pinocchio.

But many companies have lesser-known Labs pages that can bring new tools and capabilities to your desktop PC, browser, mobile device or phone. Users tend not to be aware of these resources for a variety of reasons. One is that different companies throw around the word “Lab” to mean different things. For some consumer-software companies, “Labs” are just for software developers.

And for other they are not. Though the stuff may be directed at someone else specifically, if you look around, do some poking around, and some reading (this is where it gets tough – so many these days want to be spoon fed, and refuse to read anything other than a label) you can find some really good things to increase ease of use and productivity.

For others, they actually mean labs where researchers invent things. But a smattering of major companies, Labs pages provide a place where users can test concepts, enhance existing products and bring new capabilities to our gadgets and desktops.

Microsoft Office Concept Tests

One of the best of these is Microsoft’s Office Concept Tests, where I found the Speed Launcher.

Microsoft offers a range of tools and even a game that can plug into or augment Microsoft Office.

One of my favorites is a PowerPoint plug-in called pptPlex. It simply makes a PowerPoint slide deck non-linear. You can jump forward and back to any slide in the deck, and even zoom in on data. If you give PowerPoint presentations, you’ve got to try pptPlex.

Several other major software companies have similar Labs. If you use some application frequently or professionally, such as, say, an Adobe application, search for the software company’s name along with the word “labs” to find out if they have any free tools you don’t know about.

Google‘s browser competitors offer great “Labs” pages with lots of free goodies, including Mozilla Labs, Opera Labs and others.

Of course, you’d expect software and browser companies to offer labs. But several content companies have Labs with truly powerful free downloads as well, including two of my favorites: Hulu and Reuters.

Hulu Labs

The online TV and video site Hulu has a “Labs” site, where you can add features to the site. For example, you can use one tool to search for TV shows based on their original air data. Or you can get captions for watching movies silently during boring meetings. Other add-ons and browser plug-ins generally enhance your video-viewing experience.

Reuters Labs

Reuters is a leading news wire service. Labs offerings from Reuters run the gamut from iPhone apps to online services. Reuters News Screener, for example, shows you 120 of Reuters’ most recently posted stories.

Start typing a word on News Screener, and stories are instantly eliminated if they do not contain that specific string. Hover the mouse pointer over the headline to see the summary. If you’re a news nerd, Reuters’ News Screener is great.

Google has done a great job promoting the existence of its Labs tools. Other companies haven’t successfully gotten the word out. And that’s why Labs downloads and tools are the most under-utilized, under-appreciated resources on the Internet.

I hope that this will get some started down the path to tweaking their systems, learning more about them, and how software interacts with other software. If you learn to do a few things yourself, and end up gaining better knowledge of the hardware, the operating system, or just the applications, you are better off than those who know only the barest essentials, and work on a computer with trepidation at each outing. You will gain confidence and satisfaction, and may be able to help others in the process.

How great will that be?

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You are not permitted to kill a woman who has wronged you, but nothing forbids you to reflect that she is growing older every minute. You are avenged 1440 times a day.

Ambrose Bierce

microsoft-logo Microsoft has Research Labs? Really?

death_star_bailout If you find a page titled Death Star Labs, they probably don’t have much useful stuff for your Windows machine…


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