I've always had a healthy fascination with Microsoft alternatives. For example, I've been testing different Linux distributions for over a decade now, and I've purchased three Apple Macintosh machines since 2001 just to use Apple's excellent OS X. Eventually, however, I always return to the safety and comfort of Windows and Microsoft Office. In the mid-1990s, Netscape's sudden rise and fall provided a brief glimpse at what an alternative computing environment could be like, and today, products such as OpenOffice.org, GAIM, Gimp, and Mozilla Firefox speak to me on a level I'm not even sure I completely understand.

But you don't have to be a technology freak or even a Microsoft hater (which I'm not) to examine non-Microsoft solutions. As I've discussed previously here in Connected Home Express, one of the easiest ways to ease into alternatives is to examine non-Microsoft solutions that are designed to run under Windows. That way, you retain your options while exploring other options. You don't have to switch to the Mac or Linux to be happy. But you might be surprised to discover that there's a wide world of wonderful non-Microsoft software out there, waiting for your attention. Much of it, too, is free.

Lately, much of this software has been coming from Google, and with a massive cash hoard and more on the way, Google is poised to take on Microsoft in more and more areas. As someone naturally inclined to Microsoft alternatives, I find Google's software strangely attractive. And what's really interesting about these offerings—all of which are absolutely free—is that they seem to be pointing to a future in which most of our computing time is spent interacting with Web services and not mired in desktop-based applications. Some have opined that this future might be thought of as a Google Desktop. It doesn't seem so far-fetched.

Here are just a few of notable tools and services Google is now offering for free.

Google Search
Google's initial offering, a Web-based search engine, is still going strong and is arguably one of the most-often-used Web services ever created. Google has augmented its basic search engine over the years with a host of features almost too numerous to list. Some of the better features include Google Local, for finding businesses and services that are local to you; Google Maps and Google Earth, for getting directions, maps, and amazing satellite-based imagery; Google Images for finding photos; and Google News for aggregating news stories from around the globe.

If you're a GMail user (see below), you can even customize the Google Search home page to include the information you specify. This customized page is a far cry from the personalization and content offerings available on MSN and Yahoo!, but it's getting there. I've customized my Google Search page to include news feeds from the BBC, News.com, Reuters, and CNN; a few RSS feeds; my Gmail Inbox; weather alerts; and blurbs from MSNBC Travel.

Google Toolbar
Can't get enough Google? Microsoft Internet Explorer (IE) and Mozilla Firefox users can download the Google Toolbar, which provides a quick interface to Google Search along with a host of other services, including Web form spell checking and auto-fill, page highlighting, and pop-up blocking (IE only, as Firefox includes this feature already).

GMail: Google Mail
Google's amazing GMail service (called Google Mail in some countries) combines a full-featured Web-based email client with over 2GB of storage space. (It's variable: My account currently has over 2.5GB of space.) It also lets you use the email client of your choice. (I use GMail with Microsoft Outlook.) GMail was previously available only to those select few who were invited to test the service, but today, anyone in the United States can get a GMail account simply by installing Google Talk (see below) and providing Google with a valid cell-phone number. (This requirement is necessary to prevent email address squatting.) And if you choose to use the Web-based client instead of an email application, consider getting the GMail Notifier, which provides you with small alerts when new email arrives.

Once you get a GMail account, those other Web-based email services will seem quaint by comparison. This is Web email the way it should be.

Google Desktop Search with Sidebar
Only recently released, Google Desktop Search 2.0 with Sidebar (not to be confused with the mystical Google Desktop I discussed previously) is an add-on for Windows that replaces the previous Google Desktop Search product and provides a number of other useful services, as well. In addition to a taskbar-based or floating search box, you can configure Google Desktop Search in its most useful configuration, the Sidebar, which adds a variable-width UI element to the side of your screen. This Sidebar can be stocked with customizable areas called panels, each of which can interact with unique Web services. By default, Google Desktop Search's Sidebar provides panels for such things as Email (GMail and Outlook-based), News, Photos, Scratch Pad, Stocks, and Weather. You can close, resize, and move the panels around as you see fit, and you can download more from the Web. Best of all, because Google has opened up the programming interfaces for the Sidebar, new panels are coming online every day.

The Sidebar in Google Desktop Search is an amazing piece of code, especially given that it's only the first version of this tool. I've configured mine with panels for Google Talk (see below), Photos, Weather (with five cities I frequently visit), Google Search, and gdTunes, the latter of which you can use to control Apple's iTunes. The Sidebar is similar to a feature—also called Sidebar—that Microsoft will be adding to Windows Vista in late 2006. But Google's software is here today and doesn't require an OS upgrade.

Google Talk
Google's latest release is its most enigmatic. Dubbed Google Talk, the application is a Jabber-compliant instant messaging (IM) solution. Most Google tools offer a simple UI, but Google Talk takes this simplicity to new levels of austerity. In fact, you might say that Google Talk is too simple: It offers text-based chat and audio chat, but no video or telephony features, and it's so barebones that it doesn't even support basic IM features such as emoticons. On the plus side, Google Talk is wonderfully free of advertisements or the annoying features MSN has been adding to MSN Messenger lately. And Google has announced its intention to use Google Talk as the Rosetta Stone of the IM world, interoperating in some distant future with IM clients from AOL, Microsoft, Yahoo!, and others. It's not there yet, but it can only improve.

Picasa
One of Google's more impressive applications, called Picasa, runs only on Windows and is very much a traditional Windows application, making it quite distinct from other Google tools. Picasa is an image-management and -editing tool that is without peer. Better and more feature-packed than Apple's well-reviewed iPhoto, Picasa has everything you need to organize, edit, and share your digital photos. It's a wonderful application that I once paid for—until Google bought the company that made it and set Picasa free. If you're using Windows, you need this application, and you need it now.

Blogger
Another service I once paid for—again, until Google set it free—is Blogger, one of the Web's best blog front-ends. I wrote about Blogger back in "Blogging 101", July 2005, and have been using the service for more than 4 years to run my Internet Nexus blog. I can't recommend Blogger enough: It recently added some interesting new features, including a new image-uploading tool. And Microsoft Word users can now download a free Blogger for Word add-on that lets you blog directly from your favorite word processor.

Where It's All Headed
There's so much more to talk about, but I would need a book to cover it all. To discover other Google tools and services, check out Google's Web site. What's really amazing is that many of Google's free services were once expensive. Google Earth, Picasa, Blogger, and Hello are all examples of services that started outside of Google and cost customers money. Now, they're all free. Some Google services, such as Google Search, are paid for by small, innocuous Web-based advertisements, but many are blissfully free of such things. For example, Google Talk—although Spartan and bare—is also free of the annoying animated ads that mar Microsoft MSN Messenger and other IM tools. If Google does move to an ad-based model for its non-Search products, I hope they'll begin offering paid versions that don't deliver ads. I'd certainly pay for such products.

Today, just about the only thing Google doesn't offer is an office-productivity suite, although there's been some talk about the company purchasing Sun's excellent Star Office suite, which is based on the OpenOffice.org code base. And you have to wonder whether the company is working on a computing environment that could replace Windows but provide an excellent shell for its Web-based services. Still, when you couple a Windows-based PC today with free solutions such as Firefox, OpenOffice.org, and a few Google tools, you can be off and running—with precious little need for anything else.