“Must have” web development and office programs (free too)

I’ve read a few articles recently where the author gives a run down of their top development or office productivity software – the “must have” tools that make you and your computer happy campers. Never one to miss a bandwagon, I’ve decided to create my own list of the web development and productivity tools that I use on a daily basis.

To be kind to your wallet all of the software on my list is available under a freeware or generous shareware license. The programs I mention run on Windows, but that’s not to say there is not a Mac or Linux version available too.

Without further ado, here’s the list:

Web Development

Developerside Server Suite and XAMPP

If you’re like me – and the majority of web designers – you rely on PHP as the server side scripting language that powers your websites, and MySQL as your database solution. That’s all fine and well, but uploading your PHP files to your web hosting account to test them *every* time you make a minor change gets old *real* fast. The solution is to install a WAMP (Windows Apache MySQL and PHP) web server on your local computer. Installing a web server isn’t as scary as it sounds, thanks to the availability of all-in-one web server distributions aimed at individuals and small businesses. I cut my teeth on the Developerside Server Suite, which is an easy WAMP installation, fully configured and ready to run. It’s as simple as unzipping the files, running a few command-line instructions, and firing up your web browser. From then on you can develop sites locally with all the goodness of MySQL databases and PHP, and only need to upload files to your web hosting account when the job is complete.

Although the Developerside server suite is the only WAMP package I have experience with, I know of many people using XAMPP. You may like to compare the two products to see which takes your fancy. XAMPP is available for Linux as well as Windows and Mac OSX.

PHP Designer

If you write a fair amount of PHP code, a PHP IDE (Integrated Development Environment) might help you code faster and smarter. The best known IDE’s are commercial products (Zend Studio and NuSphere PhpED), but there are a few good free PHP editors to choose from. PHP Designer has a free version for personal use that includes a code debugger, syntax highlighting, code tips, and a number of shortcuts for adding common PHP statements and HTML tags to your documents. Think of it as a text editor on speed. A more fully featured version on PHP Designer is available for USD$69, although if you’re going to splash out you should probably investigate some of the other commercial IDE’s on the market to make sure you get the best bang for your buck.

A little tip for getting the most out of PHP Designer: Turn on all of your toolbars (Format, Forms etc). The toolbars give you quick access to all the commonly used commands, but for some reason they are turned off by default.


When it comes to FTP applications you want something that you can quickly fire up, connect to a server, and transfer files across. SmartFTP does the job, and throws in those handy extras like a favorites list, easy CHMODing of files and folders (that’s setting Unix file permissions), filtering files (so for instance you can choose to skip files of type *.fla and *.bak when uploading), and a nifty file transfer queue.


The release of Firefox shook up the web design industry by challenging Microsoft’s stranglehold over the web browser market, and it’s still the best browser out there. These days other web browser might match it for web standards support, but when you throw a thousand or so extensions into the mix, Firefox is the clear winner. It’ll be interesting to see how the final release of Internet Explorer 7 changes the playing field, but for now I build sites for Firefox then tweak them to work in IE.

Web developer toolbar for Firefox

Speaking of firefox extensions, this baby is the web developer’s best friend. Edit a page’s CSS on-the-fly, display detailed information about every page element, validate HTML and CSS from within the browser, disable images, resize the page, run a javascript console. Is there anything this handy toolbar can’t do? Basically, no.

HTML Validator extension for Firefox (based on HTML Tidy)

OK, there is *one* thing the web developer toolbar can’t do. It can’t validate your pages locally. Instead it relies on the W3C’s online validation service. That’s where the HTML Tidy extension steps in. It also displays a handy icon in Firefox’s status bar letting you know if a page validates. That little icon will revolutionize the way you work by telling you at a glance if your pages are valid, and you can say goodbye to round trips to the W3C validator every time you modify a page. And as you’d expect from a Tidy extension, it can clean your HTML code for you, right from within the browser.


If your web host offers you shell access to your server, then you’ll need an SSH client to make the connection. Grab a copy of PuTTY and in no time at all you’ll be pulling the mad unix command line styles.

Office Productivity

Mozilla Thunderbird

From the folks that gave us Firefox comes the lean n’ mean Thunderbird email client. So far Thunderbird has failed to set the world on fire the way it’s web browser sibling has, probably because Tbird takes it’s lead from other email clients – notably Microsoft Outlook – rather than blazing new ground like Firefox did. However it still does a great job as an email client, and as you’d expect from a Mozilla product it can be augmented by a number of community created plugins.


Thunderbird lacks the day planner and task organizer that Outlook boasts, and that’s where Sunbird steps in. It’s still an alpha release, so don’t expect perfection, but Sunbird sports most of the features you need to keep your life organized.


Have a chip on your shoulder about using Microsoft products? OpenOffice.org lets you break the shackles of corporate oppression with a fine set of Office productivity tools designed to rival Microsoft Office. Writer is the pick of the bunch for me, offering an alternative to Microsoft’s Word. It does a damn fine job too, and even reads and writes to Word format so you won’t find yourself shunned by Microsoft devotees.


If you read my review of Mozy a few months back you’ll know that I was highly impressed with the ease with which the product automates online backup of your important data. For a web developer that means you can ensure that development files for your current projects are always safely backed up, and you barely have to think about it. 2gb of storage – and peace of mind – for $0 is a sweet deal in my book.

Trillian and Gaim

It seems like a good number of people rely on instant messaging these days to conduct realtime conversations with friends and colleagues, rather than the telephone. Unfortunately the major IM protocols don’t play to well together, but with a little help you can have all of your IM accounts and buddies happily cohabiting. Trillian and Gaim are the two multi-protocol IM clients I have experience with. Unfortunately neither application is perfect, and when transferring files with your buddies both clients show their weakness. I have found Gaim to become unresponsive when receiving a file, and Trillian to upload files at very slooooow speeds. In any case, it beats running ICQ, MSN and AIM all at the same time!

Here’s a gotcha for Trillian: The application comes with some of it’s shortcut keys configured the same as Photoshop. Except Trillian will ‘steal’ the shortkey even when Photoshop has focus. You can disable the shortcut keys in Trillian’s preferences, which will put Photoshop back in the driver’s seat.

3 thoughts on ““Must have” web development and office programs (free too)

  1. cctech says:

    Great post! I love it when people put tons of sweet FREE programs on a page for everyone to check out! Nice…

    One thing I missed was Graphics programs? Maybe the are not really “web development” but they are important, of course. We recently ran across Paint.net (getpaint.net) It does require the .Net framework :(, but is a cool little Photoshop alternative. Free, of course.

    Also, check out Gimp (gimp.org) – another nice one that won’t break the bank :). I am sure there are others, but these are 2 that we have blogged about.
    PS – I am not affiliated with either of these programs, so I am not pluggin’ anything. ;)

  2. Jonathan says:

    @cctech – I made the decision to only list programs that I actually use myself, and since I use the ‘big name’ graphics apps I didn’t include Gimp et al. I agree they are great programs though, so I’m please they have gotten a plug in the comments!

  3. cctech says:

    I did not mean to imply that there was a flaw with your post. I think it was awesome. We use the “big” ones and just try to keep an eye on new ones. With the way technology is moving these days, you never know when one of the little ones is going to grow up and challenge the big boys – ie. Firefox :). Great post.

Comments are closed.