Open Source Software: A Strategic Move for the Small Business Owner

25Oct12

As a start-up in a creative industry I use many different types of software on a day-to-day basis. Everything from email management software right up to accounting and book-keeping software. Anyone who’s ever purchased software knows how expensive it can be; not only with the initial cost, but also when updating software to newer versions. The cost for licenses can be in the thousands of dollars. For a business just starting out, from home no less, costs like this are not manageable.

So what does the savvy business owner do? She looks at open source software (OSS).

OSS is software where the source code is open to the public. This means the public has free access to use, alter, improve, and sometimes even distribute, the program. Open source is based on the premise that software should be accessible to everyone. It’s also a great way to get better quality programs as people all over the world collaborate to get the bugs out.

OSS is a wonderful alternative to mainstream software. It’s often just as good as, or in some cases better than, the traditional software , but it’s free or inexpensive, and you can find an open source alternative to almost any mainstream program out there.

In a business where I need high-quality software with little-to-no cost, open source is the only way to go. Let’s take a look at some of the most common alternatives out there:

Ubuntu

I’ll start right at the beginning with the operating system (OS). Most people are familiar with Windows and MacOS, but a third option is readily available and is used by an estimated 20 million users worldwide (Computer World UK, October 14, 2011). It’s a Linux environment called Ubuntu. (For a definition of the meaning behind the word “Ubuntu”,  check this out.)

Why? The best part is that it’s free. No more paying for new versions/upgrades every couple of years. Ubuntu is free from the first download through to the most current upgrade. You can try Ubuntu on your current system without installing it, and with Ubuntu, you can have a dual Windows/Linux system, a handy process for those rare times you may need a Windows machine. Ubuntu is a more stable OS with less bugs and less tendency to “listen” to the Internet (therefore less opportunities for malicious software, viruses, etc. to sneak in). It’s just as versatile as any other OS with lots of programs and apps available for installation and it’s compatible with most software and devices out there.

Why not? There are a few setbacks to using Ubuntu. The first is that Ubuntu is more difficult than Windows. It’s not a plug and play system. Knowing a little about programming is essential; knowing a lot is even better. I’m in the first category and at times I’ve struggled switching to a Linux system. Having said that, it’s been a great learning experience and I wouldn’t go back to anything else! Just be patient and know that the answers for any questions are out there on the Internets. The second big drawback is that if you make a mistake in a Linux environment you can damage your system beyond repair. With Windows you can often recover files, re-format drives etc., in order to save the machine. In Linux there is a point of no return! Thankfully I haven’t hit that point. Here’s hoping I never do!As well, I’ve come across the occasional instance where Ubuntu doesn’t support a device. For example, I couldn’t just plug and play my simple USB webcam. Something that should be simple and easy to use (plug and play) took me two hours to research and install a fix. Granted it probably wouldn’t have taken that long if I knew more about programming! Live and learn.

Check out the Ubuntu website for details and downloads: www.ubuntu.com

* You don’t have to switch your operating system to enjoy the benefits of OSS. Most, if not all, OSS is made for Windows, MAC and Linux systems.

Firefox (or Chrome)

There seems to be a lot of debate as to whether Mozilla’s Firefox or Google’s Chrome is the better browser. One thing everyone seems to agree on: pick Firefox or Chrome but stay away from Microsoft’s Internet Explorer (IE). I use Firefox.

Why? Firefox does web browsing very well. It’s fast, versatile, and customizable with loads of add-ons, extensions and themes. All free!

Why not? I haven’t come across any problems or dislikes with Firefox but I’ll be the first to admit I don’t use it to its full extent. At this point, the only “why not” I can see would be because you prefer Chrome.

Check out the Firefox website for details and downloads: www.mozilla.org/en-US/

Check out the Chrome website for details and downloads: www.google.com/intl/en_uk/chrome/browser/

Thunderbird

Thunderbird is brought to us by Mozilla, the same folks who bring us Firefox and it’s an excellent alternative to Microsoft Outlook or Outlook Express. Not everyone needs a desktop email manager. If you only have a Gmail account then using a desktop email manager would be redundant as Gmail does all of the same things (and then some!). No sense in having two programs do the same thing. If you’re like me and have multiple email accounts in a number of different places (personal Gmail, Naughty Gypsy Gmail, NaughtyGypsy.com email accounts, etc.) then having a desktop email manager is essential.

Why? Thunderbird does almost everything Microsoft Outlook does. The big bonus here is that it’s free. It has email management for single or multiple accounts, address book, notes, and add-on calendar, all of which syncs with my Gmail account and smart phone. Thunderbird has a variety of add-ons you can choose from, so you can customize your email management to your liking. Currently all of my email accounts are downloaded into Thunderbird; all my contacts are compiled and sorted in Thunderbird; my calendar is linked between Gmail, my smart phone and Thunderbird. I’m not wasting valuable time going from account to account on webmail and it keeps me organized as everything is labelled and in folders (my OCD would be especially happy if there was a colour coding feature!). Without it, I’d spend a lot more time doing admin work, rather than actual work!

Why not? Thunderbird does almost everything Microsoft Outlook does. Thunderbird doesn’t automatically come with the basics such as calendar and notes; they are add-ons. Since Thunderbird has so many add-ons it can sometimes be difficult and time consuming to find the add-on that suits your needs. I rely heavily on notes. I use notes to keep track of repetitive information I email out regularly, price lists, notes about tentative events, etc. Until recently, Thunderbird didn’t have a note feature. Now I have two different note add-ons in my Thunderbird as I try to decide which one better suits my needs.

Check out the Thunderbird website for details and downloads: www.mozilla.org/en-US/thunderbird/

Open Office

Everyone needs a suite of office programs. This is where the bread and butter of most work is done, especially if you work in an office.

Why? Open Office is an office suite comprised of Writer (word processor), Calc (spreadsheet), Impress (presentations), Draw (publishing), Base (database), and Math (mathematical equations); basically a similar set of programs as is in MS Office. This combination of programs comprise the essential tools needed for office work and you guessed it…. the suite is free!

Why not? The biggest problem is compatibility with MS Office. MS Office can’t read OO format, however, when in Open Office you can save files with a number of different extensions, including Microsoft extensions. This allows you to open Open Office files in Microsoft. There is still a drawback: formatting is often lost in translation. Until more people adopt Open Office, thereby forcing Microsoft to incorporate the open office format, the compatibility issue will continue to be problematic.

Check out the Open Office website for details and downloads: www.openoffice.org/

There is another well-known open source office suite called Libre Office that comes standard with the Ubuntu OS. Personally, I prefer Open Office but you decide for yourself. You can check out the Libre Office website for details and downloads: www.libreoffice.org/

Inkscape

Adobe’s Illustrator has been the holy grail of graphics programs in the design industry for ages. Don’t get me wrong, it’s an awesome program! What’s not so awesome? The price. Adobe suites start at $1299.00USD and only go up from there. That doesn’t include multiple licensing or upgrading to newer versions.

Why? Inkscape is a fabulous graphics program that does everything Illustrator does, and sometimes, it even does it better. It’s fast, versatile, equal to Illustrator and free! Despite the depth of the program, it’s easy to use so it’s good for beginner and advanced users alike.

Why not? I’m hard pressed to find negatives here. If you care about the look of a program then Inkscape may not be for you as it is less polished. But what Inkscape loses in aesthetics, it makes up for in versatility and price. In my mind there is no competition.

Check out the Inkscape website for details and downloads: inkscape.org/

GIMP

Recently photo editing has become a necessary evil in my life. After the Naughty Gypsy portfolio photo shoot two weeks ago I ended up with over 1000 pictures! I realize I will only use a small fraction of those 1000 pictures, but I still need to sort through and edit the best ones. As my portfolio and stock grows, photo editing will be something I’ll need to do on a regular basis, but Adobe’s Photoshop is a significant expense. Since I don’t need all of the functionality Photoshop offers it wouldn’t be a good investment for me.  That’s where GIMP comes in.

Why? GNU Image Manipulation Program (GIMP) is an open source alternative to Photoshop. It’s incredibly versatile for a free program, giving the user most of the same functions Photoshop has (there are a number of add-ons that bring it very close to Photoshop’s versatility). It’s a step up from basic photo editing software or free online photo editing sites, but not as versatile as Photoshop, so it ends up being on the higher end of the mid-range photo manipulation programs. Once again, the big bonus here is the cost: free.

Why not? Photoshop has more features for the hardcore photo-editor, so if you’re a professional photographer or work with photos regularly skip the GIMP and go with Adobe.

Check out the GIMP website for details and downloads: www.gimp.org/

As you can see there are great open source alternatives out there. And this is just the tip of the iceberg. You can find alternatives to most paid software, you just have to look. Check out AlternativeTo for a searchable list of alternative open source (or less expensive) versions of mainstream programs.

In most cases, I’m not knocking the original programs, just the hefty prices. As a small business owner I have to pick and choose where to invest money into my business. In my case, while I love my computer, it’s not the main piece of my business. OSS gives me access to the programs I need, with little to no cost so I don’t have to skimp on quality in my work. To me, that’s good business sense!

If you’re interested in learning more about OSS, Wikipedia has a nice overview here.

Do you use these, or other, open source programs? Please tell me about them, and your experiences with them, in the comments section below. I love hearing about software! It pleases the computer geek in me.

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