3 Open Source Applications for Your Business

The following post is from Michelle of Mommy Misadventures:

source: elm3r

When I was first starting out as a freelance writer, one of the things that worried me the most was the cost of software. Commercially licensed software can be expensive. For example, a copy of Microsoft Office 2010 Home and Business retails for $199.95. (OUCH!!)

Major software companies like Microsoft and Adobe often have academic versions of their software, offered at lower prices, available to students. These applications are not licensed for commercial use. If you intend on using the application for your business, you must get the software that is licensed for business.

So,what’s a cash-strapped small business owner to do?

As an IT professional and small business owner, I’m a huge proponent of open source software. And why not? Many open source projects are great pieces of software that do a lot (if not everything) that their commercial equivalents. This combination of quality and awesome pricing (FREE!) means that open source software can really help me grow my business.

Awesome software for FREE? Sounds great, but as with all business decisions, there are some disadvantages and other things to consider before ditching any commercial software you may already be using:

Not Always the Best Alternative

While open source applications can take the place of commercial applications in many situations, it doesn’t always mean that they should. If you’re a professional that relies heavily on software considered an industry standard (example: photographer that uses Adobe Lightroom), it may not be worthwhile to attempt to switch to an open source equivalent.

A similar concern is if you work closely with businesses that are strict with the file types that they expect work to be delivered in. If your business depends on it: don’t risk it! For example, while my beloved LibreOffice can read and save in .docx format, there can still be certain elements of a file that cannot be saved in that format. Think macros, form data, formatting, etc.

Support, or Lack Thereof

Additionally, free software — particularly open source software — often comes with little or no support. Lack of support may not be an issue when using software strictly for personal reasons but can be a serious problem when it is as a business tool. Some applications offer premium support where you can talk to a support person for a fee, which varies depending on who is providing the support. Another common type of support structure is crowd-sourced type of support where you ask about your problem in a forum or chat. There’s no telling when — or even if! — you will get a solution to your problem.

Recommendations

Even with these caveats, I’m still a huge supporter of open source applications for the business user, particularly if you’re in start up mode. For productivity suites, email, and basic graphics editing, these three pieces of software have my utmost loyalty. I have used them for years and find them to be extremely reliable and indispensable for my everyday business needs.

LibreOffice
Platforms: Windows, Mac, Linux

A good productivity suite is the cornerstone of just about any type of business. From creating documents to editing spreadsheets or poking at databases, I’ve found that LibreOffice is hard to beat. It’s compatible with most common file types including Microsoft’s .doc/.docx, .xls/.xlsx, .ppt/.pptx and PDF.

The LibreOffice Suite is comprised of six different applications:

  • Writer (word processor)
  • Calc (spreadsheets)
  • Impress (presentation software)
  • Draw (diagrams)
  • Base (database)
  • Math (equations)

Need Writer and Calc but don’t have a need for Base, Draw or Math? Don’t worry about it — you have the option of choosing which applications you need during installation. And if you discover down the line that you need one of the applications you didn’t install initially, no problem! You can always install them later.

Other alternatives: Apache OpenOffice (Windows, Mac, Linux), Google Docs (web-based, free but not open source)

Mozilla Thunderbird
Platform: Windows, Mac, Linux

Right up there with productivity suites, a good email client is a must for many businesses. For email clients, I am a huge fan of Mozilla Thunderbird. It’s a great application that supports various mail formats and is very easy to set up.

Thunderbird is great as-is but its real advantage comes in its customizability. Like Mozilla Firefox, Thunderbird has a library of user-created extensions that help expand on its standard functionality. Two add-ons that I highly recommend are Lightning and Provider for Google Calendar.  Lightning enables calendaring functionality and Provider for Google Calendar allows you to subscribe to Google-hosted calendars.

Alternatives: GMail & Google Calendar (free, web-based)

GIMP
Platforms: Windows, Mac, Linux

Every now and then, you may find yourself in need of a good graphics editor. As a writer and blogger, I spend a frightening amount of time playing around with with graphics, either correcting color on a photograph that I’ll be submitting to a newspaper along with my story, or editing a photo collage for a blog post.

Even so, I know that my graphics editing is very basic and since it’s not a core portion of my business, I refuse to spend more money on it than I need to. Enter GIMP which is one of my absolute favorite graphic editors of all time. GIMP has a lot of features that are analogous to Adobe Photoshop without the price tag. There’s even a port of GIMP that includes some cosmetic changes to the menu to make it more Photoshop like.

Alternatives: Paint.NET (Windows only)

Do you use open source applications in your business? What are some of your favorites?

Michelle Mista is an IT professional, writer and blogger with a love for all kinds of technology. She writes about tech tips and trends for work at home professionals on her portfolio blog and muses about motherhood at Mommy Misadventures. She is on the constant quest to balance life, work and geekery.
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