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Open source and free business software

Open source and free business software

Open sauce, open source ... geddit?

Free business software isn’t always second best. In fact, some of the best software is free, enabling your business to benefit from up to date, highly-capable applications without paying a penny.

Free business software – all it’s cracked up to be?

The easiest way to find free business software is to look online. Free software tends to fall into one of four categories:

  • Freeware. In general, freeware is available at no cost and with no restrictions. Freeware tends to be simple software designed to perform one or two tasks.
  • Shareware. Shareware is free to try out. You usually have to pay if you want to continue using it. Some shareware relies on the honesty of users to pay up when they should.
  • Open source business software. Open source software can be freely adapted by anyone with the knowledge and inclination to do so. The open source system has created many useful pieces of software that are the product of loose collaboration between many people, all over the world.
  • Freemium software. This is a relatively new model for software. It mainly applies to online software that you access over the internet. With freemium software certain basic features are free, but if you need more advanced functions you’ll have to pay for them.

Is free business software right for you?

There are free and open source alternatives to most types of commercial software. These packages are often highly capable and many claim to be compatible with commercial software, so you can exchange files with ease.

At face value it’s hard to see why anyone wouldn’t use free or open source business software. However, there are some downsides:

  • Support can be costly. Most free and open source business packages have a small market share. This means you’ll need more support to install and use the software, yet finding that support may be harder.
  • Lack of familiarity. Your staff are less likely to be familiar with free alternatives to common business software. So although the software costs nothing to acquire, you have to spend more on training and support.
  • Non-standard formats. Although many free packages claim they’re compatible with the files used by commercial software, it’s not always totally reliable. This can occasionally cause problems when sharing files.
  • Future uncertainty. Pieces of open source and free business software often rely on volunteers for development. This means you aren’t guaranteed the bug fixes and updates which are standard with commercial software.

You can deal with these issues to some extent by using a commercial distribution of an open source business package. These offer a guaranteed level of compatibility, support and service.

This option isn’t free, but you could still save significantly because the software company doesn’t have to recoup development costs in the price.

This approach also helps ensure you only use free business software that’s legitimate. Because getting something for nothing is very attractive, scammers sometimes tempt victims by promising free software but deliver computer viruses or hacking attacks instead.

To avoid these problems, only download free business software from reputable websites. Good places to start are Download.com and SourceForge. If you’re in any doubt about whether a piece of free business software is legitimate, search for the name of the software online to check if anyone else has had problems with it.

Can you rely on free business software?

Choosing to use free business software is not an all-or-nothing decision.

For instance, switching to an open source business operating system like Linux would probably involve making substantial changes to your IT systems and retraining staff. However, trialling a free office suite like OpenOffice.org alongside your standard software might help you understand if you could roll the package out across your company.

Free business software is also ideal for infrequent use. For example, there are several free graphics packages that allow you to edit photographs. Both Paint.NET and GIMP and are fine for occasional work.

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