Innovation

Open-source software: Not too good to be true

Written by Henry Kim

I have an online addiction that I don’t mind admitting in polite company. Unlike fantasy football or watching hockey fights on YouTube, this addiction is healthy, positive and saves me money. I’m talking about downloading open-source software for use by me and my clients.

The open-source model goes like this: someone comes up with an idea for computer software, often mimicking a popular commercial package. They toil away for thousands of hours, building a fully functional application. Then, instead of selling it, they usually give it away — source code and all. The best open-source software is more reliable, more flexible and less expensive than proprietary software. And, because it’s open source, your company’s own techies can modify it to suit your needs.

There are more than 230,000 open-source applications (known as “projects”) available on Sourceforge.net, the Internet’s leading open-source software portal. Naturally, the quality of the projects varies. Many are released, find no audience, wither and die. Winning projects, on the other hand, develop a loyal fan base and grow stronger because people are constantly revising the code. It’s these winners you need to look at when considering open-source software for your business. To get you started, here are my favourite open-source choices for SMEs:

OpenOffice
When it comes to an office suite, Microsoft Office isn’t your only choice. OpenOffice offers a strong (and free) alternative. It includes a spreadsheet program, word processor, presentation software, lightweight database program and a drawing tool. You don’t have to worry about leaving your Microsoft documents behind; OpenOffice reads and writes Word, Excel and PowerPoint files.

Admittedly, early versions of OpenOffice were slow, buggy and had compatibility issues with Microsoft file formats. But with the latest release, those problems are gone. The application is quick, lean and fast to load.

An Excel power user with a heavy reliance on macros and three-dimensional spreadsheets might want to tread carefully. But for the majority of users, OpenOffice is more than adequate for everyday business use.

Drupal
The days when business owners paid Web developers for minor updates to their websites are over. With the newest content management systems (CMS), even the most non-technical entrepreneurs can manage their own content.

WordPress, Joomla and Drupal are the three most popular open-source CMS projects, but Drupal stands out for its flexibility and community support. The flexibility comes from Drupal’s modular design, which encourages the development of add-on modules and themes. Modules add such functions and features to Drupal’s core as spam-blocking, photo galleries and e-commerce support. Themes provide the look and feel of your site and are easily modified to incorporate your company colours and logo. Like Drupal, most themes and modules are free.

Free tech support is available in the form of handbooks and forums at Drupal.org. Or you can pay for professional support from Acquia, the developers of Drupal, at annual fees starting at US$349.

The one downside to Drupal is that installation and configuration can be challenging. Most business owners will want to hire an experienced consultant to handle the technical details. But, once your Drupal site is up and running, you take over the management of your content. New pages and edits are done through a very clean, simple interface that you access with your Web browser.

If you’re wondering whether Drupal is robust enough for you, consider that it powers Whitehouse.gov and Zappos.com.

Mozilla Firefox
Between 10% and 20% of businesses are still using Internet Explorer 6, depending on who’s doing the counting. Put simply, IE6 is obsolete. Mozilla’s Firefox offers an alternative that, unlike IE, works on all operating systems.

Firefox enjoys strong community support, which has led to the development of an extensive library of free add-ons, allowing you to customize your browser for a richer Web experience.

There are add-ons for managing news feeds, shopping for airfares and translating languages. My favourite add-ons are Yoono, which displays all of my social media updates in a frame beside my main browser window; and Xmarks, which synchronizes my bookmarks and browsers acrossmultiple computers.

Early adopters of Firefox know that it had trouble displaying some websites. But as the browser’s popularity has grown, the number of incompatible sites has dramatically shrunk.

GIMP
Graphic and photo manipulation requirements in a small business are typically modest. Nonetheless, you might occasionally need to correct a colour in your logo, add a watermark to a photo or crop out an employee you just fired. Those sort of tasks are beyond the capabilities of the entry-level photo-editing tools that come with Windows-based or Macintosh computers. But at $700, Adobe Photoshop is pretty expensive for occasional use.

One alternative is the unfortunately named GIMP. An acronym for GNU Image Manipulation Program, GIMP is a powerful image-editing tool. It reads and writes all common image formats, including Adobe Photoshop PSD files.

Ubuntu
What if you could have an operating system that rarely crashes, is virus-resistant and has a clean, intuitive interface — without buying a Mac? You can, with Ubuntu. It’s a Linux-based desktop operating system with a familiar interface, and runs quite nicely with just 512MB of RAM and 10GB of hard-drive space.

Your Windows software won’t work on Ubuntu, but all the open-source applications I’ve told you about will. In fact, Ubuntu comes with all the software you need for a competent business computer. Firefox, OpenOffice, GIMP and the Evolution mail client are all included in the standard install.

Open-source software is not for everyone. Someone on your staff needs to be comfortable downloading software from the Internet and turning to online forums for support. If you feel more comfortable talking to a live person, support contracts are available for many applications; an annual Ubuntu contract, for example, starts at $55.

Ultimately, downloading, installing and using open-source software is not difficult. As I tell my nervous clients: “If you can follow a recipe to bake a cake, you’ll probably be okay.”

Henry Kim is president of TaylorKim Consulting, which helps companies with Internet strategy and implementation. His website is www.taylorkim.com

Originally appeared on PROFITguide.com