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Chris Mostek [opinions]

Small businesses are ripe for free software [free-software] [beginners] [business]

Once upon a time, in a career far, far away, I worked for a very small business. I was tasked with upgrading the OLD PC’s. The budget was so miniscule that literally every penny counted. In the effort to get the best bang for the buck, I stumbled across these programs called free software. “Whoo-hoo, they’re free” I thought. Little knowing how that introduction to free software applications would change my life, I quickly ordered the PC’s without MS Office, downloaded instead and saved a few hundred dollars per system.

Fast forward to the future. With much more free software under my belt, I am even more convinced small businesses are a ripe field for free software applications.

Of course, the initial appeal for a business is the same advantage that I first noticed about many free software applications: the zero acquisition cost. The ability to acquire these programs for free allows you to spend your limited capital funds in areas that generate profits for your company. In my initial scenario, we purchased one more PC than originally planned with the savings.

On a related front, if you’ve ever been in the following situation...

  • Purchased the latest version of a critical program.
  • Discovered the latest version will NOT import data from a version as old as what you are using.
  • Banged your head on the desk a few times.
  • Purchased a version of the program off Ebay that is between your current version and the latest version.
  • Imported in your data into the tweener version and THEN were able to import into the latest version.

...realize your upgrades with free software are also zero-cost. So upgrade frequently.

Having stated the advantage of the zero cost to acquire, please realize that many development communities accept donations for their efforts. Once you get your profits established, I strongly encourage you to support your key applications by making a donation. After all, if the application helped your business, you can return the favor (and you have a vested interested in their continued success).

The software licenses used by free software applications are another benefit. Many free software programs are released under the GNU General Public License (GPL) or a compatible license. I don’t have time for a full review of licensing, but the GPL is specifically geared towards encouraging the distribution and use of free software. If you are intending to use a GPL compatible program for business, you should be free and clear. The GNU website and Wikipedia have much more in-depth information on licenses. The advantage for the business owner is NOT having to keep track of the purchase documentation and activation codes.

Whether free software or proprietary, every software choice comes with a set of consequences. For businesses using free software, be aware of the following possible implications and take what your believe are the appropriate safeguards.

Your program may become an orphan: the developers move onto other projects; user interest in the project wans; whatever the cause some programs cease in their development. Your current version still works, but new versions, features or security patches are not published. Before you decide that that risk kills any chance of you using a free software application, please remember that proprietary programs can cease being developed and supported as well. Whether the application is free software or proprietary, my advice is to stay aware of the status of any critical program and the viable alternatives. If you get uncomfortable with a program’s status, then plan a transition to another option. There are enough choices out there to make this viable in most cases.

You’ll have to spend some time installing, upgrading or configuring the software. This is a bit of a hidden cost. In my initial exposure to free software, I installed on each individual system instead of just hooking up a PC with MS Office pre-installed. Plan your time accordingly.

There are a lot of different sources for free software applications appropriate for businesses. The following websites should get you started:

Whether you are a new business, at the point where your start-up expenses are exceeding your revenues (if any revenues yet), or a current business owner wanting to be frugal with your expenses and investments, you can find a free software application for your company.


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