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How to run your small business with free open source software

Paul Rubens | Nov. 15, 2013
From simple bookkeeping packages to full-blown ERP systems, open source software can provide free options for small businesses that don't have the budget for big-ticket enterprise applications.

Take a look at the next desktop PC or laptop you come across. Odds are good it won't be running an open-source operating system. Microsoft's closed-source Windows has by far the highest share of the PC client operating system market, followed in a distant second by Apple's Mac OS X. Linux and other wholly open source operating systems have only a tiny market share.

It's not hard to see why. Despite the advances made by distributions such as Ubuntu, desktop Linux is still miles behind Windows and OS X in terms of the look, the feel and the slickness that most office workers have come to expect. The vast majority of companies simply aren't prepared to make office workers use an open source OS - and most office workers aren't prepared to use them, either.

Even if you want to stick with a closed source operating system (or, the case of OS X, partially closed source), your business can still take advantage of a vast amount of open source software. The most attractive benefit of doing so: It's generally available to download and run for nothing. While support usually isn't available for such free software, it's frequently offered at an additional cost by the author or a third party. It may be included in a low-cost commercially licensed version as well.

Is it possible, then, to run a business entirely on software that can be downloaded for free? There certainly are many options that make it possible - and many more that aren't included in this guide.

Very few companies using Microsoft Office actually require support from Microsoft, so using an open source alternative can make good financial sense. Open-source suites are compatible with Microsoft Office file formats such as .doc and .xls. Though their feature sets aren't quite as comprehensive as Office, that's unlikely to matter - most people only use a fraction of the available features available anyway.

Here are four open source alternatives to Microsoft Office:

  • Apache OpenOffice, a comprehensive suite for Windows, Mac OS X and Linux;
  • Open Document Foundation's Libre Office, a fork of Open Office for Windows, OS X and Linux;
  • NeoOffice, a Java-based fork of OpenOffice for OS X, and
  • Calligra, which runs on Windows, Linux, FreeBSD and OS X.

Open Source Finance and Accounting Applications
These three financial packages provide open sources alternatives to commercial packages such as Quicken, Sage or QuickBooks.

  • GnuCash (Windows, OS X and Linux) helps very small businesses apply professional accounting principles and track bank accounts, income and expenses to help ensure balanced books and accurate financial reports.
  • TurboCASH (Windows), aimed at the small to medium-sized business market, provides a general ledger and offers core functionality such as posting transactions into accounts and producing financial reports. The product supports 80 tax regimes, including the United States and the United Kingdom.
  • Finally, xTuple offers both a free and commercial supported version of Postbooks (Windows, OS X, Linux, BSD) to medium and larger companies. It includes accounting (general ledger, accounts receivable and payable, bank reconciliation and financial reporting) as well as sales, CRM, inventory and distribution, and other business management functions.

 

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