What is open source software? And can it save you money?

The costs of meeting various obligations are simply unavoidable for every small business, so any proposition that promises to slice a few hundred dollars off the bottom line is at least worth investigating. More so if the savings edge closer to the thousands.

Being able to reduce costs has become possible for many businesses by making use of ‘open source’ software – which is a concept that has been circulating online for many years now, and generally refers to applications that are available to be downloaded free to the public.

Applications or software that are provided as open source also generally have the programming behind them also made public, so that anyone with the nous can change, improve and re-distribute their version of the application or software –  perhaps tailor-made for certain industries.

The ‘working together’ approach of the community of open source users started to gain real momentum about a decade ago when  several software designers and programmers began the Open Source Initiative, a collaborative group with an aim to increase the status of open source software, and encourage its wider acceptance.

Open source applications rival the paid-for software solutions that line the shelves of IT and computer retailers, and are a free version of programs that can cost businesses thousands of dollars.

Practical benefits

You might have already heard about several successful open source alternatives. The operating system Linux, for example, is one, and the operating system Ubuntu, which can power your desktop, server or laptop absolutely free, and offers free software as well (find out more here).

The internet browser Firefox is an open source rival to Microsoft’s Internet Explorer. Both applications became extremely popular in a short time. Firefox, for example, took around 20% of the share of the web browser market just four years after release.

Businesses using open source software can replicate the functions of several retail off-the-shelf software offerings, but at virtually no cost. So instead of paying for applications like Quicken or Microsoft Office, a business can download comparable versions from the web for free.

Also, depending on how technically minded you are, these days you can browse through several options of open sourced solutions for the same area, such as book-keeping, and pick an option that suits your needs most.

Another benefit, which stems from the collaborative environment in which these applications are formed and improved, is that advice on fixing problems can come from a much wider talent pool. Popular open-source applications will have scores or even hundreds of independent programmers trouble shooting well-known issues, and answers to common problems will probably be just a ‘google’ away.

Proponents of open-source software also say that the ‘community’ of developers and users leads to a more functional approach to business solutions, as improvements, features and add-ons are not held back by the commercial concerns of having another ‘product’ to sell.

In some instances, an open-source innovation can lead to a mainstream standard, which was the case with tabbed browsing. The very handy and now common ability to open multiple pages within the one web window was a feature developed by NetCaptor but made widely available by the completely free open-source browser Firefox in 2002. Tabbed browsing’s popularity led to Apple introducing the feature to Safari in 2003, and Microsoft’s Internet Explorer followed suit in 2005.

The disadvantages

But before jumping into the free open source pool of products, there are a few caveats, and possible risks, to keep front of mind.

One problem is security; and this could be said to be a disadvantage born specifically out of one of open source’s touted advantages – that is, the ‘community’ of users and developers of open source software. The fact that the programming data is ‘out there’ means that hackers will more than likely have a lot more knowledge of the weaknesses of any particular program.

Confidential data may be more exposed to unauthorised access, especially if a business lets its guard down on the security of its computer systems. Businesses using open source will need to ensure that not just adequate but quality firewall and protection programs are in place – maintained and updated regularly (although there are even open source versions of these).

The other thing to keep in mind is that, being developed and offered to everyone free, the quality of any open source application can never really be assumed. Some open source software is brilliant. Some are duds.

The onus will really be on the user to do some thorough homework before opting to make use of open source solutions. And while software that has ‘time in the market’ and that is more widely used may have had any glitches ironed out, there is still a clear need to go into any ‘open source’ decisions in a careful and considered manner.

Open smorgasbord

At the end of the day however, it’s your business and your choice. The solutions that open source software offers, especially the most popular and well-tried offerings, can be a great way to go for small businesses, and can cover software needs for zero expense.

The one cost most businesses will have to meet however will be in terms of time. Getting to know products and applications that are not industry standard may be more of a task than with software that came off a retailer’s shelf. But for zero dollars, the investment of time can be well worth it.

One of the undeniable attributes of open source however is the vast range of products available, from straight-forward web browsers to thorough accounting systems.  Users will need to check that the open source software on offer will run with the operating platforms (Windows, Mac, Linux etc) that run your computer system.

But before we get to the specific examples below, you can scan the internet for what is available. Osalt.com is a good place to start (here’s the link), and SourceForge.net is another (here’s that link). SourceForge is also good if you have programs to share.

And remember how good a friend your search engine can be in the hunt for open source software. One clue is to type ‘best open source …….’ into your search field (filling in the name of the function you are after). Depending on what you are looking for, a good list of examples should be revealed.

And as a final tip, which one entrepreneur swears by (and please excuse the language), is to make free use of the word ‘crap’ when searching for the pro’s and con’s of each software (well, for the con side of the argument anyway). So when you find a solution that looks promising, type its name followed by the word ‘crap’, and see what surfaces. It could just be someone venting in a forum discussion, but it can be handy for warnings of potential problems.

Here then are some of the open source alternatives that your business might be able to make use of (the off-the-shelf or commonly used commercial software, where this is relevant, is shown in brackets). The following is merely a smattering of offerings, so some further research may be needed to get all the alternatives available, as the full list would be too large to run here.


Text editing (Microsoft Word)

OpenOffice Writer

This is your free alternative to Microsoft Word, and has styles and formats and a dictionary. You can save in OpenDocument format so that anyone can read your texts, but it also will read Microsoft Word documents as well as save in Word format for sending to people who are still locked into Microsoft’s products.

Download at OpenOffice.org/writer

Emailing (Outlook, Entourage)


Brought to you by the same outfit that developed Firefox, Thunderbird works in the same way as Microsoft Outlook, gathering a number of different email accounts in the same application. Has a number of different add-ons and extensions, and can be customised.

Download at mozillamessaging.com

Spreadsheets (Microsoft Excel)

OpenOffice Calc

A spreadsheet program that will make calculations, draw graphs and manage data. It will read Excel documents, and can also save in Excel format for others. Will also save as PDFs (so no need to buy extra software) or in OpenDocument (XML) formats for sharing.

Download at OpenOffice.org/calc

Accounting, money management (Microsoft Money, Quicken)


An open source personal and small-business financial accounting software. Keep track of income and expenses from all of your accounts. The small-business features allow you to keep track of customers, vendors and projects. Also helps with invoicing, accounts receivable and payable. Data can be extracted into reports and even presented as graphs. Switching to GnuCash from other accounting software is easy since it is able to import from both Microsoft Money and Quicken.

Download from Gnucash.org


Accounting software aimed at managing more personal type transactions. Grouping of expenses makes it easy to keep track of budgeting targets for a certain category. Can also be used by multiple users and with any number of currencies.

Download from Grisbi.org


Manage your personal accounts and analyse finances using filtering tools and graphs. HomeBank boasts 14 years of user experience and feedback, and that it is available in 50 languages.

Download at homebank.free.fr


Designed to help people with little financial knowledge manage their finances. This personal finance manager is written in Java (which the distributor says will allow it to run on virtually any operating system). Keep track of your credit card, bank account and account savings, and compare these to budgets previously created. Filtering allows you to get detailed information to see where you have spent money, and watch balances on both credit card and savings accounts.

Download from gfd.sourceforge.net

Computer protection (Kaspersky, Norton)


A spyware and malware protection program, Winpooch will stop trojans and the like, but you will also need to install a virus checking program, such as ClamWin below.

Download at winpoocc.en.softonic.com


An anti-virus program that features high detection rates, scheduler, automatic download of virus database updates and a plug-in for Microsoft Outlook. A ‘sister’ software package to Winpooch.

Download at clamwin.com

Presentation (PowerPoint)

OpenOffice Impress

Features 2D and 3D text rendering, special effects and animation support. Imports and exports PowerPoint format files, and is able to create Flash files from your presentation. A range of views are supported to meet the needs of presenters and audiences, plus an optional multi-pane view (so that presenters can look at something else while presenting their slides on a projector).

Download at OpenOffice.org/impress


Part of the KOffice suite of products, KPresenter is the open source presentations part of the KOffice suite. Can combine text and graphics into slides either for on-screen presentation and handouts, as well as being able to put your presentation on-line using an HTML slideshow functionality. Animation and transitions can be added.

Download at KOffice.org

Making PDFs (Adobe Acrobat)


An open source printer driver that creates PDF documents. Acting as a printer driver it allows you to create PDF files from any Windows application. The PDF files can then be viewed with a standard PDF reader such as Adobe Acrobat Reader.

Download at pdfforge.org

Customer relationship management (Salesforce, SAP)


Software that manages pre- and post-sales activities. Called an ‘all-in-one, track everything’ package, the basic solution is free but any customisation or support may incur a small cost. But you may not need anything else if you needs are basic and straightforward.

Download at vtiger.com


The basic open source model is free, but adding enhancements may cost, so SugarCRM is an entry level solution. It is meant to be very similar to Salesforce, and has all the modules generally required, but users have reported that customisation is less intuitive. Still, if your needs are simple, it may be worth a look.

Download at sugarforge.org

Website creation (various providers)


A widely used open source content management system (CMS) is Joomla. It has a large user community, so problem solving and improvements can be more easily found. There are free web page templates available, but users with a clue can build their own.

Download at Joomla.org

CMS Made Simple

Suited to micro-businesses that would otherwise have no web presence, the CMS Made Simple package allow you to build small-ish (dozens to hundreds of pages), semi-static websites. Typically used for smaller corporates or promoting a team or organisation.

Download at CMSmadesimple.org


The most popular blog application, and because of its popularity and enormous community it has evaluated a lot from its original purpose, so that now you can use it for managing a complex content-driven website.

Download at WordPress.org


Not as fancy as many commercial CMSs, but it is very easy to customise, has built-in search tool and search-engine friendly URLs as an extra module, discussion capabilities and news aggregator.

Download at Drupal.org

Picture editing (Photoshop)


Photo re-touching, image composition and re-sizing, GIMP (GNU Image Manipulation Program) can do many of the tasks that the much more expensive Photoshop does, although not to the same quality. However the results, especially for free, may be all a small business needs.

Download at gimp.org


Developed by Google, this free (so not specifically ‘open source’)picture editing software can also organise photos into a library, create online albums which you can share with anyone, tag pictures and make edits similar to Photoshop. You can also load Google maps to aid in location (if this is helpful).

Log-on at picasa.google.com

Online shopping cart (various offerings)


A basic e-commerce and online store management program that still provides most online business needs to sell physical and digital goods over the internet, from a catalogue front-end that customers see, to an administration back-end to handle products, print and email invoices from ordering data, and set tax rates for pricing. Also sets up online payment features such as PayPal.

Download at oscommerce.com


An open source online shopping cart system that is SEO optimised, and has the feature of allowing customers to write their own reviews of products (which may or may not be a good thing).

Download at opencart.com

Online surveys (various commercial tools)


Conducting a questionnaire or customer survey? You can send an email to your client list and have them fill in your survey online with SurveyMonkey. Questions can be simple yes/no options, multiple choice and with or without comment feedback.

You can get the results in graphic form, as a spreadsheet or in other options. As with a lot of free online tools, there are additional features available, for a price, but the basic package may be all you’ll need.

Log-on at surveymonkey.com

Networking computers


Although not really replacing a cost item with a free one (as different workplaces will network computers in a variety of ways), some readers could find this to be a very useful tool. The basic version is free, but there are some substantially enhanced commercial versions.

VNC is remote control software that allows you to view and fully interact with one computer desktop (the ’VNC server’) using a simple program on another computer desktop (the ‘VNC viewer’) anywhere on the internet. The two computers don’t even have to be the same type, so for example you can view a Windows Vista desktop at the office on a Linux or Mac computer at home.

A common business application is remote system administration, so that you can take control of employee machines to fix problems, or to access and administer machines without physically going there  (so is great for machines spread between different locations). A group can view a screen that is being manipulated by a manager, for example, or allow one to take control of employee computers to provide guidance.

Download at RealVNC.com