Expensive but necessary software can cut deep into the profit margins of small business. Fortunately, the open source software movement has produced a variety of excellent programs that can fill the needs of your small business without emptying your bank account. Open source software is freely distributed with public source code, for anyone to use or modify as long as they don't claim copyright.
OpenOffice.org is probably the best-known package of open source software after the Linux operating system. It includes a word processor, a spreadsheet program similar to Excel(tm), a presentation program, a database program, a draw program similar to CorelDRAW(tm), and a mathematical equation editor. OpenOffice.org is already used by many businesses and government organizations, and its files are compatible with MS Office files.
Available for: Windows, Mac, Linux
Compare to: Microsoft Office(tm) with CorelDRAW(tm)
You save: $340-500
For image editing, try The GIMP, an open source program very similar in capability to Adobe PhotoShop(tm). GIMPshop, a modified version, even has menu commands structured like PhotoShop. Although GIMP handles color slightly differently and might not be the perfect choice for a professional graphic designer, it's more than sufficient for most small business needs.
Available for: Windows, Mac OS X, Linux
Compare to: Adobe PhotoShop(tm)
You save: $500-700
No knowledge of HTML but you want to build a website? Try Nvu (pronounced “N-view"), an open source What You See Is What You Get (WYSIWYG) web editor. Nvu is designed to be very easy to use, including for the novice web designer.
Available for: Windows, Mac OS X (pre-Intel chip), Linux
Compare to: Microsoft FrontPage(tm), Macromedia Dreamweaver(tm)
You save: $250-400
Content Management and Blogging
Using a content management system is becoming increasingly popular for business websites. A well-designed and set up content management system (CMS) makes updating a website easy and quick, even for people with few technical skills. Custom CMSes can run thousands of dollars, however. Fortunately, there are several excellent open source CMSes which can readily serve the needs of a small (or large) business. Two of the most popular are Mambo and its spinoff Joomla! Both are very customizable, and add-on modules can add or enhance a huge variety of functions, from blogging to shopping carts.
Available for: All platforms
Compare to: Custom CMSes
You save: $100s-10,000s
Blogs are hot for businesses right now, and blogging platforms can also act as simple content management systems for small websites. They're easier to learn how to use than full-blow CMSes, but still offer a range of functions. One excellent open source blogging platform with a wide range of add-ons is WordPress, but there are many others.
Available for: All platforms
Compare to: Movable Type
You save: $150+
As you can see, depending on the particular software needs of your small business, open source software can save you hundreds or even thousands of dollars. And because open source software projects are constantly being developed and upgraded, you rarely have to wait years for bug fixes or new features. Many projects even encourage users to suggest features to be added.
So if you're tired of expensive software and paying extra for infrequent upgrades, maybe it's time to give open source software a try.
Melissa Barton is a freelance writer and editor, specializing in science and travel writing. Her credits include Geotimes, Transitions Abroad, Student Health 101, and other publications. Visit her online at Rosetta Stones Freelancing (http://www.rosettastones.net ).