Small businesses are ripe for free software

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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.



marienoelleb's picture

Free Software solutions may indeed be very interesting for smal businesses and for independent people. But most of them are not computing specialists and they have other things to do than managing their infrastruture. For them, this is just a tool. Even if they are interested in free software solutions (and if they are sensitive to the politics behinf it), they need a real support.

Compagnies doing this kind of service (for example this one: are appearing. They can provide a complete support to clients. This may include a Linux server (or a hosted space), an OSS groupware software (like egroupware), an Electronic Document management (For example Alfresco), a simplified ERP (for example TinyERP), a data migration service (from the old solution to the new one), linux latpops, VPN connections between the laptop and the server, a good quality management of the server and a helpdesk in case of problems. with a such service, migrating to a completely OSS solution is becoming possible and even interesting. I am convinced that very small businesses and independent people will be interested by this possibility.

Marie-Noëlle Baechler
Belmont-sur-lausanne / Suisse

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

I think that one item that most small businesses are going to want in addition to the software itself and those services you mentioned is customization of the software to meet their needs. This is one of the main hallmarks of open source software, you can make it your own.

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

This is a shameless plug. But there is support out there for the business who wishes to exploit their IT budget to the fullest. Free software is not just cheaper, because it's easier to customize and integrate it's often more effective. We offer consultation and support based around Open Source Software, we can help mitigate the pitfalls you may come across and make sure your using applications and systems that deliver what your looking for. OSS provides a route for SMB's to attain IC&T systems that rival what big budget enterprises have.

The name of the company is Xenet we are based in Rotherham near sheffield.

Steven Williamson.

Daniel Escasa's picture

While both Free Software and proprietary applications can become orphaned, the Free, because the source code is available, can continue. I believe Apache's original team "abandoned" the project, but it continues because another group of developers took the code and continued development. In contrast, once a propietary application dies for whatever reason, it's gone. Remember NT on Alpha?

As to small businesses and their potential adoption of Free Software -- the concern is certainly valid about their need for support. The smallest businesses might not even have an IT group and cannot afford a consultant. My own solution to this is hosted applications, although I have to admit that there are a number of issues to address here, the most crucial one IMHO being one of trust. Hoping to finally get my model written up in a few weeks.

Daniel O. Escasa
independent IT consultant and writer
contributor, Free Software Magazine (
personal blog at

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

Why shouldn't small businesses enjoy free software as well? The company I work for is small, using free software is a big plus for keeping our costs down.

Just the same, we MAKE and DISTRIBUTE free software ( ) that both consumers and small companies use to transfer huge files back and forth easily. Although we'd like these small companies to buy the Premium versions of our software, we know that as they grow, so too will their needs which will eventually justify their spending $25 for the extra features that will make that application a bit more efficient.

Small and medium sized businesses represent the majority of the companies out there, and they ARE the future of America, they deserve any help they can get!

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

Here are other resources that may help:

GNUWin (FOSS on Windows)

The Open CD (FOSS on Windows)

The table of equivalents / replacements / analogs of Windows software in Linux (or BSD's).

It is all about the applications. Once people are comfortable with the apps; platforms are not as hard.

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Chris Mostek's picture