Free Open-Source Software for Small Businesses


Given the large number of small business in Washington, D.C. area and our current state of economy, here is a list of free open-source software I put together that might become very handy.  They will certainly save you money.

1. GIMP:  The software is Photoshop substitute that will satisfy all but the most demanding professional graphic designers. If you need to make simple web graphics, retouch a few product photos, or create flyers or other marketing materials, this program should work nicely for you. It’s robust, and if you’ve used Photoshop or Photoshop-like clone programs, the interface and commands will be familiar to you. The images you create can be saved in an array of common formats, including PSD Photoshop files, in case you need to send your files to a Photoshop user.

All in all, GIMP might be the single greatest money-saver on this list. It’s completely free, whereas a single Photoshop license — which you’ll need to pay for again each time Adobe releases a new version of the software — can cost hundreds of dollars per user.

2. Linux: Sometimes called GNU/Linux, this family of operating systems is versatile, free, easy to customize, stable, beautiful, frequently updated and — let’s say it again — completely and utterly free, regardless of how many devices or users install it.

For years, there’s been the commonly held idea that Linux OSes are command-line intensive, difficult to use, easy to crash and generally for nerds only. Much of this “fear, uncertainty and doubt” has come from corporate entities that benefit most from these drastic misperceptions. While you might want to reach out for a little help when installing your Linux OS for the first time, you’ll be shocked at how simple and user-friendly a Linux distro (that’s short for “distribution,” the Linux term for version) can be. The interfaces are elegant and intuitive, much more so than even Windows or Mac for many users.

If you’re concerned about not being able to find programs that will run on a Linux machine, you can run any Windows applications you need by using Wine, a Windows emulator:

Clearly, installing an entirely new operating system is a bigger commitment than switching from MS Office to OpenOffice, but the rewards (and the short- and long-term savings) are much, much greater. If you’re hesitant about making the commitment, try installing a distro such as Ubuntu on a personal laptop or netbook until you get a feel for it and are confident it will work for your business.

I know a friend of mine who has been using Ubuntu for his business for more than 2 months. It initially took him a day or two to adapt but now he doesn’t even need to leave Ubuntu OS to get everything done (got Win 7 dual boot but rarely have to log into Windows). He would recommend any small or startup businesses to make full use of it and save costs.

3. OpenOffice: The software is an open-source alternative to Microsoft Office and similar software suites. It’s absolutely free to download, and it contains programs for word processing, spreadsheets, presentations, graphics databases and more.

The interfaces are familiar and intuitive; in other words, even if you happen to realize you’re not in MS Word, you won’t feel lost or not know which buttons to click to get your work done. It is available in many languages and works on all common operating systems.


4. GNUCash:
It is a free program for personal and small-business accounting. It tracks bank accounts (including investments), revenue and expenses. Its features include tracking for customers, vendors, jobs, invoices, accounts payable, accounts receivable and detailed reporting, as well. You can import all your current data from programs such as Microsoft Money and Quicken, and you can also export data to spreadsheets, including Microsoft Excel spreadsheets.

Since accounting software is so integral to a business’ bottom line, this might be something you’d want to test first before you make a full commitment to switching. If you’ve got a good grasp of other accounting programs, GNUCash will be second nature to you; however, if you’re new to such programs, reviews suggest you’ll still have a fairly easy time grasping its concepts, features and uses.

5. Zimbra: If you want a Microsoft Exchange-level email program for your business, including web, mobile and desktop email clients, but you don’t want to pay the licensing fees, you might consider Zimbra as an alternative. Its FOSS version is free of charge and available for immediate download. It’s compatible with most operating systems, including Mac and Windows, and it includes an address book, a calendar, document support and a task-management app, among other features.

This app also integrates natively with other mail clients, such as Outlook and Apple Mail. Lastly, Zimbra also uses a standards-based approach that supports POP, IMAP, iCal and more for importing email and calendar data from other programs.

Zimbra in its open source edition has even mobile edition capability to browse from any mobile in a low bandwidth mode. Also its inbuilt spam filtering is also good and easily recognizes spam yet effectively. Atmail open source edition is if you want to use a mail solution along with your web side/web server. If you want a standalone mail server solution zimbra should be the apt one.

I know many business owners who have tried and love all of them. Not quite sure about the4th one, GnuCash though. Maybe it’s me, but I just wouldn’t be able to trust my business’ finances with it. I have no problem paying for web-based software like Freshbooks, and I point my larger clients toward Quickbooks Online. Don’t get me wrong I wish there were an open alternative that I’d trust, but not sure there’s one.Depending on the nature of your business, the product might work for you though. Check it out.

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About Elias Shams
I have been a serial entrepreneur in telecom and social media space for past 12 years or so. I hold a M.S. degree in Telecommunication Engineering from the George Washington University and a B.S. degree in Electrical Engineering from the University of Maryland. I’ve lived and worked in many countries and cities including London England, Tehran Iran, Bonn Germany, Paris France, Alicante Spain, Delhi India, and my favorite of all Washington, DC of great US of A. Two of the greatest Washington, DC based companies I worked for and very proud of are Yurie Systems which was sold to Lucent in 1998 for $1.23 B and telezoo.com that I founded in 1999. I am currently the founder and awesomizer @ awesomize.me

24 Responses to Free Open-Source Software for Small Businesses

  1. GIMP is incredibly popular and is ideal if you need something like Photoshop without the price tag.
    – I’ve used it for over 14 years.

    Linux is basically what the Internet is built on, it’s stable and free. When in an office environment it is similar to a Windows/Mac Hybrid, looks like a Mac, plays like Windows. Install Ubuntu and you’re good to go.
    – I’ve personally used a Linux Ubuntu box for the past two years and have had Unix machines for over 14 years that I work on daily (Unix is what the new Mac OS is built on and is the most stable operating system available, it’s what Linux was built off of – Linux was built to be the ‘free Unix’).

    OpenOffice is like Microsoft Office just free.
    – I’ve personally used it for over 10 years, it does everything you need for Word, Excel, Access, and Presentation abilities.

    GNUCash is a free accounting software specifically made for double entry and can accommodate separating personal and business or combining them for certain transactions. It’s great software as long as you keep up with the entries.
    – I used it for two years then switched to QuickBooks simply for my accountant at the time.

    Zimbra is what you’ll need for native e-mail on a Linux machine. It’s an ideal solution.
    – I haven’t used it recently but did years ago.

    All of the above are highly recommended for smaller businesses and some (GIMP, Linux, OpenOffice, Zimbra) are ideal for larger corporations. It’s all about what you need and why you need it, but the above five programs will work perfectly for any business that would normally spend on Photoshop, Windows OS, Microsoft Office, QuickBooks or PeachPress, and Outlook or other Mail/Scheduling solutions.

    Something to note: all of the above are available as mobile versions as well, meaning they can be stored on a USB flash drive so your entire office can be 100% mobile and does not require install on individual machines. Makes it easy for people to work at different stations, from home, from outside the country, etc.

  2. Alfresco is open source but it is NOT free for business use and only the basic package is partially open source. Alfresco starts at $17,000 per CPU for business use. That means that if your server has four CPUs you will pay $68,000/year to run Alfresco.

    In addition, Nuxeo is NOT open source (per their CEO) even though some code is available to developers and they meet more open source standards than Alfresco they have stated they are not open source (different legal implications). Nuxeo also has a high cost associated with it starting at $15,000 per application.

    • Eric Barroca says:

      Hi,

      I would love to learn where/when I have stated that Nuxeo software is not open source!
      This is of course totally wrong and Nuxeo’s products are fully open source, under the LGPL license.

      Thanks,

      EB.

      • I would be *very* hesitant to download and use any expired – and no longer supported – software for a business. Especially Microsoft products that are notorious for requiring updates.

  3. Elias Shams says:

    Danielle, great input! Thanks. So, you are totally happy with GNUCash

  4. Marijana Brdar says:

    Hi Elias,
    Thx for the info on useful open source products. I would like to add one to your list: OTRS help desk, a help desk and ticket system – I can recommend this stable and very structured tool which is continously being further developed.

    Depending on the needs of a business – the company OTRS offers even more products for IT Service Management Solutions – it might be worth while checking them out as well.

    Best regards,
    Marijana

  5. Donato Mallano says:

    Very informative. Opensource is a real software option today for many types of user (vs IT Geeks) from small to big business. I work in the Enterprise Content Management field where Alfresco and Nuxeo are 2 packages getting alot of attention vs. proprietary solutions.

  6. what type of technology are you asking about?

  7. k kemper says:

    what identifies OPEN source software from other software???
    [or Enterprise software……..blah]

  8. M Segers says:

    Last year I had a company running completely on Linux/ubuntu.
    Joomla/virtuemart for the website.
    Dolibarr for accounting.

    All available as open source.
    Although some limitations and some configuration do apply, but these small adjustments just needs to be done in every software.

    All based on web interfaces => if necessary available worldwide.

  9. Robert Sharp says:

    I use GIMP for my graphics needs on my Intranet services website, web2intranet.com, and my blog, explodingcreativity.com. I’m very happy with it. My background is not in graphics, so there was/is definitely a learning curve for me in using GIMP. I probably don’t use half of its features, but what I use is ideal for what I need…and the price is right.

    I’ve been using Linux for years now. web2intranet.com and explodingcreativity.com are hosted on Linux servers, and I use it frequently in my engineering contract work where my customers use it for their embedded devices. I don’t have a problem with it for what I use it for. It’s easy to install, and there’s graphical user interfaces for using it, though mostly I use a terminal and interface with Linux via its command-line interface. I don’t use Linux as the OS on my laptops and wouldn’t give a blanket recommendation for everyone to do that.

    I haven’t used the other open-source products listed on the given URL. Other open-source/free products I do use are: Apache, MySQL, PHP, PuTTY, FileZilla, WinMerge, htmlawed, and tinyMCE for web2intranet.com; and Audacity, CN Levelator, winLAME, and iTunes for explodingcreativity.com. I guess you could also throw in web browsers and TweetDeck into the mix.

  10. JBoss for middleware app server (disclosure: former CFO), now part of Red Hat, which distributes Linux and sells support.
    I am looking at Zen Cart for shopping carts.
    Thanks for mentioning GNUCash. I have been looking for an OS double entry accting system. I am fed up with QB.

  11. I was quite happy with GNUCash and would go back to it if I hadn’t already moved two years worth of data to QuickBooks. It’s a great free accounting system, allows you to run reports (great for end of year), allows you to mix personal and business but keep them separate in a sense. It’s really a great accounting/bookkeeping system.

  12. Danielle, thank you for the clarifications, I glossed over the “free” points of this post. Interesting observation on Nuxeo as their chief marketing office recently participated on a panel discussion in NYC on the merits of open-source software.

    • You’re welcome Donato. I was surprised about Nuxeo as well, though parts of their software are open source and by the way they use community feedback makes them all but open source, their CEO has stated that they do not consider themselves open source. It all comes down to how their software is licensed, how it can be used, and how it can be edited and their legal hold on the software in the long run.

      It looks like a duck, sounds like a duck, walks like a duck, but is a robot of a duck. ; )

      • Eric Barroca says:

        Danielle,

        Could you please stop spreading this patently false statement?
        As the CEO of Nuxeo, I have never stated we do not consider our product as not open source. Our product is 100% open source, under the LGPL, and it’s always been like this.

        So the software is available under a very clean open source license and we use a fully open development model.

        See: .

        Thanks,

        EB.

  13. Nigel Coole says:

    I also endorse OpenOffice. Having been an MS Office user for more years than I care to remember, I could not see how open source software could compete with the might of MS. Once I got over a few differences it has been plain sailing ever since and I think OpenOffice may actually be easier to use – in my humble opinion. I would now have no qualms at all about recommending OpenOffice to anyone.

  14. At Fonality, we have been very lucky to install what we like onto our work computers in terms of os and the packages supported for that platform.

    I personally use ubuntu as my primary machine at work, and I’ve used many packages available from synaptic effortlessly.

    I do not mean to douse the fire with any negativity towards open source, my company and my career are built on open source, but I do offer a few words of caution for anyone itching to try it out: you do need some skills to effectively run your organization on oss.

    You don’t have to be a seasoned IT pro, but you will need to understand basic elements about the Linux environment, including what dependencies are and how to find them, how to check on the health of your applications, how to use the terminal in a basic capacity, and a bit about permissions and groups at a minimum.

    I strongly believe in OSS, but I’m not ready to throw my parents onto the Linux platform and replace everything familiar about Mac os x with Linux equivalents.

    It is coming on strongly, and over the last 3 years, ubuntu has greatly improved. It is almost to the point where it can replace any primary system for any type of user, and I see it often in places unexpected (like on the register at the grocery store- a custom app running on ubuntu at every checkout).

    I am excited about this space, and I encourage everyone to try it, but don’t go forward under the impression that you will not have to do anything – Linux envinroments require setup and configuration, and the most basic parts of the system are easily explained in so many great beginner’s books.

  15. I like Microsoft Accounting Express 2009. The application was discontinued, but it’s still available to download on a few sites. Very solid application for small business.

  16. Kareem Hamdy says:

    Elias:

    To answer your question – yes. One thing to keep in mind, depending on the nature of your business, and how you plan on using open source software, will dictate whether or not it’s really free.

    Depending on your use of these applications, will dictate your “legal ability” to use these applications.

    Since you mentioned Zimba on your list, I’ll use that as an example.

    Zimbra is made to be the open source world’s answer to Exchange. At the core of Zimbra is Postfix. By using Postfix, you automatically agree on it’s (Postfix’s) terms of use. Postfix is free for personal use. However, by modifying Postfix in any way and packaging it up with a web interface – Zimbra, the makers of Zimbra are now using Postfix in a commercial manner.

    This again is all based on the EULA.

    I could go on about this.

    Again, I reiterate this all comes down to your usage of these applications. Your question is a little too broad for a concrete answer, so I’m giving you different things to take into consideration.

    If you do not want to pay for Windows OS, Microsoft Office, Photoshop, etc., and your question regarded the intent of replacing said applications with out of the box Linux applications – then you should be fine, and if you’re new to the game, I’d recommend Ubuntu – if you pm me, I can go into detail why you should start with that.

    Just like any piece of software, there will be a learning curve. In this case not only will your end user applications have learning curves, but your operating system as well.

    Open source isn’t clean, completely standardized (exceptions would be shared/common C libraries), refined, and robust. So keep that in mind.

    If you have any detailed questions, I’m all yours.

    Kareem Hamdy

  17. Hi, I have been using Open office for 2years now and have not found any obstacle with it till now. Its an excellent freeware and has almost all features available with MS office. Regards,
    Aarthi

  18. I use GIMP on a regular basis, it takes getting used to but is quite powerful and robust. Since I got it I haven’t needed to use a commercial graphics package like Photoshop — but of course the pros might need more features.

    I’ve also tried OpenOffice, but as a power user of Word and Excel I was very disappointed. It is a very limited system. Even if your needs are modest, I think Google Docs is a much better option.

  19. Angie_Small says:

    Have you ever considered SSuite Office as a free alternative to MS Office or even OpenOffice?

    Their software also doesn’t need to run on Java or .NET, like MS Office and so many open source office suites, so it makes their software very small, efficient, and easy to use. 🙂 – {www.ssuitesoft.com}

  20. Joel says:

    Linux is only usable if ;you avoid distros like Ubuntu or Fedora. Gnucash is really some sort of hobby project. There doesn’t seem to be any sort of community, just a very few select people. Open Office is too scary with the Oracle ownership. Maybe a fork will occur.

    These are not the sort of things small businesses can rely on.

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