Open Source Applications for Small Business

By Aaron Weiss
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Open source software (OSS) has become a buzzword sometimes burdened by misperception and misunderstanding. The OSS movement is deeply rooted in the Linux/Unix community, and it's based on the premise that developers distribute their software complete with the source code for inspection or customization. But OSS software is not limited to the Linux and Unix operating systems—increasingly, OSS applications are available for Windows, too, even though Windows itself is a closed-source platform.

Budget-minded small business owners can choose from a number of free, open-source applications designed for Windows that will reliably handle their productivity needs. Better still, many OSS programs support Mac and Linux machines, too, meaning that customers that use those platforms can share compatible files and the same software experience.

Office Alternatives
Microsoft Office has dominated the productivity market for more than a decade, and its bundle of well-known applications, including Word, Excel and Powerpoint, has come to define their respective niches. But critics say that Office has become so bloated over the years that 80 percent of customers use only 20 percent of its features.

GIMPshop screen shot
GIMPshop blends a Photoshop-like interface onto the free-and-open GIMP editor.
(Click for larger image)

Compare the standard package for Office 2007, which retails for $399, to OpenOffice.org, an open-source office suite, which is free. The suite includes a word processor, equation editor, visual database, presentation authoring and drawing application.

OpenOffice.org is not simply a cheap knock-off of Microsoft Office. Some proponents say that Writer, OpenOffice.org's answer to Word, actually bests Word in a number of areas, including page layout, lists, headers, footers and endnotes. (On the other hand, Word maintains the edge on outlining and templates—for a price.) But for typical word processing needs, Writer contains many of the same conveniences you expect, including spellcheck and autocorrect, and Writer can save documents directly to the PDF format. In fact, we wrote this story with Writer.

While you can exchange documents between Writer and Word, some layout features may be lost in the translation, depending the sophistication level of your document.

Likewise, the other OpenOffice.org applications maintain that familiar-yet-different relationship to their Office counterparts. In Impress, the presentation manager, you can export completed presentations to a PowerPoint format for traditional clients, or you can save them in Flash SWF format for easy Web publishing.

If OpenOffice.org is a free and open source alternative to Microsoft Office, then IBM Lotus Symphony could be described as a free and open source alternative to OpenOffice.org. Actually built from the OpenOffice source code, Symphony takes the main components of OpenOffice.org—writing, presentation, and spreadsheets—and refits them with a visual and functional makeover. The overall effect is to streamline the original OpenOffice, in some cases removing features, but improving accessibility and workflow.

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This article was originally published on February 21, 2008
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