5 Great Free Small Business Software Options

If you’re looking for ways to cut costs on your day-to-day business operations, one way is to use free small business software as alternatives to the expensive software installed on your office PCs. Licensing software for use on your office systems can be very expensive; Windows 7 and Microsoft Office 2010 alone can cost more $600 per system. Multiple that by five or 10 systems, and the cost escalates quickly.

OpenOffice.org; free small business software
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Here’s the good news: most of the commercial software that we use everyday has a free alternative that works well and easily meets the needs of the average small business professional. This software might not have all of the bells and whistles of the commercial version — or the technical support options typically associated with them — but if you’re just looking for core functionality and a way to save significant money, then these free small business software options deserve a closer look.

To help illustrate the potential savings, we’ll sort these free applications into a few common software categories typically found on the average business PC. Within each category we’ll highlight a representative commercial application, along with its current price listed on Amazon.com. And then we’ll list and describe the free software alternative.

Small Business Software: Productivity Suites

Commercial Software: Microsoft Office 2010 Professional (Disc Version); Price: $399.99

Free Software: OpenOffice.org

Like Microsoft Office, OpenOffice.org consists of several useful desktop applications, such as a word processor, a spreadsheet program, presentation software, and a database application. It also includes a graphics application called Draw for creating flowcharts, organization charts, network diagrams and more. It has a clean and easy to understand user interface, along with a feature set on par with any commercial product. In addition, OpenOffice.org is compatible with a variety of file formats, including those of Microsoft Office, and it’s available in 27 languages.

For the last 10 years, this open source software has been widely praised by the media for its functionality and usability. Plus, it offers a great selection of free templates, which means you’ll never have to worry about creating professional looking documents. Best of all it is 100 percent free, whether for personal or business use. Bottom line, OpenOffice.org is an outstanding alternative to Microsoft Office.

Other Free Software Options: Lotus Symphony

Small Business Software: Antivirus

Commercial Software: Norton Antivirus 2011, Price: one user: $22.66; 10 users:  $127.45

Free Software: Microsoft Security Essentials  

As you can see by the cost of Norton AntiVirus, many commercial packages aren’t overly expensive. Less than $25 for a single PC and slightly more than $125 for 10 systems isn’t going to break the bank, but there are so many top-notch, free antivirus alternatives available that it almost seems silly to pay.

One of my favorites is Microsoft Security Essentials (MSE), which runs quietly and efficiently in the background, providing real-time protection against viruses, spyware, malware, and even rootkit protection. MSE provides the typical quick-scan and full-scan capabilities you’d expect, and you can configure USB flash drives and other external devices for automatic scanning upon connection. Plus, a context-menu option lets you scan individual files or folders right from within Windows Explorer.

Windows Live Mail; free small business software
Windows Live Mail
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The software automatically scans attachments and downloaded files, and the latest version also lets you create a system restore point, so you can backup your computer before you remove any detected malware. MSE is available for small businesses with up to 10 PCs. Best of all, unlike some other free antivirus applications, MSE will not continually prompt you to purchase a full version of the product. It just sits there doing its job like a good antivirus application should.

Other Free Software Options: Avira Personal Free Antivirus or AVG Antivirus Free Edition 2011

Small Business Software: CD/DVD Burning Apps

Commercial Software: Roxio Creator 2011; Price: $74.52, Nero Multimedia Suite 10; Price: $49.95

Free Software: CDBurnerXP

While Windows 7 does have the capability to burn CD and DVDs natively, it’s not overly intuitive or feature rich, which is why most people still opt for a  third-party application like the Roxio and Nero suites. Prices for these suites vary significantly, and over the years they have expanded their feature set to do far more than simple CD/DVD burning, flooding your system with more apps and utilities then most of us will ever use.

If all you need is a simple and effective CD/DVD burning utility, allow me to introduce you to CDBurnerXP. Among its many features, CDBurnerXP allows users to burn data to CDs, DVDs, Dual-layer DVDs and Blu-ray disks. It makes use of buffer-under-run protections, can create bootable disks, spread data between multiple disks, has quick- and full-erase options for re-writable media, can perform disk copies, be used to create audio CDs, and burn or generate ISO files.

It even supports Hewlett-Packard’s LightScribe technology, which lets you print labels or images directly on the disk. It’s available in multiple languages, and it’s free for both personal and business use. What more do you need?

Other Free Software Options: ImgBurn or InfraRecorder

Small Business Software: Email Client

Commercial Software: Microsoft Outlook 2010; Price:  $117.82

Free Software: Windows Live Mail

This category was actually rather hard to pin down because there are literally dozens of exceptional email clients available, many offering vast customization options and elegant mail management solutions. However, the majority of these programs just manage email. The only product I’ve seen that offers many of the features found in Outlook, such as a contact manager, calendar, Newsgroups and RSS feed manager is Microsoft’s own Windows Live Mail.

Windows Live Mail (WLM) is part of the Windows Live Essential suite of applications and utilities. In many respects it can be considered “Outlook Lite,” but don’t let this moniker fool you; WLM is a solid email client with a respectable feature set. It supports both traditional POP3 and IMAP accounts, along with web-based email accounts like Hotmail, Gmail, and Yahoo.

Ubuntu; free small business software
Ubuntu operating system
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A strong junk-mail filter minimizes the clutter, and a built-in search feature helps you quickly find important messages. So is WLM the greatest free email client in the world? No. It does have limitations, but it provides most of the functionality of Outlook, minus the $100 price tag. If that has value to you, then you should give it a try.

However, if email management is your number one priority, then the other options suggested below might work better for you. In either case, they are all worthy.

Other Free Software Options: Thunderbird or Opera Mail

Small Business Software: Operating Systems

Commercial: Microsoft Windows 7 Professional; Price: $166.99 – $259.99

Free Software: Ubuntu

When it comes to operating systems, there aren’t a lot of options available. You could make the leap to Mac, but that would involve investing in all new hardware. A better option might be to consider trying out a popular Linux based OS called Ubuntu.

Over the years Ubuntu has become the most recommended distribution for for people considering, or new to Linux. The reason for this is simple. Ubuntu does just about everything you need in an operating system. It has an attractive interface, works with your existing PC files and printers, can play all of your video and music, plus it comes preinstalled with all of the applications you need to be productive.

In fact, many of the free applications on this list are also included with Ubuntu, such as OpenOffice.org and Thunderbird. Many other popular applications like Flash, Google Chrome, Skype, Facebook and Twitter are also compatible with Ubuntu. Ubuntu has very modest hardware requirements, which makes it a great choice for older systems or under-powered netbooks.

Ubuntu is also far less susceptible to virus and malware attacks. In addition to being free, Ubuntu provides the unique ability to try it out by running it directly off of the CD without first having to modify your system. This lets you see it and work with it before committing to it. If you’ve suffered through one blue screen too many, do yourself a favor and give Ubuntu a try.

Other Free Software Options: Fedora 14

Ronald V. Pacchiano is a systems integrator and technology specialist with expertise in Windows server management, desktop support and network administration. He is also an accomplished technology journalist and a contributing writer for Small Business Computing.

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