Open source and free productivity tools offer a full range of features, to help small businesses get work done and stay on track.
Not too many years ago, most small businesses paid hefty fees for office productivity suites like Microsoft Office. Today, however, free cloud-based options like Google Docs and Office Online mean that anyone can access word processing and spreadsheet capabilities for free.
So why should small business owners and entrepreneurs consider open source alternatives when they could simply choose from any of these free cloud-based options?
For starters, the free versions of the proprietary productivity suites don’t offer as many features as their downloadable desktop versions. While they offer basic capabilities, they don’t always meet the needs of small businesses that need to put together complicated documents.
Second, you can’t use a cloud-based option when you’re offline. If you experience a power outage or if you’re on vacation without connectivity and you need to get some work done, you’re out of luck if cloud-based tools are all you have.
In addition, some people don’t feel safe trusting all of their documents to the cloud—especially if those documents contain sensitive information. What if the cloud provider has a data breach or loses files?
Open source office productivity software offers the best of both worlds. Like the cloud-based options mentioned above, it doesn’t cost anything. But this downloadable desktop software offers the full range of features that small businesses need. It’s usable even if you don’t have an Internet connection, and it doesn’t require you to store sensitive documents in the cloud.
In this slideshow, we’ll take a look at seven of the best open source office productivity software available. Some of these free productivity tools are full suites while others meet a particular need—and all of them are suitable for use by small business.
Although it has only been around for six years, LibreOffice has quickly become one of the most popular office productivity suites for Linux users, and it also runs on Windows and MacOS. As of November 2015, it claimed more than 100 million active users.
For small businesses, the most important feature of this free productivity suite is that it’s fully compatible with Microsoft Office file formats (as well as Google Docs formats). In other words, you can read files that other people have created in Word and Excel, and you can save files so that other people can read them in Word and Excel.
Like Microsoft Office, LibreOffice includes word processor (called Write), spreadsheet (Calc), presentation (Impress) and database (Base) software. It also offers applications you won’t find in Office, including a graphics editor (Draw), a formula editor (Math) and a chart creator (Charts).
LibreOffice is based on OpenOffice (the next suite in this slideshow), so the two programs are very similar.
Apache OpenOffice is a lot like LibreOffice, but it has become slightly less popular as LibreOffice’s user base has grown. It includes the same Writer, Calc, Impress, Draw, Base, and Math programs as LibreOffice. However, it does not have the Charts software, and some of the individual features in each application differ slightly from those in LibreOffice.
OpenOffice files are completely compatible with Microsoft Office files, so no one ever has to know that you don’t using Microsoft Office. In addition, the software interface looks and feels a lot like Microsoft’s products, so it doesn’t take a lot of time to learn. And because it’s open source, OpenOffice is a completely free productivity tool.
While using either of the first two free productivity tools in this slideshow should feel familiar to Microsoft Office users, Calligra is quite a bit different. When you look at your screen with Calligra, you’ll see a few buttons and menus across the top, but the bulk of the controls are in a panel down the right side of the screen. This layout makes it easier to access some commonly used features, and some people find that they prefer this look and feel.
This suite also features a unique lineup of applications. It has word processor (Words), spreadsheet (Sheets), presentation (Stage) and database (Kexi) software, plus project management (Plan), vector graphics (Karbon), diagramming (Flow), and brainstorming (Braindump) tools. It can view and create documents that are compatible with Microsoft Office, Google Docs, and other office productivity software, and it is 100 percent free.
FreeOffice hasn’t been available under an open source license for very long, but it has already gained praise from reviewers for the ease with which it handles graphics and for how well it converts documents to and from Microsoft formats. It also runs on Android (as well as Windows and Linux), which can be very useful.
This suite of free productivity tools includes word processing (TextMaker), spreadsheet (PlanMaker), and presentation (Presentations) software. The one catch is that a commercial company manages this software instead of a non-profit. If you download FreeOffice, the company will try to sell you on the paid version of their software, called SoftMaker Office.
Prices for the commercial version start at $69.95, and it adds a few features that you don’t get in the free, open source version. Still, the free open source version is a solid choice for any small business.
While the first four free productivity tools in this slideshow offer alternatives to Microsoft Office, Scribus is a replacement for desktop publishing software like Microsoft Publisher, Adobe InDesign, and QuarkXPress. Because these commercial applications often carry hefty price tags, Scribus, which is completely free, offers an excellent value.
Scribus includes all of the features you would expect to find in a professional page layout program. It’s perfect for small businesses that want to create their own brochures, newsletters, and sales materials, whether they’re printing them in-house or taking them to a professional printer. One thing to note, however, is that importing or exporting files from other page layout programs is not particularly easy.
If you’re just looking for a good spreadsheet app (rather than a full office productivity suite), Gnumeric might be a good option for you. This application describes itself as “free, fast, and accurate,” which is a pretty good summation.
Gnumeric is fully compatible with Microsoft Excel and other popular spreadsheet programs, and it has a complete feature set, including support for a huge number of formulas and functions. It can also open very large spreadsheets and remain usable, even if your PC is a bit outdated and slow.
If all you’re looking for is a word processor, go check out AbiWord. This open source productivity tool looks and feels a lot like older versions of Microsoft Word before it got the ribbon interface, so if you miss the “old” Word, AbiWord might be a good alternative.
It supports Microsoft Word file formats, as well as open source file formats, HTML, along with many other common types of documents, and it can handle complex layouts. The basic program is more lightweight than some word processing software, which means that you can use it on older PCs, and the plug-in system allows you to add more advanced features if you need them. It can’t do everything, but it meets the needs of most people.
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Cynthia Harvey is a freelance writer and editor based in the metro Detroit area. She has been covering the technology industry for more than 15 years.