2013 looks to be a very good year for small businesses that use Linux and open source software. They'll benefit from more advanced technologies for less money.
A lot of small businesses are reluctant to try Linux because they think it means moving away from Microsoft Windows, and you can't blame them. Change is disruptive, and while a lot of software applications are cross-platform, most aren't, so leaving Windows often means leaving favorite software behind.
However, the choice is not either-or, because the Linux world offers a lot of excellent tools for interoperability. You can mix Linux, Mac and Windows computers on your small business network. Then you have the best of all worlds.
Once you enter the Linux world, you have a vast universe of high-quality professional software at your fingertips, most of it for free. Linux is stable, secure, and very efficient: it doesn't suck up your hardware resources just to run itself, and you don't need anti-malware software further bogging it down.
What does 2013 promise for the Linux customer? Just about everything. Let's look at a sampling of some excellent Linux software that could benefit your small business.
The Linux OS
It all starts with your computer operating system, and there are great choices for Linux editions with commercial support, and free versions with community support. You don't have to pick one or the other, or stick with a single vendor, but can freely mix it up however you like.
SUSE, Red Hat, and Canonical are the big three commercial Linux vendors. All three offer a full range of products and services for companies of every size: from very small customers to the largest enterprises. Desktop, mobile, servers, integration with Microsoft Windows and Apple Mac OS X, cloud services -- you're covered.
Figure 1: Three Flavors of Linux
If you're more inclined to do-it-yourself, you can find free-of-cost versions of all three. Canonical's Ubuntu Linux is the easiest to get for free: simply download and install it, and start using it. The Ubuntu Unleashed series is the best Ubuntu how-to book series.
SUSE Enterprise Linux offers free 60-day trials. Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) has some free-trial versions, but it takes a lot of hoop-jumping to find and get them. An easier way to get RHEL for free is to get one of the free clones, like CentOS or Scientific Linux. These are RHEL clones minus the trademarks and logos, and no commercial support.
We've talked about various Linux versions for your small business before: The 5 Best Linux Servers for Small Business, and 3 Open-Source Point-of-Sale Systems for Small Business should help you sort things out.
Cloud. Yes, Cloud
Cloud technologies are relevant to small businesses because of the flexibility they bring to IT infrastructure, whether you run your own cloud server or use commercial cloud services. OwnCloud is an especially nice do-it-yourself implementation that bundles useful features such as shared files and calendars, Active Directory integration, integration with storage services like Dropbox, encryption, file viewers, and data synchronization.
All cloud technologies are open source-based, including the giant Amazon Web Services. SUSE, Red Hat and Canonical all support a range of cloud services, from running your own server to hosted services, and integration with external services like Amazon.
Small Business Storage
Data storage is a giant problem, because we're creating so much data. You definitely want stout open source storage technologies, because they are the best. All the major Linux vendors are lining up behind the OpenStack project, and for good reasons: it's completely open, and it's cram-full of advanced technologies like de-duplication, snapshots, backups and support for multiple storage protocols.
Linux Productivity and Creative Software
You don't have to mortgage your firstborn buying Adobe's creative software, because Linux offers a full range of first-class alternatives. The Krita painting and illustration program is one of the absolute best for creating original drawings and illustrations. Krita Sketch is a new version designed especially for touch-screen devices.
Want to make your own promotional videos? Try OpenShot, which is a wonderful video editor that combines ease-of-use with sophisticated functionality. You can blend video files, still images, and audio files, and apply standard special effects like fades and scrolling titles and credits.
Figure 2: The OpenShot video editor.
It's hard to beat the quality and stability of the Ardour digital audio workstation for high-end audio production, and Audacity is a powerful, fairly easy-to-use audio recorder and editor. (Shameless Plug: You might like my authoritative Audacity how-to, The Book of Audacity.)
For sophisticated, beautiful desktop publishing try Scribus.
Digikam gets my Number One vote as best all-around digital photo archive manager and editor, and LibreOffice is a great replacement for Microsoft Office. You can also use it for desktop publishing, and it includes an excellent PDF creator.
Android is a game-changing phenomenon, going from zero to dominating smartphones in just four years. It's expanding to all touch-screen devices such as tablets and point-of-sale terminals. The Android app store provides opportunity for independent software developers. It's hard to over-estimate the impact of Android for small businesses -- it is ultimate in mobility and productivity wrapped in one sleek little package. And it's an open platform that fosters the development of useful applications.
Figure 3: Android mobile OS (Skateboard Androids courtesy Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-3.0)
Business Intelligence for Small Business
The landscape for retail businesses has changed radically. It's harder than ever to build a distinct brand and identity because of Internet shopping. Amazon is the store; Google is the store; and no matter how many thousands of individual shops reside inside these giant platforms, to most customers they're just Amazon and Google.
Business intelligence is more important than ever to help small business owners understand what works and what doesn't for their business. Fortunately, open source once again comes to the rescue with superior, affordable offerings. Read all about them in 5 Best Linux Business Intelligence Suites.
We've talked about accounting software before in 5 Best Open Source Accounting Software for Small Business. These are still good choices, and they range from standalone bookkeeping applications to integrated customer relations management (CRM) suites.
What else is coming in 2013? It's either more open source options or more disruption, depending on how you look at it. Cloud technologies and mobile are the big two, because they go together -- cloud technologies give you many options for delivering services over the network to any endpoint: smartphone, PC, servers, tablets, laptops, retail terminals, you name it. The future is mobile.
Carla Schroder is the author of The Book of Audacity, Linux Cookbook, Linux Networking Cookbook,and hundreds of Linux how-to articles. She's the former managing editor of Linux Planet and Linux Today.
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