Most of us need a similar basic set of software: Web browser, office suite, financial software, graphics editing, and backup software. You don't need to fork over big money for any of these -- instead, try these excellent free-of-cost open source alternatives.
Some of these titles are cross-platform, some run only on Linux. (Please read 5 Top Linux Computer Vendors for Small Business for a good introduction to Linux, and why it's valuable for small business owners.) All of the software discussed in this article is completely open, which means no malware or annoying adware, and your data will never be trapped in a closed, proprietary file format.
Open Source Software for Small Business
1. Web Browser
The top Web browsers are Google's Chrome, Microsoft Internet Explorer, Opera, and Mozilla Firefox. Chrome worries privacy advocates because of Google's famous data-mining capacities, and IE has both privacy and security concerns. Chrome is also a key tool in Google's role as self-appointed Internet cop, and sometimes it throws up big scary false malware alerts.
Figure 1: The Firefox Web browser
Firefox, my number one browser pick, is the only one that's 100 percent open source, independent and non-commercial. Plus, it's always standards-compliant. Firefox is a stout Web browser that capably handles whatever you throw at it, which during an average day of Web-surfing is a whole lot of poorly-coded sites, multimedia, malware, and infected Web sites. Platforms: Mac OS X, Linux, Windows.
Opera, a very nice browser that doesn't play annoying games, gets my vote for second-best Web browser.
2. Accounting Software
Managing finances is always a sensitive task, and open source makes special sense for accounting software because there is nowhere to hide malicious code, and your data can never be trapped in some weird, proprietary format.
TurboCash Accounting -- 100 percent open source and free of cost -- makes a good choice for small businesses. It's internationalized and supports 20 languages and 80 tax regimes. TurboCash supports invoicing, inventory, point-of-sale, multi-company setups, sales and purchase analysis, multiple users, and lots more. There are good user manuals and an active, helpful user community. Platforms: Windows.
Another good ERP/accounting program I've come to like a lot is LedgerSMB. It's a good choice if you're thinking of moving up to an enterprise resource planning (ERP) package, because it contains just a useful basic set of ERP features, so you don't get overwhelmed. LedgerSMB runs on a Linux server, and then you can run it via Web browser from any Windows, Linux, or Mac PC.
See 5 Best Open Source Accounting Software for Small Business for more recommendations for reliable open source accounting software.
3. Data Backup
When you want a simple data backup program for a single computer, try Redo Backup and Recovery. It runs from a bootable CD and backs up any system -- Mac, Windows, Linux, and Unix. Redo is similar to Norton Ghost; it makes a perfect clone of your system, which lets you easily restore a system after a major failure. You can also use it to move your operating system, applications and all your files to a bigger hard drive or to a different machine – all in one easy move.
Figure 2: Redo Backup and Recovery
Look no further than Bacula for a first-rate backup system for backing up your whole network. It backs up Mac OS X, Linux, Unix, and Windows machines, and it supports both hard disk and tape backups. Platforms: Linux
My other favorite backup software is Duplicity. It has a bit of a learning curve, but it's extremely secure, reliable and space-efficient. It supports a giant bag of protocols so you can use almost anything for your backup storage: a local file server, a remote file server, and remote cloud services like Amazon S3. Platforms: Linux
4. Office Suite
LibreOffice is an excellent, fully-featured heavyweight office suite with all the bells and whistles: word processor, spreadsheet, drawing program, database, equation editor, and slideshow creator.
The word processor, LibreOffice Writer, is frame-oriented rather than page-oriented like Microsoft Word. This means you can precisely control layout, so it's also a good desktop publishing program. It relies on styles for controlling formatting, so you can make massive changes with one click, like changing a title font throughout an entire large document. It exports to PDF, and includes good tools for creating pages of labels and form letters, embedding illustrations, table of contents, indexes, and bibliographies.
LibreOffice has a large and active user and developer community, so you have a wealth of extensions and custom templates you can download and try, and you can also share your own. Platforms: Linux, Windows, Mac OS X.
Another good open source office suite is Calligra. It runs only on Linux and includes the usual word processor, spreadsheet, database, slideshow, and database. It also comes with a project manager, a diagram/flowchart application, and a superior drawing and painting program called Krita, which I'll talk about in the next section.
5. Drawing, Painting, and Illustration
Part of the Calligra office suite, Krita is one of the shiniest crown jewels of open source. It's also a standalone project, and it supports both vector graphics (SVG file format) and bitmaps. You can create comics, storyboards, beautiful illustrations, plain drawings -- anything you can imagine. Similar to Corel Painter, Krita is also designed to take the place of drawing pencils, pastels, watercolors, and oils.
Krita supports Wacom drawing tablets, color profiling, and it comes with a huge assortment of brushes and textures. You can even make your own custom brushes. Platforms: Linux.
Figure 3: Pinta, a simple open source drawing and image-editing program.
Krita is for professionals and advanced amateurs, so what about people who want something a bit simpler, but still with a good feature set? Try Pinta. It's great for drawing original images, and for editing existing images and photos.
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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