Small businesses are always looking for ways to save time and cut the operating costs of their business. One way to do this is by using open source software (OSS) to run their business.
What is Open Source Software?
The term “open source” refers to something that people can modify and share because it is publicly accessible. Open source software, therefore, is software with source code that anyone can examine, modify and enhance.
“Source code” refers to the back-end of a software program that most computer users don’t see. It is the code that computer programmers can manipulate to change how a program or application works. By manipulating a computer program’s source code, programmers can improve that program by fixing parts that don’t work properly or adding new features.
Open source projects or initiatives embrace principles of open exchange, collaborative participation and transparent, community-oriented development. When software is open source, it is generally freely available to all, meaning it can help small businesses save a lot of money compared to commercial software that is pricier to acquire upfront.
How Open Source Software Works
Contrary to popular belief OSS neither focuses on the cost, nor lack thereof. Instead, it emphasizes on the freedoms users enjoy to do what they like with the software.
Open Source celebrates the free availability of source code and distribution. Thus, open source software allows for computer programmers and developers to “stand on the shoulders of others” and create their own software.
The opposite of open source software is closed source software, also known as proprietary software. Proprietary software has a license that restricts users from modifying the source code. Microsoft Windows is probably the most popular piece of closed source software. You can’t modify it.
There are many different licenses used by open source initiatives, depending on the developer’s preference for their program. The General Public License (GPL) is widely used for open source projects. The terms of the GPL state that if anyone modifies an open source program and distributes a derivative work, they must also distribute the source code for their derivative work.
Other licenses include the BSD license that places fewer restrictions on developers. If a program is licensed under the BSD license, you can incorporate the program’s source code into another program, and you don’t have to release the changes publicly.
Business Uses and Benefits of Open Source Software
You may be tempted to think that all this is dry, unimportant stuff that only matters to computer programmers and developers, but it has practical benefits and applications for small businesses.
According to the Free Software Foundation, a non-profit organization on a mission to advance software freedom worldwide, the focus of the free open source software movement is on the practical benefits of using open source software that appeal more to businesses. Not surprisingly, therefore, there is almost always a free OOS alternative for every commercial software out there.
Consider the open source alternatives to Microsoft Office productivity suite. Apache OpenOffice offers a comprehensive office suite for Windows, Mac OS X and Linux for free. Similarly, Open Document Foundation’s Libre Office is an open source program just like Open Office for Windows, OS X and Linux.
Many businesses also rely on Quickbooks for their bookkeeping. The Intuit software helps manage quotes, invoicing, accounts payable, accounts receivable and more, all from an intuitive interface. But Quickbooks options start from around $150. TurboCASH OSS gives you the same capabilities for free.
Cloud computing is also an increasingly important aspect of everyday business with internet-connected devices. Some useful cloud computing applications like ownCloud and Nextcloud are open source. Firefox, Chrome and Android are other popular examples of open-source software.
And OpenCart is a turnkey shopping cart that small and medium-sized retailers find quite useful. Even the popular blogging platform WordPress is open source and freely available to the public.
Downside of Open Source Software
Small businesses obviously reap many benefits from using free and open source software. However, it also pays to be aware of the downsides. There are concerns about the lack of official support for OSS. You don’t get a help-desk you can call. With open source you have to do much more of the due diligence yourself, although if the software has an active community contributing to the project, then you’re likely to get all the support you need from the community.
Moreover, while open source software is generally freely available to all, open source programmers can charge money for the software services and support rather than for the software itself. This way, their software remains free of charge, and they make money helping others install, use and troubleshoot it.
That being said, Open Source presents a rather noble philosophy that deserves recognition. Approaching all aspects of life and business the “open source way” means you are willing to collaborate and share your projects and work with others in a transparent manner. That means others can watch what you are doing and join in too. You also embrace failure as a means of improving, and encourage everyone to do likewise.
Open Source Photo via Shutterstock
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