What is Open Source Software, and what does it mean for small and medium businesses?

“Open Source” means that the source code for the software is freely available for review and modification. Some open source software is developed strictly by a group of volunteers, but there are many major projects which have corporate sponsors. For example, Sun has long financed the development of OpenOffice, a suite of word processor, spreadsheet, presentation and database programs very similar, and mostly compatible with, Microsoft Office, and MySQL, a SQL database that is probably the most common database in use on web sites in the world.

The word most commonly associated with “open source” is “free”. Free (as in “freedom”) because you have the source code and can make (or have someone make for you) modifications to suit your exact needs. Some open source software is also free as in “free beer”. OpenOffice and MySQL both fall into this category as well. Anyone can download, install and use either of those programs without paying Sun any license fees. Sun (and other companies) offer support services for a fee.

So if you need training, or need to have someone on call if problems occur, that is available, just like with proprietary commercial software. Using open source software does NOT mean you are on your own. Nor does it mean that you should expect services for the software will be free.
What does this mean for your business?

For one thing, you could test out OpenOffice. It looks and functions almost exactly like Microsoft Office 2003, and you can have both installed on the same machine while you try it out. Unless you have very complex documents or make extensive use of macros, you should be able to switch with no problem, and stop paying Microsoft Office license fees. I have even found one case where OpenOffice actually works better than Excel 2003 in opening exported spreadsheet from Crystal Reports.

One of the largest gatherings of open source software is at Sourceforge, a website which hosts software projects for developers. You can search for software there. You can also see some of the software that we use ourselves.

  1. Open Source systems are particularly attractive to businesses that favor a “hands-on” approach to their information systems. It allows them to make the changes they need for their unique business situations.
    – Lee Graham

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