Years ago, we were constantly in the software update rat race. In our business, we used some vendor-specific development tools, which were always being updated, and we did a lot of PC-based application development. As a result, we were paying through the nose for the latest operating systems and office software. Our technical tools for hardware and firmware development were a significant recurring expense category, also.
Today, things are much different. Thanks to the open-source revolution, many small businesses and individuals can cut their software costs to near zero, and get off the never-ending upgrade treadmill that is great for software vendor profitability, but terrible on your budget and expertise. Many people are already using open source options. But, to lay the foundation for future articles that build on this information, we want to establish a common baseline, especially for people who may not be up to date on the technology or trends (phone and tablet apps are another topic entirely).
In a nutshell, open source means exactly that: the source code is freely available and open for anyone to use and modify, subject to various licensing terms and conditions. Better, you hardly ever need to use the source code version of these; pre-built installations are available which are ready to use.
The downside of open source software is that, since it is free, there is no official vendor support, meaning you don’t get to sit on the phone for hours waiting for someone to tell you to restart your computer. The upside is that support is often open source also, meaning that there are plenty of websites, forums and blogs which have probably already answered your question for free; most answers you need are a web-search away. Plus, an entire marketplace of consultants has popped up to provide paid support or configuration on an as-needed basis. Saving hundreds of dollars per seat in proprietary software buys quite a bit of focused per-hour enterprise-wide support on the few issues where you might need additional help. On top of all that, many open source options also feature certification programs for support people, including those who can customize the open source software for you, again, at often a fraction of what you would have paid for all that proprietary shrink-wrap software. These open source features have driven the cost of proprietary software down, but still not down enough to save it long-term. It is no wonder that open source is taking over, and worth taking another serious look in that direction if you aren’t using it already.
The four main software elements that most people need, and for which great open source options are available, are the following:
• Office applications (word processor, spreadsheet, drawing tools)
• Email client
• Internet browser
• Operating system
We’re going to hit the high points of the open-source packages we’ve used for these, and our experiences with them. If you have other experiences or preferences, let us know in the comments.
Our preferred open-source office suite was OpenOffice.org (the .org is part of the name), until it stopped being updated around 2011. Since then, we’ve been switching everyone to LibreOffice, which is essentially the same thing with updates. Because it is open source, this office package has been “forked” many times (meaning “derived from” in open source terms), and many options are available, all of which read and write the same file formats. Apache still maintains OpenOffice.org and makes updates, but the momentum appears to be behind LibreOffice. There are also LibreOffice portable apps for your phone and tablet, but we haven’t used these.
The available open office applications include:
• Writer, for Word-style documents
• Calc, for Excel-style spreadsheets
• Impress, for Powerpoint-style presentations
• Draw, for Visio-style drawings
In addition, there are some other tools for managing databases (Base), creating formulas for other documents (Math) and creating charts within documents (Charts).
Although these open office options have their own document format, known as the OpenDocument standard, they can open and store the most important Microsoft formats. The great thing about the native open document formats (.odt, .ods, .odp and .odg, respectively) is that they can be shared between different platforms and even by custom tools provided by other vendors. You don’t have to use these formats, though, you can save in native Microsoft or other formats if you wish. This is handy for sharing documents with other organizations that haven’t made the open office leap. Right now we have a mix of OpenOffice.org and LibreOffice installations, across Windows, Macs and Linux, and haven’t noticed any compatibility issues between them.
As with any software, there are some quirks with the open office software options we’ve tried. Another great thing about the open office world is that you aren’t forced to upgrade just as soon as you’ve gotten comfortable with any given quirks. It is nice to finally be off that treadmill.
For email, we’ve switched everyone to Thunderbird. This is a powerful tool with many more features than we actually use. For example, there is a calendar and task engine built-in; we’ll have to give that a try. There is also a rich set of chat and social media integration features, if you want to use those. There are also an enormous amount of add-ons with additional features, but we haven’t used any of those, either. As with the office applications, once we switched everyone to Thunderbird on all platforms, our life got a lot simpler.
Who hasn’t heard of Firefox? Again, getting everyone on this on all platforms made a world of difference. The only drawback to using Firefox is that some sites don’t fully function on Macs without Safari, and some sites have similar trouble on Windows platforms without Internet Explorer. Recently, we discovered that some PDFs available from the Georgia Department of Revenue do not work without IE. Also, some Internet-of-Things (IoT) devices we’ve run across need to install plugins for IE, which seems a little bizarre.
You can use all of the above open-source tools without having to switch to an open source operating system, such as pick-your-flavor versions of Linux. However, by aggressively switching your office tools to a cross-platform version, you will make the transition much easier than you might first think should the inclination arise.
Our inclination arose when Microsoft stopped supporting XP, which we think was the best Windows version of all time, and for which we had purchased the largest number of PCs with Windows pre-installed, in addition to XP upgrade disks for previous Windows installations. Prior to this loss of support, when a machine would start getting woozy, we would backup all the data, wipe the drive, re-install the OS, reload the data, and everything would be fine. However, this process also requires updates, many of which could not be locally archived, but instead had to be downloaded from the Internet during the installation. When Microsoft dropped Internet support for XP, all those PCs became casualties. And thus perfect guinea pigs for trying out Linux.
As a result, since about 2013, following a brief tour through the Mac world in a disappointing attempt to overcome Windows limitations, we’ve been deliberately pushing our entire business off Windows and Macs and onto Linux. We only have a few Windows machines and Macs left, but our OS future is clear. Currently, our preferred Linux distribution is Ubuntu, although Debian, from which Ubuntu was derived, is also testing well on some Mac hardware. We’ve also had no problems with Ubuntu on custom-built machines. Some features of Ubuntu aren’t completely open-source, but for our purposes it is close enough.
For most small businesses, or individuals for that matter, this combination of open source software will get you up and running with almost anything you need to do from a PC infrastructure point of view. You may also currently need some proprietary software for your business needs beyond these options. When selecting such software, even if you decide to stick with Windows, we highly recommend that you look to see if a Linux version is also available for any particular candidate package. If so, transitioning that software later if you decide to make the jump will be much easier than learning something new at the same time you switch to a new OS. In addition to our adoption of open-source office software, we’ve needed to transition various hardware and firmware development tools ourselves; we’ll cover these tools and our unfolding open-source transition plans for them in future articles.
As you can see, we’re big believers in the open source revolution, and have made a major commitment to this transition in our own business. Perhaps it seems strange that a company whose name begins with “Soft” would be such a fan of open-source software. I have to admit, I resisted this trend for a long time. Now, the benefits to our business are clear. And our clients benefit in two ways: money we once spent on proprietary software can now be trimmed off project budgets, and time once spent on the update treadmill can now be used getting their projects out the door faster.