What Does Open Source Mean For Small Business?

I posed the question to a bunch of bloggers lately "Anyone have any open source or other software questions they need answered," and the first reply was "Yeah, what exactly *is* open source software?"

January 22, 2014

What Is Open Source?

To start with, software is made out of source code.  Proprietary software code is closed, generally meaning that you can't see, edit, or copy this code.  Open source is the opposite; for the most part you're free to do what you want with the code.

What's The Difference?

To most users, properietary vs. open source software doesn't apear to make much difference.  A person using Microsoft Office looks much like a person using OpenOffice.  Yes, OpenOffice is free (making it a few hundred dollars cheaper than MS Office) but there's no direct interaction between the user and the raw source code.

This is how a lot of open source software gets used, and that's primarily because most of the popular open source software applications are free.  Mozilla Firefox and Thunderbird, Linux, Open and Libre Office, GIMP, and Audacity are some you may have heard of.


How Does This Affect My Small Business?

What if you need your office app to do something that it currently doesn't? 

In the case of proprietary apps, you're out of luck until they decide to make the change, add the feature, or whatever.  Where I most often see people gripe about proprietary software is when they're waiting for a bug to be fixed.  Or maybe they're even just waiting for a software company to admit there's a bug in the first place…

In the case of open source, the situatio is a bit different.  If you know how to code, you can make the change yourself.  If you don't know how or just don't want to, there's nothing to stop you form hiring someone else to do it for you.  And if this sounds expensive, you can always find other end users who want the same feature that will pony up some cash to hire the programmer.


It's Too Much Work

If this sounds time consuming, just remember how much time it takes waiting for solutions from your proprietary software's vendor, all the while banging your head on a desk wondering if there's any other way to get your job done.

What you might try, before diving into any big purchase (like an ERP or accounting app) is to peruse message boards and join mailing lists related to the particular software applications you're wondering about.  You will be surprised at how helpful an open source app's community is and how willing some of them are to give you a hand, rather than see you go down the path to proprietary nightmares.


What If…

So, you can pay per seat licenses for things like Windows, MS Office, Quickbooks, Photoshop, or any other proprietary small business app.  What if you instead used free and open source replacements, then sent a bit of money (a tiny fraction of what the other stuff usually costs would be plenty) in to the project to help with new features or bug fixes?

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