Running a small business, particularly a small law firm, can be expensive. Among all the things you need to pay for, such as office supplies, equipment, and support services, none are as routinely expensive as purchasing software. One license of Microsoft Office will usually run over $200 per user. Little relief can be seen in the future, either, as the subscription models that are available now are even MORE expensive (Office 365, which is flawed and incomplete, will run you $150 per user, with undefined costs to continue using the program in the future).
So the fine folks over at PC World have done us all a HUGE favor by creating a list of 10 available open-source alternatives to replace those ridiculously expensive software packages that we have all thought were a necessary and unavoidable part of small business. Without further ado, the 10 Best (but in no particular order) Open-Source Alternatives for Small Business:
1) Office Suite: Libre Office
Sporting a full suite of programs, including word processing, spreadsheet, presentation, database, and drawing, LibreOffice is Microsoft Office in a free package. It even uses the exact same file types (e.g. .docx, xlsx, etc.) so that you can easily import documents you already have, view files sent by others, and send your files to people who use the Microsoft Office tools. They even sync with online Content Management Systems and online document storage to provide for easy collaboration.
2) Email: Thunderbird (by Mozilla)
Another replacement for (what some believe to be) the overpriced Microsoft option that is used by most businesses: Outlook. Instead of shelling out the $95 per license to get Outlook on its own (or the even steeper price for the whole Office package), Thunderbird by Mozilla offers a comprehensive email package. Complete with tabbed email, integrated chat, phishing protection, and smart folders, Thunderbird is a great free alternative to Outlook. Also, just as with Mozilla’s other major offering, Firefox, Thunderbird is fully customizable through use of add-ons.
3) Calendar: Lightning (by Mozilla)
One thing has to be said for the way Microsoft developed and implemented Outlook: it has become an essential business tool. To say that Outlook is only an email client is to completely overlook how brilliant Microsoft was to combine business email, calendar, contact, and to-do list functionality into one piece. So you can’t replace Outlook with just Thunderbird, right? Enter Lightning, a calendar client add-on to Mozilla’s Thunderbird email client.
Fully expandable, just like Firefox and Thunderbird, Lighting manages all of your calendar needs, plugging right in to your Thunderbird system. Manage your calendar, send and receive invitations to meetings, organize and manage events, and even manage your to-do list, all for free.
4) Accounting: TurboCash
Small business accounting starts out easy: you don’t have much money, so don’t spend anything. Once you start generating revenue and incurring expenses, accounting becomes a nearly full-time job without the right software. Intuit’s Quickbooks software, which is relied on by many small businesses, will start at $150, going up with the complexity of the books it’s keeping. You need to manage invoices, accounts payable/receivable, and track your cash flow without spending the last of your available cash?
Check out TurboCASH, which gives you the same capabilities, for free. Manage accounts, invoicing, bank reconciliation, and more, all while being able to customize your currency and industry, and produce comprehensive reports about your business’s finances.
5) Project Management: OpenProj
Another replacement for Microsoft’s entry in the field, OpenProj is the open-sourced response to Microsoft Project. Managing the information and flow of a project can be difficult, from allocation of budget, assigning personnel, establishing milestones, and tracking deadlines. It’s crucial that, as a small business owner, you are able to track these aspects, but to do so with Microsoft Project will run about $450.
Moreover, many small businesses will find that Project has capabilities and features that FAR exceed the needs of their company. OpenProj offers similar functionality for free. Monitor the work and resource breakdown structure, and utilize the same types of charts and references that users find in Project, without emptying your company’s bank account.
6) CRM: Sugar CRM
Although not necessarily a mainstay in most law practices, most small businesses have come to rely upon CRM software to help manage client relationships. The flagship CRM program available, Salesforce.com, will run you about $300 per year, per user. (For anyone doubting that the age of subscription-based-software won’t result in software expense taking up a larger and larger portion of your total business expenses, allow the Salesforce.com example to slap you back into reality.)
Offering the same functionality as Salesforce.com, SugarCRM has all the tools necessary for you to manage your client relationships, for free. As your business grows, should you find that you need increased functionality, you can pay to purchase more expansive versions of SugarCRM, never having to change software and adopt an entirely new system just because your business was successful. Oh, and for those tech-savvy out there, all levels of SugarCRM, including the free open-source version, give you complete access to the source code, allowing you to modify the program to fit your needs.
7) File Archiving: 7-Zip
Another aspect of business computing that many lawyers are not too familiar with, archiving is essential to manage your business’s computer systems efficiently and effectively, just ask your IT guy. Notice how your accounting software operates slowly? It’s probably because you haven’t archived any of your data since you first purchased the program in 1999. (Don’t believe something like that is even possible today? I know firsthand that it is!)
The most common program available for zipping and unzipping files is probably WinZip. However, as is the theme here, we are going to try and accomplish the same thing that WinZip does, for about $35 per license, without costing your business a penny. 7-Zip does essentially the exact same thing that WinZip does, and it does it for free. Importantly for lawyers who need to be concerned with the security of any data they store, 7-Zip also offers 256-bit AES encryption.
8) Desktop Publishing: Scribus
Painful as it is to admit, there may be no better testament to how effective that Microsoft has been in developing and implementing software tools for business than how many of the products on this list are alternatives to a Microsoft program that is dominant in that area. Desktop publishing is no different. Many small businesses do not have the budget to hire marketing and advertising companies to put promotional material together, and rely on programs such as Microsoft Publisher to design brochures, fliers, and other material. However, at $95 per license, Publisher can be a dent in the pocketbook of a small company.
Scribus offers the same desktop publishing formats, for free. With print and press-ready layouts, and other important functionality like color management, Scribus can help you make the same professional-looking marketing materials you can get with Microsoft Publisher.
9) Invoicing: Simple Invoices
So you’ve started your business, gotten your clients, done your work, recorded your time, now it’s time to get paid! How are you going to organize and send out your invoices? Many small businesses rely on programs like Freshbooks, which will run you about $250 per user, per year (see above for my rant about subscription-based software).
Simple Invoices is a free alternative that allows you to track invoices, track your clients, manage tools like recurring billing, and adjust the tax rate. Helpfully, Simple Invoices is available via any web browser, so you will never have hardware compatibility problems when using the program.
10) Diagrams: Dia
It really only seems appropriate that we end our list with yet another replacement for a Microsoft program, this time it’s Visio. Visio is a great tool for putting together diagrams and flow charts, but it will run you about $250 to get the license. For a free alternative, try the Visio-inspired open-source program Dia. With a ton of tools for creating flowcharts, entity-relationship diagrams, network diagrams, and more, it is an excellent replacement for its more expensive Microsoft cousin. With the ability to save to a number of different file types, including .xlm, .png, and .xfig, you’ll have all the options you need for sharing and collaborating with others.
The guys at PC World also included a very helpful reminder when dealing with open-source software. While you won’t be paying for a license, and therefore likely saving your company some money, you will not receive the free support that often comes with those licenses. Although open-source alternatives frequently have large internet followings, always willing to assist, if you want actual support from the developer of your open-source alternative software, it’s not likely to come free. So always make sure to evaluate the total value, not just the total cost, of your software programs.