Open Source Apps for Small Biz: Desktop to Backup

Saturday Feb 23rd 2008 by Aaron Weiss
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If the cost of Windows software is stretching your already-thin budget, you'll be happy to learn about the variety of open-source software applications that won't cost you a cent. We run through the alternatives.

Open source software (OSS) has become a buzzword sometimes burdened by misperception and misunderstanding. The OSS movement is deeply rooted in the Linux/Unix community, and it's based on the premise that developers distribute their software complete with the source code for inspection or customization. But OSS software is not limited to the Linux and Unix operating systems—increasingly, OSS applications are available for Windows, too, even though Windows itself is a closed-source platform.

Budget-minded small business owners can choose from a number of free, open-source applications designed for Windows that will reliably handle their productivity needs. Better still, many OSS programs support Mac and Linux machines, too, meaning that customers that use those platforms can share compatible files and the same software experience.

Office Alternatives
Microsoft Office has dominated the productivity market for more than a decade, and its bundle of well-known applications, including Word, Excel and Powerpoint, has come to define their respective niches. But critics say that Office has become so bloated over the years that 80 percent of customers use only 20 percent of its features.

Compare the standard package for Office 2007, which retails for $399, to OpenOffice.org, an open-source office suite, which is free. The suite includes a word processor, equation editor, visual database, presentation authoring and drawing application.

OpenOffice.org is not simply a cheap knock-off of Microsoft Office. Some proponents say that Writer, OpenOffice.org's answer to Word, actually bests Word in a number of areas, including page layout, lists, headers, footers and endnotes. (On the other hand, Word maintains the edge on outlining and templates—for a price.) But for typical word processing needs, Writer contains many of the same conveniences you expect, including spellcheck and autocorrect, and Writer can save documents directly to the PDF format. In fact, we wrote this story with Writer.

While you can exchange documents between Writer and Word, some layout features may be lost in the translation, depending the sophistication level of your document.

Likewise, the other OpenOffice.org applications maintain that familiar-yet-different relationship to their Office counterparts. In Impress, the presentation manager, you can export completed presentations to a PowerPoint format for traditional clients, or you can save them in Flash SWF format for easy Web publishing.

If OpenOffice.org is a free and open source alternative to Microsoft Office, then IBM Lotus Symphony could be described as a free and open source alternative to OpenOffice.org. Actually built from the OpenOffice source code, Symphony takes the main components of OpenOffice.org—writing, presentation, and spreadsheets—and refits them with a visual and functional makeover. The overall effect is to streamline the original OpenOffice, in some cases removing features, but improving accessibility and workflow.

Messaging Freely
While e-mail still reigns as the Internet's “killer app” of the, “e-mail” now includes instant messaging, calendars and other groupware collaboration tasks. The typical business probably uses Microsoft Outlook as their messaging client, particularly if they already own a license to Microsoft Office, which bundles it. Microsoft expanded Outlook's popularity by leveraging it on the collaborative features of the company's Exchange server.

Exchange server combines traditional standards-based messaging with Microsoft extensions for duties such as calendaring, scheduling and tasks. It's easy to find free open source software for traditional messaging. Leading the pack is Mozilla Thunderbird, a full-featured messaging client with support for POP and IMAP e-mail, NNTP newsgroups, and RSS feeds.

You can add calendaring to Thunderbird with the Lightning extension or run Sunbird, a standalone version of the same calendar application (in case you don't use Thunderbird for e-mail). Although Sunbird/Lightning lets you share calendars through WebDAV servers and is compatible with Apple iCal, it does not communicate with Exchange servers for access to Outlook calendars. This makes Sunbird/Lightning a good alternative to Exchange calendaring if all you need is the functionality without the interoperability.

The only full-featured free and open messaging client that can talk to an Exchange server is Novell Evolution, but the Windows port is still a little rough around the edges compared to its Linux-based original. It supports only XP, cannot communicate with SSL-encrypted Exchange server, and is sorely in need of a visual face-lift.

Free and open Exchange alternatives like Zimbra support both Outlook and its own free open clients, but require the installation of server software.

Lightening calendar screen shot
You can managing a calendar with the Lightning extension for Thunderbird.
(Click for larger image)
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If you IM, you can chat the day away with Pidgin. This lightweight and intuitive multi-protocol chat client supports AIM, ICQ, Jabber, Google Talk, MSN, Yahoo and other IM platforms, simultaneously.

Photoshopping Without Photoshop
To its credit, becoming a generic word like kleenex and xerox, is a feather in Photoshop's cap. Like Office is to productivity software, Photoshop is to graphics editing: the de facto, the mac-daddy, the gold-standard choice. But it takes a lot of gold to buy the gold standard, and a full Photoshop license weighs in at $700. But you don't have to use Photoshop to photoshop, and you don't have to spend a dime, either.

The unfortunately named GIMP (“GNU Image Manipulation Program”) has long been the “Photoshop-killer” for anyone using Linux, but it's also available for Windows. Although GIMP isn't about to knock Photoshop off its pedestal among high-end devotees, generating output for the printing press, it offers plenty of sophisticated tools for creating Web and software graphics or touching up and editing digital photos.

But GIMP critics say that the interface is confusing, because it is built around a collection of windows rather than one large editing canvas. To address its controversial graphic interface, there is GIMPshop, a modified version of GIMP with a layout more familiar to people who have already racked up hours in Photoshop.

Then there is Paint.NET, a Windows-specific graphics editor built on Microsoft's .NET framework. Its full-featured and intuitive interface belies the software's lightweight 1.5MB footprint, and it supports popular image-editing features like layers and transparency, and it provides an accessible learning curve.

Compression and Backup
Anyone who actively works at a computer frequently encounters an alphabet soup of data compression formats. Names like ZIP and RAR and CAB and TAR could be the title of a Dr. Seuss book. The free and open 7-Zip utility can unpack most of them (and pack ZIP and its variants), plus it integrates into the Windows Explorer for direct file access.

Data backup is like preventative medicine—we all know we should, but few of us do. One small business recently made the news when a disgruntled employee deleted $2.5M worth of files, which had not been backed up. The data was ultimately restored, but not without shelling out likely thousands of dollars to a specialized recovery firm. You can use Windows' built-in data backup tools, or turn to more sophisticated free and open source solutions like Amanda, NasBackup, or Cobian Backup 8 (note that the newer Cobian Backup 9 is not open source).

Viruses Begone (and Spyware, Too)
Several anti-virus and anti-spyware scanners for Windows won't don't cost you a thing but they're not open source. There is one — ClamWin—that's both. Although ClamWin maintains an up-to-date database for both viruses and spyware, unlike some free-but-closed-source scanners it does not monitor and scan files as you access them. Rather, you must run a ClamWin scan against files manually.

Remote Desktop
Windows includes a client for Microsoft's Terminal Services remote desktop, but not all Windows licenses include the remote desktop server. UltraVNC is a free-and-open-source remote desktop client and server for Windows that also supports live text chat and file transfer. If you use a platform other than Windows, you can connect your Web browser to UltraVNC's Java applet to view the Windows desktop.

And Firefox, Too
A special mention should be made about the Web browser Firefox, perhaps the most well known free-and-open-source application of them all.

Firefox is really one branch of a free, open source ecosystem. The browser is based on the Mozilla Foundation's rendering engine named Gecko, which is also the basis for several other free-and-open Web applications like the SeaMonkey Project (with integrated e-mail and calendar), Flock (with integrated social networking), and K-Meleon (“chameleon”) which is lighter and more tightly integrated into Windows than Firefox.

Fair Deal
Thanks to the philosophy that drives open source software developers, they create new applications rapidly, often incorporating—and sometimes exceeding—features found in analogous commercial applications. While open source applications may fall short of your needs, they cost nothing to try—and nothing to keep.

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