Procurement 21 September 2020

A beginner’s guide to open source software

Open source software for small businesses
Open source software can be useful for small businesses

There are few businesses which don’t rely on technology to operate. If you’re a business owner, you may have considered the possibility of using open source software to fulfil a technology need, or already have open source software built into your IT strategy.

This beginner’s guide to open source software explains what open source software is and whether it might play a useful role in your business technology, including:

Open source software definition

Open source software, or OSS, is computer software whose source code is released and distributed for use and modification by others. Code which is open source is released under a specific license by the copyright holder, which grants others the right to use, change, distribute or study the software code.

Often developed in a collaborative and public manner, open source software allows multiple disparate developers to add, change or manipulate the source code. You can manipulate open source code to suit your own needs or, in the case of business, use it to craft a version of the code to suit specific requirements of your company.

Open source software is often available to use free of charge, although there can sometimes be restrictions on how you are allowed to use the source code. For example, you might have to retain the name of the original author within the code, or you might be limited in the way you are allowed to redistribute the software.

Should I use open source software in my business?

One of the main advantages of using open source software is that it allows you to test out the software without having to engage in conversation with any particular product provider. If the code is open source, it’s available for you to start using whenever you want to.

It can be time-consuming to find the right open source project for your business. However, because it’s usually free to test and use, you can spend time figuring out which open source software best suits your needs before you make a commitment to any particular product.

Once you land on the right source code, you can change or manipulate it to meet your needs. You can continue to use it for free indefinitely, although you’ll often have the option to upgrade to a paid version of the product and gain access to additional features and support.

If you do decide to use open source software within your business, it’s wise to evaluate the community behind the code. A combination of end-users and vendors is usually a sign of a healthy and robust community.

Another thing to check out before committing is how many contributors work on the open source code. You can check this on places like GitHub, GitLab or SourceForge.

Nine examples of popular open source software

The pool of open source technology available is huge. It’s highly likely that your business will be using platforms built on open source software without necessarily realising it is, in fact, open source.

Some examples of popular open source software include:

1. WordPress

Used by over 200 million websites, the popular blogging site lets users create sites as simple or complex as they need. As well as blogs, the vast range of plugins available means users can transform their blog into whatever they want. WordPress can also be used as a content management system to power online magazines or e-commerce enterprises. It’s also a popular choice for online portfolios amongst photographers and designers.

View from a Marketing Agency

“We exclusively build websites using WordPress and WooCommerce, both of which are open source. Our choice is based on trusting and believing that the combined efforts of the community of developers has resulted in some of the best software to build websites and eCommerce sites on.

“The major areas of concern for open source products stem from their own success. Given the number of sites that are powered by WordPress, hackers are always trying to find ways to exploit these sites. However, with a strong community of talented developers behind them, weaknesses are quickly patched, often far more quickly than other platforms would be able to respond. There are also countless solutions available for WordPress to mitigate potential risks, even after a vulnerability has been found.”

Pip Filippaios, MD, digitalbeans

2. WooCommerce

WooCommerce is an eCommerce platform built on WordPress. The plugin allows users to set up an online store in minutes. Integration of flexible, secure payments with Stripe, PayPal, Square, Amazon Pay, Apple Pay and Google Pay is a big draw. WooCommerce also provides a sales dashboard, giving users the ability to manage orders. This includes product updates, orders to fulfil, automated tax calculations, and even live shipping rates from leading couriers. There’s also both an iOS and Android app, allowing you to do business on the go.

3. Mozilla Firefox

This popular internet browser offers thousands of accessible plugins. With 4.47% global market share, the Firefox browser is available for Android, iOS, Windows and Linux.

4. LibreOffice

An open source alternative to Microsoft Office, LibreOffice can run on Windows, macOS and Linux. It offers users a full range of office apps, including documents, spreadsheets, databases and presentations, it also has plenty of templates and can support Microsoft files.

5. Open Office

Another open source alternative to Microsoft Office, Apache Open Office is an easy to use software which looks and feels similar to competing products. The software includes a word processor, spreadsheets, presentations, database form and even an equation editor.

6. Linux

Linux is the most iconic open source operating system. It’s highly accessible with good features and strong security. The developers behind Linux have created user-friendly packages and big-name computer manufacturers are now selling Linux laptops. One reason Linux is so popular is that since it uses an entirely different base code from Windows and OS X systems, it is less of a target for hackers.

7. Thunderbird email

Thunderbird is a free email application, similar to Outlook. It puts a strong emphasis on user privacy and phishing protection and offers some great tools for organising your email. A series of default tags let you define emails as Important, Work, Personal, To Do and Later. You can also add your own personalised tags, allowing you to structure your inbound emails to suit your own working style and increase your productivity. And it has a highly rated lightning-fast search facility.

8. GIMP

A photo and image editor which operates on Windows, macOS and Linux, GIMP is one of the most well-maintained open source software tools around. Particularly popular with Linux users, it allows users to edit images with built-in layers, filters and auto-photo enhancement tools.

9. Audacity

A free audio editor which works on Windows, Mac and Linux. Audacity offers a wide range of features, allowing you to record, export and import sound files, editing and sound quality features. Although the software seems complicated at first glance, the professional-level tools make it popular with both musicians and podcast creators.

Final word

Many open source experts would encourage small and medium-sized businesses to make open source software a key part of their IT strategy. However, this doesn’t automatically mean it’s right for your business.

Taking on any new IT project is a big commitment for any organisation, so if you do decide to go the open source route, be sure to do your homework first so you don’t waste too much time going down the wrong avenue.

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