As a small business owner funds are tight, so the last thing you want to do is invest in lots of new software. Fortunately, you may not have to.
A growing movement in the online world is the Open Source Movement. Open Source developers write programs, plugins, and internet scripts and distribute them, and the source code used to create them, for free. Chances are you’ve already heard of some of them. For example, Wordpress is open source, as is Open Office (an open source clone of Microsoft Office).
As a small business owner open source software can be a tremendous asset. Because it is free it gives you a chance to spend your limited resources elsewhere, instead of investing in expensive software. However, open source software isn’t without it’s drawbacks. Here are 5 things you should always check when investigating a promising piece of open source software:
1. Does it have the features you need? Because open source software is developed by individuals or small organizations, it often does not have all the same features as similar commercial applications. If you don’t need those features, then this isn’t an issue. But don’t take the time to download, install, and learn a new software if it isn’t going to meet your business needs.
2. Does it have good documentation? Another result of the part-time nature of open source development is that even some of the best open source softwares do not have complete documentation. When looking at a new open source project, take a good look at the documentation offered and try to get a feel for whether it will answer your questions about using the software. Other things to look for are project forums, wikis, and FAQ’s. All these places can provide answers to questions you may have, or allow you to ask your own. If you can’t find enough documentation for an open source project, it may be worth looking elsewhere. No matter how good a program is, it’s worth your time if you can’t figure out how to use it.
3. How easy is the program to edit? What do programmers have to say about the code? One of the greatest strengths of open source programs is that the source code comes with them. This means that if you find a piece of software that you really like, but need just one more feature, chances are good you can hire a programmer to add that feature for you. Be aware, however, that some programs are written better than others. If the source code you get is messy, inefficient, or just hard to understand it may not be worth your money to hire a programmer to make even small modifications.
4. How does it communicate with other programs or formats your business uses? Even if a program does exactly what you need it to do, it may not communicate with other programs your business has to use every day. For example, a word processor would not be much use if it could not read and save Microsoft Word Documents. If there are programs or certain formats that everybody in your business or industry uses, be sure the open source program you are looking at supports them.
5. Finally, What do other users think of the program? Take some time to browse the web and look for reviews, critiques, or discussions about the software you’re looking at using. Sometimes open source programs may look good, but be filled with bugs. Others may work, but have poor user interfaces that make it hard to work with them. The best way to get an idea of whether an open source program is worth using in your business is to find out what others are saying about it. If you find lots of positive reviews, especially from people in a similar industry to yours, than you’re likely on the right track. If all you find are complaints, steer clear.