Sometimes when I’m driving long distances or trying to fall asleep, I give myself little thought exercises along the lines of the following:
If I knew someone who was going to start a small business with 10 or fewer employees and he or she wanted to maximally use free or open source software and services, what would I recommend?
Let me explain a few of the words. By “free” I mean both “free as in beer” as well as “free as in freedom,” as the saying goes. That is, it is ok to use software that does not cost anything, even if it is not “open source,” and it is certainly ok to use “free and open source software” that uses the GPL, Apache, BSD, Eclipse, etc. licenses.
For free services I would include Google Mail, Yahoo Maps, and all sorts of no-cost Web 2.0 primary applications and mashups. I would also include free hosting sites like WordPress.com and Blogger.com. Here something would get extra points if I could not just use it as a remote service but also grab the code and put it on my own site.
Part of the reason for doing this exercise is because I think small business owners will increasingly be using a mix of open source and proprietary software. The use of the latter is well known and is a very large and potentially profitable market category. Because no two businesses are identical, the correct answer to a question as above would depend on technical expertise, type of business, comfort with remote services, local support, and budget.
There might be some applications for which no non-proprietary software is available or appropriate. I give as example one that was offered by an analyst I met last month: “pig farming software.” (Though I should admit that I haven’t searched SourceForge for that one.) There are questions of legacy data handling, and commitment to moving forward with a new IT strategy that might break backwards compatibility. Finally, people need to be able to sleep at night, being comfortable with the risks they have taken in how their computer systems are built and maintained.
My plan is to explore this area in a series of blog posts on no fixed schedule and then perhaps write something up that is more extensive and comprehensive. I am not recommending that people eschew proprietary software if it meets their needs, but I want to look at the free and open source options out there.
In particular, you can find out about my employer’s many offerings at the IBM Small Business Resource Center. (That was a word from my sponsor, for completeness.) Many others provide hardware, software, and services for small businesses.
First question: I said 10 employees above. How large can that number be made before considerations get much different? What are the variables that affect that? Does it need to be smaller in some cases? I will insist for this discussion that it is greater than zero!