Small business free and open source thought exercise

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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 and 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!

Also See: John Locke’s 2004 book Open Source Solutions For Small Business Problems and the associated website.


  1. An interesting measure of ‘size’ is IBM’s approximate business model.

    For every hundred IBMers, you will find 90 of them ‘selling and servicing’ — out with customers. 9 of them ‘developing’ — turning ideas into products. And 1 of them ‘researching’ — engaging in the kind of pure science that stops IBM from getting stuck in the era of punch-cards, typewriters, and other obsolescent technology.

    So maybe when you’re up to a hundred people, one of them will be doing something very different from the majority. Perhaps that’s the size where the considerations change.

    Of course, no-one now needs the ‘Proprietary’ OS/2 and SmartSuite components to their productivity solution. Linux and have replaced those, for all commercial purposes.

    So the open/proprietary split varies over time, as well as with business size.

    There wouldn’t be anyone left in the technology business trying to sell competitors to OS/2 and SmartSuite, by any chance ? Selling XBoxes and Age-of-Empires is so much more likely to be profitable.

  2. Dear Bob,
    in the past few years the European Commission started several research project on how to help SMEs in selecting and adopting open source software for their internal activities. Among them, OpenTTT performed many interviews with randomly selected small and medium companies in different vertical sectors, and collected requirements and (whenever possible) identified potential projects for adoption. We had quite many successes, and the catalog (with some additions still to be made, like ecology and energy management) is available on the project website at
    Many curious examples can be found under the “vertical business applications” or “engineering and manufacturing”.
    Actually, apart from some specialised applications in the CAD area, we were able to find open source projects for more than 90% of the requests that were made by the companies. Some requests could be handled by coupling different projects (like using Talend for data transfer plus other applications), other by a single package. I will have to look for the pig farm software, though :-)
    Carlo Daffara

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