Open source software; an economic windfall for small businesses

The cost of software required to support a small business can be significant, but with the rising popularity of open source software, these essential IT tools are one less expense to worry about.

While “code-sharing” has been a tradition among programmers for decades, open source has become mainstream in recent years due, in large part, to the explosion in Internet activity and the popularity of open source technologies like Apache, Linux, PHP and Perl.

In brief, open source commonly refers to software programs that are made available by an individual or group in source code form for use, modification and redistribution under licensing agreements that offer few restrictions.

From word processing to spreadsheets, databases to graphics, open source software is typically no cost and immediately accessible – not just initially, but for future upgrades as well. Need a web scripting engine? Download one from PHP.net. Need an update to your website’s database? Surf over to mySQL.com. Need new blog software installed? Try WordPress.org.

Extremely flexible, open source software is usually inter-operable with other standards and provides freedom from “lock-in” to a single software vendor’s products. For instance, a business may work in Open Office software to import Word documents, but can just as easily export to RTF and PDF standards.

Whether a company’s website is based on open frameworks such as JQuery or CakePHP, languages like Perl and PHP, or databases such as mySQL, these technologies are widely understood by most developers and as such, strongly supported through the developer community at large.

By integrating open source software as part of a broad approach to business goals, a small enterprise can open itself up to other opportunities. Extending the software’s capabilities is often simple and advantageous; for example, a single added feature could complete your perfect solution, as that “missing link” complements a constellation of open contributors.

Fortunately, quality open source software often relies on a community of users more than happy to assist in making solutions work, in addition to providing continued contributions to the technology’s development.

As for licensing, open source usually carries an “alphabet soup” of various agreements, including GPL, LGPL, Creative Commons, MIT and Apache (a list can be found here: http://www.opensource.org/licenses ). In many cases, these usage agreements are quite permissive, allowing business the ability to make unlimited copies and transfers of the software without added concerns.

Even those that are more restrictive typically have rudimentary requirements – for example, if a business sells a product that is derived from the original open source software, under GPL, the source code of the derivative product must be available using that same license.

Ultimately, open source software offers many opportunities to businesses – it is free of charge and available to utilize immediately upon downloading. In addition, a wide pool of software talent is continually improving upon the types of programs small companies most often require to efficiently run their operations.

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