Free business software isn’t always second best. In fact, some of the best software is free, enabling your business to benefit from up to date, highly-capable applications without paying a penny
Types of free business software
The easiest way to find free business software is to look online. It tends to fall into one of four categories:
- Freeware. Freeware is available at no cost and with no restrictions. Freeware tends to be simple software designed to perform one or two tasks.
- Free trials. Previously known as 'shareware', free trials enable anyone to try out an app for a limited period of time, after which a fee must be paid for continued use. Vendors may also choose to disable certain features during the free trial period.
- Open source. Open source software can be freely adapted by anyone with the knowledge to do so. The open source community has created many useful pieces of software that are the product of a collaborative effort by people all over the world.
- Freemium software. Cloud computing services are sometimes offered on a freemium basis. This means basic features are free, but you have to pay for advanced functionality.
Is free business software right for you?
There are free alternatives to most types of paid-for software. These packages are often highly capable and many claim to be compatible with commercial software, so you can exchange files with ease.
At face value it's hard to see why anyone wouldn't use free business software. However, there are some downsides:
- Support can be costly or non-existent. Free software often has a small market share. As a result, if you need help installing and using the software, you may find support from the vendor to be limited, costly or non-existent.
- Lack of familiarity. Your staff are less likely to be familiar with free alternatives to common business software. So although the software costs nothing to acquire, you may have to spend more on user training.
- Non-standard formats. Although many free packages claim to be compatible with comparable commercial software, this isn't usually guaranteed. As a result, you can hit problems when sharing files between apps.
- Future uncertainty. Free software is often developed by volunteers or hobbyist programmers. This means you aren't guaranteed the bug fixes and updates which are standard with commercial software.
You can address some of these issues by using a commercial distribution of an open source package. These offer you a guaranteed level of compatibility, support and service.
This option isn't free, but you can sometimes save money because you only pay for the services you receive, rather than having to cover the software development costs too.
Dangers of free business software
Free software is a tool commonly used by hackers to spread computer viruses and malware. By praying on a collective desire for free stuff, scammers can package harmful viruses within app installations and hide behind the pretence of offering a genuine, free software download.
To avoid such traps, it's vital that you only download free business software from reputable websites. A quick search for the name of the software or vendor on Google should reveal whether or not it can be trusted.
Similarly, some free software is funded by intrusive advertising that only becomes apparent once you've installed the app. Again, we recommend searching online for reviews of the app in question before you install it.
Can you rely on free business software?
You can rely on free business software, providing you choose and use it wisely.
For instance, switching from Windows to a free operating system like Linux would probably involve making substantial changes to your IT systems and retraining staff. But testing a free office suite like OpenOffice.org alongside your standard software might help you understand if you could roll the package out across your company.
Free business software is also ideal when it's hard to justify spending money on software for occasional use. For example, there are several free graphics packages that allow you to edit photographs. Both Paint.NET and GIMP and are fine for occasional work.