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Free Software You Should Consider

There's a range of free software and services available to small business owners. Here's where to get it and some advice on when you should just pay.

In your day-to-day operations you probably use software for a variety of purposes, ranging from e-mail to accounting. Much of this software you can be using for free. But before you get too excited and think you should build your entire business on free software, take a step back.

While free software cuts down on expenditures, it often comes with minimal or no support. If the software you're using is a critical part of your business operations, consider paying for it to get support.

Office Productivity--competes with Microsoft Office, Corel Word Perfect
Open Office is a software suite that contains word processor, spreadsheet, presentation, illustrator, database and mathematical equation creator modules. If you don't want to pay hundreds of dollars for a competing product, Open Office is a viable option.

Customer Relationship Management--competes with Salesforce.com, Microsoft CRM
Sugar CRM is open source software that provides robust sales management, marketing automation, customer support and reporting capabilities. If you find that you're managing your customer relationships using your PDA, e-mail address book or maybe the back of a napkin, you need a system that's more robust and has more features.

Website and Domain Name--competes with Yahoo! Web Hosting, GoDaddy.com
Although half or more of small businesses have an online presence, there are still thousands of small businesses that don't. Microsoft Office Live is a three-tiered service that offers an online presence. Its first level of service is free and includes a domain name, web hosting, e-mail hosting and $50 credit for online advertising. If you're not online yet, you can't beat this offer.

E-mail Hosting--competes with Webmail.us, Mi8.com, Kerio, Microsoft Exchange
E-mail is one of the most important services your business needs. You can pay a monthly fee for a hosted e-mail service, or you can host your e-mail server yourself and pay for someone on your staff or a local techie to manage it for you.

Google has a service--Google Apps--that offers smaller businesses free e-mail hosting. You get up to 2 GB of storage per user.

Blue Tie also offers a free e-mail hosting service. You can sign up 20 users and every one of them gets 5GB of storage.

PDF Creation--competes with Adobe Acrobat
Want to create a PDF document instead of merely reading them? Then you'll need a PDF creator. You can buy Adobe Acrobat, or you can download the free Primo PDF creator, which is what I use. Once you download it, you'll be able to begin creating PDF documents.

There's also a lot of software you can download to try out for free. If you're satisfied with it, you can then buy the full version of the software after a certain number of days--usually 15 or 30. If you don't pay for the software, it will lock up or revert to a reduced-use mode. Download.com is a great resource for this. Look not just for large software packages, but also for add-on software that can boost your productivity. You can often find quality add-on software for your gadgets--BlackBerry, Treo and iPod--as well.

There are some things, however, you shouldn't skimp on, such as you business' security, something you definitely shouldn't take lightly. Make sure your security is as robust as possible and be willing to pay for the software, hardware or services and local consultant to implement it properly.

Ramon Ray is editor of SmallBizTechnology.com and author of Technology Solutions for Growing Businesses.

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