Charging customers no money for a major product may not seem to make much business sense, but that's exactly what a growing number of software companies are doing these days. They're jumping into the so-called open-source market, where giving away hefty and normally pricey programs is the norm, and profits come mainly from selling follow-up technical support, how-to manuals, and periodic updates and add-ons.
The open-source market is a boon to entrepreneurs, who can now get for free what they paid hundreds, or even thousands, of dollars for in the past. Among the products currently available: Web server and browser programs, e-mail packages, sophisticated graphics programs, financial-management titles, a variety of technical programs used mainly by programmers, and Linux (a full-blown operating system for IBM-compatible PCs and other computers).
Open-source, as you might guess, is a truly Internet-driven phenomenon. For one thing, these programs are made available for downloading from the Internet; but unlike shareware, there's no moral obligation to pay. More important, though, anyone can inspect and build on their source codes--the actual computer instructions that normally only a software company's programmers would be allowed to see and modify.
Easily the most visible of the open-source products out there right now is Linux, which is based on a popular program called Unix, with upwards of 10 million copies in use worldwide. It's mainly been popular among hard-core programmers and Microsoft bashers who relish it as an alternative to Windows. Can Linux help small businesses? Most likely. So far, it lacks the polished look and feel of the Macintosh and Windows operating systems, but there are a growing number of office-oriented programs available for it--everything from word processors to spreadsheets and calendaring systems. Most are available at no charge, though you will have to pay for documentation and support.
One of the most promising new open-source apps is designed for both Windows and Linux-based computers: a full-function word processor from AbiSource Inc. (http://www.abisource.com). It's the first step toward a full office-productivity suite that will compete with Microsoft Office. Try it--you just might like it. And if you do, you'll want to buy the book.
John W. Verity reported and edited for 23 years at Electronic News, Datamation and Business Week. Since 1997, he has been freelancing from his Brooklyn, New York, home.