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.
Fix Me Up
The countdown to 2000 continues. Are your business's computer systems in order, ready for the millennium? Chances are yes, according to a nationwide survey conducted by Irvine, California-based Sage Software Inc. (http://www.sage.com). In May, Sage found that 55 percent of the small businesses it polled had already ironed out any potential Y2K problems in their systems, and another 38 percent were working on the problem. So if you haven't yet tackled Y2K, you can rest even uneasier, knowing your competitors probably already have. The average amount being spent on such work: $16,600 per business, including the costs of internal and external employees, software and hardware fixes, and overall company support. Says Dave Butler, Sage Software president and COO, "It appears that Y2K repair costs, once expected to cripple the small-business market, are being kept in check." Let's hope so.
Check out http://linux.davecentral.com for an up-to-date listing and smart reviews of many open-source programs. Or, for a book-length discussion on the topic, you can read OpenSources: Voices From the Open Source Revolution (O'Reilly & Associates) at the publisher's Web site (http://www.oreilly.com/catalog/opensources/book/toc.html). And at http://www.linux.com, run by VA Systems, a supplier of Linux-based PCs, there's more Linux news than you might ever need.