The Free Software Alternative

Is your software budget pipeline filled with rust? Do your customers, vendors and friends have to save their files in a different file format so you can open them? If your software cabinet looks like it would be a better fit in a software museum, there is hope — hope in free software. There are free software alternatives to most of the commercial ones that you use, and they're compatible with their commercial counterparts.

Cover Your Assets: Still using Microsoft Office 97 because you can't justify an upgrade? Check out the free alternatives to that and other commercial software.

These free alternatives cover the gamut of desktop and server software from word processing to graphics to high-end web application services. There's no need to dip into your life's savings to equip your business with high-quality software.

Office Suite

A typical office suite consists of a word processor, a spreadsheet, a database system, a presentation program and some miscellaneous other utilities. OpenOffice.org (OO.o) is a full office software suite and is compatible with Microsoft Office through version 2003. The 2007 suite formats are still not compatible, but Office 2007 users have the option to save in "compatibility" mode (Office 97-2003) for those that don't have the latest version. OpenOffice.org is as compatible with Office 2007 as any other non-2007 versioned products.

OpenOffice.org's familiar interface perfectly suits those who've worked with Microsoft Office. It has all the familiar menu choices, icons, fonts, shortcuts and formatting options. If you're productive with Microsoft's Office products, you'll feel right at home with OO.o.

Internet Browser

The most used of all desktop applications is the Internet or web browser. Internet Explorer is the default choice on all Windows operating systems but you do have a choice — although Internet Explorer is free and not necessarily a bad Internet browser. If you use Windows, Firefox, Opera and Google Chrome are not your only options. You have at least 10 browsers from which to choose.

Linux users, by default, have Firefox and Konqueror. Most of the other browsers listed above are also available for Linux and Mac OS X.

Server systems, Windows or Linux, rarely need Internet browsers since direct downloads to those systems present security risks. Software delivery to server systems should be handled by some other method, such as a network file share or software distribution system.


Perhaps the second most used computer program is the e-mail client — the software that allows you to download, read and send e-mail. For many users, web browsing and e-mail are the Internet. If you use Microsoft Office, you know about Outlook and Outlook Express as e-mail clients, but there's still hope for those who wish to use something different. You have choices. Evolution (Windows version-Linux ships with Evolution by default), now maintained by Novell, is an e-mail client compatible with Microsoft Exchange Server, Novell's GroupWise and all standard Internet e-mail formats (i.e., SMTP, IMAP and POP3). Evolution provides Microsoft Outlook users with a comfortable replacement for the heavier and more accident-prone Outlook.

Mozilla's Thunderbird is an excellent substitute for Outlook Express but with added features and benefits such as anti-phishing, calendaring and anti-spam filters.


Accounting software is a major pain point for those who wish to switch to free alternatives. Certain commercially available software programs are so good that even well-written, free competitors pale in comparison. Intuit's Quickbooks is one such commercial program that's hard to beat for usability, support and widespread adoption. However, there are some contenders that deserve consideration.

Nola Pro is such an option available for Windows and Linux. Nola Pro is multi-user, web-based, easy to install and use and is secure. There's also an online version that requires no installation (Nola Pro On-Demand) and is available for a monthly fee. GnuCash is another free accounting program for business or personal use that is a replacement for Microsoft Money, QuickBooks and Microsoft's Office Accounting Express.

If Nola Pro or GnuCash don't fill your needs, FreeByte compiled a list of free financial and accounting software for you to check out for yourself.

Server Software

Everyone knows about the Apache web server — the web server that serves more of the world's web sites than any other free or commercial web server. You might not know about two other Apache-related projects built to make life easier on your wallet: Tomcat and Geronimo. Tomcat is a java servlet using java server pages (JSP). It is the reigning standard for JSP delivery. Geronimo is a web application framework comparable to commercial the offerings of BEA's WebLogic and IBM's WebSphere.

If you need an enterprise-level database without the enterprise-level price tag, you must investigate MySQL (now owned by Oracle) and PostgreSQL. Both of these very capable database systems have passionate followings, thus making it difficult to recommend one over the other without rekindling all-out war between the two factions. Be sure to choose between them based on your needs and their features not individual opinions.

If you're looking to replace your Microsoft Exchange Server with something a little less pricey and a lot less dicey, don't get your hopes up — not just yet at least. There is one promising project to duplicate the functionality of Exchange in a free, open source product called OpenChange that might be available for public use and business adoption in early 2010.

To successfully replace commercial software with comparable free or open source versions, you'll have to determine which features are most important to you and which ones you can comfortably live without. Often the barriers to open source development are proprietary and patented protocols and programming. Therefore, some of the "nice-to-have" features of your current commercial software will never appear in their open source counterparts.

Ken Hess is a freelance writer who writes on a variety of open source topics including Linux, databases, and virtualization. You may reach him through his web site at http://www.kenhess.com.

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This article was originally published on May 28, 2009
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