It used to be that the prospect of running your shop without Microsoft went against the very idea of being in business. Every application you might have needed (e-mail, spreadsheets, word processing) was dominated by Microsoft.
But the times are a changin’. In this new Web-centric world, there are enough good options available to fulfill just about any mission-critical function your business has without relying on Microsoft Office or Apple OS X.
Most recommended solutions fall into one of two universes: the Linux, or open-source solutions; or Web-hosted applications from companies such as Google. Indeed a combination of Web-hosted and Linux-based strategies seems to be the most popular path.
There are three main categories of “business processes” that you’ll need your software to handle: 1) finance and bookkeeping; 2) office management, anything from human resources to calendaring; and 3) development. This last category usually applies to you if your business is writing software, and the most sophisticated of the non-Microsoft software is designed to do just this: Red Hat Linux offers Red Hat Developer, and Ubuntu Linux has KDeveloper for the KDE environment and the GNOME development platform.
The sand trap for small businesses is the dearth of adequate non-Microsoft products for running financials and for managing office operations. It’s one thing to buy developer tools, but quite another to transfer your company’s accounts receivable from the security of a client-server product, such as Intuit’s QuickBooks Pro, to a Web-hosted application run by a startup with a name like Intacct Express, NolaPro, or Peachtree.
“We just don’t feel comfortable hosting our financial data on another company’s [Web] service,” says Box Populi founder Chris Dawson. His company builds podcasting devices out of old PCs for schools and churches in Portland. “What if their servers went down?”
But QuickBooks, for one, now comes in all flavors, including a Linux version (starting as low as $3,000) or as a Web-hosted “software service,” QuickBooks Online Edition (starting at $9.95 a month). There are free Ubuntu Linux products to choose from, too, such as GnuCash (for the GNOME format) and KMyMoney (for the KDE format).
What about choices for office management? Ubuntu Linux’s KOrganizer has a popular calendar application that functions like a Palm for the desktop. For e-mail, stick with Google Mail since the Ubuntu Linux products won’t be available to you on your mobile device when you’re traveling. But also check out a company called Airena, the fourth startup from the founder of Geoworks, Brian Dougherty. (Geoworks developed operating systems for Mac, AOL, and PDAs, including Palm.)
Airena has developed an incredibly user-friendly Web-hosted platform for organizing all of your life’s activities, including your business commitments. It is “the Microsoft Office of group coordination,” Dougherty said.
Imagine a personalized portal with tabs for your various types of appointments: company conference schedule, running club, kids’ soccer team schedule, and spouse’s work travel. Each tab is like its own home page, with contact lists, a communications widget, and even a place to build a blog for each of your “groups.” You can invite your groups to interact with one another. You could even create tabs for your clients to better communicate with them.
Perhaps the best feature, however, is Airena’s robust interactive calendar. With a click you can integrate your meeting schedule, each of your employees’ vacation schedules, and all your family’s extracurricular events into one color-coded page. Try Airena; the main software is free, and best of all, you can have it sync to your mobile device for $6.49 a month if your service is Verizon, or $2.99 if you are a Cingular subscriber.
Despite advances such as Ubuntu or Airena, there will remain cultural barriers to advancing beyond the behemoth in Redmond, says software developer Andrew Dale. “I think this is partially a matter of upbringing … I grew up on Microsoft Office, so my comfort level and productivity in those applications is huge,” he says.
Dale is the founder and CEO of a Berkeley, California–based developer shop called ooTao, a four-man consultancy that helps other businesses build software for managing their distributed data and identity systems. The company uses Red Hat Linux on its servers but sticks with Windows on its design-friendly Macs. “To learn new products is slow and painful; time and energy I can’t afford. There is also a simple interoperability reality: I can send anyone an Excel spreadsheet file and know that they are going to be able to open it and read it [which means] more time and effort saved.”
Dale does use Google Documents for spreadsheets in-house. But he says they won’t take the big leap of “switching over” and using Google Documents externally because they can’t rely on customers getting it.
“Even if the Google [spreadsheet] does all of the same stuff, I’m sure the menus are laid out differently and the options are different and it’s another URL, another username and password.” It is too much to ask of ooTao’s customers.
This brings up one last important sticking point for many small businesses: Vendors have to use products that are compatible with their clients’ systems, tastes, and needs if they want to keep them as customers, which is just one more reason why displacing a standard-bearer such as Microsoft is so hard.