The best freeware for small businesses

Looking to trim your IT budget? Start with your PC software.

For too many people, the phrase "free software" conjures up images of pirated brand-name applications or poorly supported third-class programs. If that's what you think of freeware, you're missing an opportunity to save your business a lot of cash.

While most of your employees will be more familiar with heavily marketed commercial programs such as Microsoft Office (let's call this class "payware"), they won't take long to learn how to use freeware alternatives such as LibreOffice.

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For this roundup, I'll examine five software categories of significant interest to small businesses--productivity suites, photo editors, website design programs, project management tools, and computer management utilities--and name the best freeware alternatives to the most well-known payware packages in each.

Productivity Suites

Payware: Microsoft Office 2010

Cost: $350 per PC for Microsoft Office Professional 2010; $200 per PC for Microsoft Office Home and Business 2010

Freeware: LibreOffice, Thunderbird, Google Calendar, Google Drive

Cost: $0

Although no suite matches Microsoft Office feature for feature, LibreOffice comes pretty close, offering free alternatives to Microsoft Word (Writer), Excel (Calc), and PowerPoint (Impress). These applications support standard Office file extensions too, so you won't encounter any problems opening a Microsoft Word document with a .docx file extension or a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet with an .xls file extension and converting them into LibreOffice Writer files (with the .odm file extension) and LibreOffice Calc spreadsheets (with the .ods file extension) respectively.

Note, however, that LibreOffice is an imperfect replacement for Office, since it lacks two critical features: It has no built-in email client (that is, an Outlook alternative), and LibreOffice applications aren't 100 percent compatible with Office. You'll find that it's difficult to jump back and forth between the two systems and maintain a perfect look--and more important, macro compatibility--in your files.

To solve the email issue, I suggest using another freeware program such as Mozilla's Thunderbird for client-based email, or Google's Gmail for Web-based email. You'll need to bundle either of those tools with something like Google Calendar for managing appointments and sending meeting invitations, because Thunderbird doesn't have that functionality by default, and Google Calendar tends to work much better than Mozilla's calendar app, Lightning.

Tech support for LibreOffice and Thunderbird is community driven. That means it's free, but you're at the mercy of your peers if you run into problems. Google provides support for cloud-based services, but only if you sign up for its Apps for Business program, which costs $5 per user per month.

Photo Editing

Payware: Adobe Photoshop CS6

Cost: $699

Freeware: GIMP, Paint.net, Photoshop Express Editor

Cost: $0

As with so many commercial applications that have been on the market for years on end, it's difficult to find a perfect, free replication of the entire feature set you'll find in Adobe's Photoshop CS6. Having said that, GIMP (GNU Image Manipulation Program) and Paint.net are two of the best free alternatives. Each does a fairly good job of allowing you to perform basic to intermediate manipulations of photos and graphics.

What's missing? A strong user interface, for starters. If you've used Photoshop at all, you'll find yourself longing for its rock-solid UI. Depending on the level of manipulation you need to perform on your photos or graphics, you might find GIMP and Paint.net to be more difficult to use at best, and completely lacking at worst. Photoshop also delivers more power-user features, ranging from its extensive collection of filters and third-party add-ons to its Content Aware Fill.

You'll find some third-party add-ons for GIMP, but most developers dedicate their efforts to income-producing projects. When you come right down to it, GIMP and Paint.net more closely match Adobe's $100 Photoshop Elements. What's more, you won't find much in the way of third-party training for either GIMP or Paint.net; help comes in the form of support from the user community.

Nevertheless, you should ask yourself if you really need all the power that Photoshop delivers--don't buy a baseball bat to crack open a peanut. If you need to crop photos, adjust color balances, cut and snip elements, or futz around with layers, GIMP or Paint.net will fit the bill.

If you have only basic photo-editing needs, you might consider Adobe's Photoshop Express Editor at Photoshop.com. Using this simple online-only tool, you can import images and run a few tweaks (including resizing, cropping, red-eye removal, color adjustments, and a handful of effects) for free. You can't do much more than that, including any kind of manipulation that requires you to run a cursor over your image (erasing, cloning, painting, and so on). When you're finished, you can save your edited photo to your computer or share it on Photoshop.com, Facebook, Flickr, and several other services.

Next Page: Free Tools for Website Design, Project Management, and More

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