Linux for a Small Business

If you're self-employed or run a small shop, here are some office applications you should be using.

In a recent article, an author asked a question: “Is Linux ready for mission-critical production environments in the enterprise?” His answer was an unqualified yes, which shouldn't be too surprising. Anyone who has ever heard of Linux knows of its legendary strengths in the server space. A better question—at least from a writer's perspective—would be: “Is Linux ready to handle the day-to-day demands of a small, home-based writing or consulting business that doesn't have an IT staff?”

Improved hardware detection and ease-of-use distributions such as Mandrake, SuSE and Red Hat have helped Linux make its way onto more desktops than ever before. Add to this the constant refinement of Linux applications, such as office suites, e-mail clients, contact managers, fax clients, web browsers and financial software, and you have a system that places viable alternatives into the hands of every writer and consultant.

I made this discovery almost a year ago. In the spring of 2002, I took inventory of the software I used to run my commercial writing business and found that Linux provided me with a viable, free alternative to every proprietary application I used. This fact, combined with the stability and security of Linux, made the decision to move my small business to the platform an easy one. And I haven't looked back.

Maybe you're a writer or consultant who is seriously thinking about alternatives, as I once did. Or perhaps you've heard of Linux but aren't sure exactly which applications to use. In this article, I provide an overview of four programs found in any Linux distribution that a writer or consultant can use to run a business. Space does not allow me to cover every feature of each application. But I hope to cover enough of the basics so the reader has a good feel for what these applications can do and how they can be used in a small business.

The Linux applications I'm about to discuss may not have all of the features of their proprietary counterparts. That is, applications provided under Linux have the same functionality but not necessarily the same bells and whistles. We shouldn't be concerned with bells and whistles here, but rather with using tools that allow us to get our work done at a relatively low cost and in a stable, secure environment. If that's what you're looking for, read on.

Tools of the Trade

A small writing or consulting business has minimum requirements where software is concerned. I suppose that's one of the perks of this type of endeavor. The following applications are typically the most commonly used in the operation of a small, home-based writing or consulting business: an office suite, a contact manager/e-mail client, a web browser and financial software. Anything more is gingerbread.

OpenOffice.org

OpenOffice.org is my office suite of choice. It is 100% open source, runs on several platforms and is freely available at www.openoffice.org. One of the OpenOffice.org suite's greatest strengths is its use of XML-based file formats. XML is a structured metalanguage that easily can encapsulate files for distribution between computer systems that otherwise would be incompatible. So, the longevity of your data is guaranteed.

The OpenOffice.org suite consists of four different applications: OpenOffice.org Writer, OpenOffice.org Calc, OpenOffice.org Impress and OpenOffice.org Draw.

OpenOffice.org's Writer is the word processor in the suite. Its interface has a familiar look and feel; it's similar to Microsoft Word and Sun's StarOffice Writer (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Doing My Assignment

As a commercial writer I use only about 10-15% of a word processor's power. My clients do most of the graphic design and formatting. From business letters and proposals to articles and books, OpenOffice.org Writer is more than enough to get my work done.

The Writer interface is intuitive and laid out in a manner conducive to finding what I need when I need it. It has everything necessary for today's established freelance writer/consultant and then some, and it saves data in several file formats, including Microsoft Word 6, Microsoft Word 95, Microsoft Word 97/2000/XP, rich text format (RTF) and StarWriter 5 (an early StarOffice file format). It even exports PDFs.

One caveat: if you use a lot of tables or special formatting, some of it may be lost or garbled when exporting to Microsoft Word or another office suite. A good rule of thumb is the simpler your layout, the better its compatibility with other word processors.

Because the needs of a writer are few, I hardly use the other programs in the OpenOffice.org suite. But as far as spreadsheets go, OpenOffice.org's Calc has all of the ordinary features one would expect in a spreadsheet, including autosum, autoformat, graphs and many other functions. It saves work in Microsoft Excel, StarCalc, the Data Interchange Format and, of course, in its own format (Figure 2).

Figure 2. The OpenOffice.org Calc Spreadsheet

OpenOffice.org's Impress, a presentation program, has all of the basic features of Microsoft PowerPoint, but it lacks templates. This lack of templates makes more work for you when designing presentations. Impress reads and writes PowerPoint, StarImpress and its own file format (Figure 3).

Figure 3. Building a Presentation

The drawing application, Draw, has all of the usual graphic features, including the ability to read the most common types of graphic files. It saves to OpenOffice.org's Draw format and the StarDraw format, and it is good for basic needs (Figure 4).

Figure 4. Drawing a Graph

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Great to see OpenOffic.org

SteveT's picture

Great to see OpenOffic.org get a mention on this excellent blog. This software is really good and offers a good free alternative to students and small business owners alike. Thanks.

Steve from Business Ideas.

Web site address change

Gary L Maxwell's picture

Hello! My name is Gary Maxwell the author of this article. Just writing to let you know that my web site address has changed to: www.garymaxwellonline.com.

For questions or comments you may email at: gary@garymaxwellonline.com.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Thanks for a very well

uldics's picture

Thanks for a very well written rewiev. It convinced me for using GnuCash. The programs help system seems to be a good help for small business starters.

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