Using the Open Source Alternatives

A little over a month ago I posted about using Mozilla Thunderbird as an Outlook replacement, and how our company is planning on transitioning in to using more open source software.   As I said back then, we’re anticipating having a staff that grows by a handful of people each year for the next few years, and – as any small business should be – we’re concerned about software costs.

open source alternatives

So we came up with a plan.  We would have a set of desktop workstations (one to start) that have the full Adobe Creative Suite Master Collection (the $2,500 one) and Microsoft Office Professional 2007.  Our laptops would then use the OSALT (open source alternative).  Aside from that warm and fuzzy feeling you get from using great open source software, this move will save us thousands of dollars each year.  We figure that 95%+ of tasks can be complete with the OSALT, but when we need to use the standard software for better performance or file compatibility we’ll have desktops at our disposal.  The only way this really breaks down is if the 95% doesn’t hold up (in which case we’d probably buy a copy of the software needed for that individual) or if too many people *need* the desktops at one time.

At the time of that post we didn’t have a hard time frame for the transition, but when George purchased a new laptop last month he and I decided it was a good time to go OSALT across the board and give it a shot.  There was certainly a bit of trepidation on our parts, but I’ve gone about a month now with only OSALT software on my laptop and I love it.  More specifically:

  • Hands down I now prefer Thunderbird to Outlook.  If they both cost the same amount, I’d buy Thunderbird. It took some tweaking, but now the Thunderbird/Lightning combination work like a charm and is extremely simple to use.  My absolute favorite part is that the spam filter ACTUALLY WORKS.  I get hundreds of spam messages each day, and I had heard great things about the Thunderbird spam filter so I was really anxious to see how it handled my spam.  After about 2 weeks of marking my spam as it came through I got to the point where I’m no longer greeted with more than a few spam messages each day.  There’s also only been one false-positive thus far.  All in all, much better than what I observed with Outlook.
  • OpenOffice is much more functional than I expected.  It is a legit replacement for the Microsoft Office suite.  I only found two cases where I go over to my desktop and use Microsoft Office:  mail merges in Word that we use to create labels for Faceup postcards, and an advanced filter in Excel for a SportsLizard product upload.  Now, OO has both of those features, but I have templates that I was using in Word/Excel and those don’t quite work the way I want them too without some tweaking.  I also LOVE the “print to PDF” button in all OO software.  No Adobe Acrobat, and no stupid plugins.  PDF integration is sooooo helpful.
  • (with the .PSD file plugin for Photoshop files) also surprised me with how functional it was.  If you’re hard-core into photo editing you’ll still want Photoshop, but for the editing I do for images on the web I find simpler with more intuitive keyboard short-cuts…meaning I work faster.  I used it for putting that image above together and it took about 30 seconds.

In each instance there are things I like better about the Adobe/Microsoft versions of the software, but there are also things I like better about the OSALT.  Considering the OSALT’s have no trouble opening .doc, .xls, .ppt, .psd, etc files, I really can’t see why the normal business user would need the Adobe and Microsoft counterparts.  If you make your life doing data analysis in Excel or graphic design in Photoshop, than you should spring for the real thing.  Otherwise, I say save your cash and go with the OSALT.  I never thought the transition would be this smooth for us, and I’m thrilled that we freed up some extra cash for our company.

9 comments on Using the Open Source Alternatives

  1. Anthony says:

    This is a great article and all very true. To go a step further – you mentioned Thunderbird. However, about a month ago, I switched my entire domain name to Google Apps:
    The goal was to use Outlook with IMAP, and occasionally have the benefit of being able to use the gmail interface remotely and for its search capabilities. However, the gmail interface is just so great that I now use it 99% of the time.

    So, considering you get a great web-based email interface + 5GB of email storage for free, I’d definitely recommend using Google Apps over Thunderbird. And for the simpler word & spreadsheet processing, Google Docs is part of the Google Apps package as well, which is great because it allows you to easily share & collaborate with other people within your domain.

  2. Adam McFarland says:

    Good pts Anthony – you touched on something I didn’t even mention: web based software. I’m pretty sure that’s where going with the OSALT will lead us, because it’s definitely the future.

    Personally, I’m not in love with Gmail, but if my partners are then they should definitely use it instead of Thunderbird…and with Google Doc’s I’m always conflicted between that and Zoho and other options and I’m kind of waiting for a winner to emerge with the most robust features. It’s all so new, and either way we’ll still prb have OO installed because there are occasions when you don’t have web access and still want to work, and because (at least right now) the feature sets for the web based stuff isn’t up to par with OO.

    I also didn’t mention that we’re using Mozy to automatically remotely back up files, which works great so you can access your files anywhere.

    My hope is that the future of PC’s is more like Zonbu where you don’t pay for software at all – you just pay a subscription fee and they update software and backup files for you automatically. I want to get a Zonbu (seems so cool to me), I just don’t know what to use it for at this pt.

  3. Anthony says:

    Yeah, well, I wasn’t in love with Gmail either, which is why I switched to it only for searchability & remote access. After a while of using Gmail, I actually realized that it was just as good, if not better, than Outlook or any open source equivalent.

    Also, in case the point was missed in the shuffle, Google Apps are a newer level of the consumer-level Google interfaces. Google Apps allow you to use your own domain name with the Gmail interface and whatnot. They also, for a very small fee, offer offsite backup solutions & much more. By switching to Google Apps, you take the pressure/expense of email hosting off yourself and hand it over to Google. And in addition, you get the added benefit of the Gmail interface & collaboration tools at your fingertips.

    I’d strongly suggest moving over to it, as you can keep your IMAP/POP email exactly the same as before (using Thunderbird, in your case), but with added benefits such as: Gmail for searchability & remote access (for example, this works great when using a smartphone to access the mobile Gmail interface), shared calendar within your domain so you can see your partners’ schedules and provide them with your’s, a centralized place for simple documents (for example, I use a basic shared spreadsheet as a support log, so that any employee can enter in a log of support hours for the day without the need for a bloated PHP/database-centric solution), and much more.

  4. Adam McFarland says:

    I’ve looked into it before, and I’m not really sure how it benefits US.

    Since we’re receiving email on a whole bunch of domains (PureAdapt, SportsLizard, DetailedImage, etc) it doesn’t make sense to move every domain we receive email on over to it. I think that would just confuse things. In which case we’d probably only do Pure Adapt, which is probably 35% of my email so I’m not sure how much it helps. I could see it solely as a collaboration tool for the owners, but we don’t do much collaboration or scheduling together…the only collaboration I can think of is the Wiki and our web-based project management system (which could probably be replaced by a shared spreadsheet had this been in place a year ago when I built the system).

    And while the backup is nice, we’ve got our server backup, local backups, and now Mozy taking care of that so I’d like to think we’re in pretty good shape.

    Plus I don’t think any of the four of us have ever checked our email remotely (without our laptops of course). We’ve got webmail on our server, but I take my laptop everywhere I work…and when I’m not working I want nothing to do with work emails. No one has a smart phone or anything at the moment.

    Not saying it’s not a great solution…just that I’m having trouble seeing how it helps us.

  5. Anthony says:

    Ah, I see, that makes sense. But I do think that for most entrepreneurs in a more “normal” situation – ie. 1 domain, not a ton of existing systems already in place, the need to check mail from multiple computers or any one of the dozens of internet phones that are cheaper and more common these days – Google Apps is definitely the way to go in combination with or instead of Thunderbird.

    Another thing that I forgot to mention in my last email – a good case for Google Apps is separation of powers. By allowing Google to host, that means your email is up if your web server is down. That’s a huge plus for any internet entrepreneur, I believe.

    … And phone compatibility, I think, is a big thing. I understand that it doesn’t affect you personally, but I believe you’re starting to reach the minority on that count. In my opinion, phone incompatibility is a big downside to using Thunderbird over Outlook or Google Apps – no official/solid support for mobility.

  6. Adam McFarland says:


    It’s been brewing in my head the past few days, and I think we might consider doing it for just our Pure Adapt emails for that reason: we had a few minor server issues this week and it got me thinking about how nice it would be to separate some of our email hosting. I’m going to talk it over with the guys….

    You’re right, the phone compatibility is huge for the general entrepreneur. For whatever reason we’ve all kind of avoided it and since none of us anticipate traveling a ton I *think* the culture we want to instill is “if you’re away from work don’t think about work”. Of course, that could always change 🙂

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