Important though hardware is, Software is the key to successful systems.
The Ubiquitous Office Suite
Microsoft's Office suite remains the default option for basic office productivity tasks, and is now enhanced by cloud offerings and ever increasing functionality and usability. Security and confidence in the platform used are critical, and in both small and large businesses we are finding an increasing use of free services and shared resources, without an understanding of the privacy issues involved. Please see our Security page for more information, however as a general guide, services that are free or shared generally will use your information in one way or another to monetise their business. Some lower cost paid offerings also write into their terms of business a provision for using your information. This is not necessarily a bad thing; for a startup with low confidentiality requirements the free services can be a very valuable resource, providing the risks and limitations are understood. The cost of a full Office suite has increased recently, however for heavy users there is still no credible alternative to a locally installed software version.
Open Source Office Suites
For users that primarily produce and work on word and spreadsheet documents, LibreOffice can provide a good alternative. Unfortunately there is no single alternative we are aware of that provides email, calendar and tasks with an Exchange server.
Business Accounting, CRM and ERP
Many small businesses may have started using spreadsheets for accounting, and migrated to a dedicated program such as Sage Accounts. Customer records may have been held on cards, in Outlook, on a mobile phone or in the salesman's head.
Larger organisations may have been sold a software system that does everything (except that it doesn't), at least not in any recognisable form and reasonable timeframe.
In both cases the first thing you need to do is define what your requirements really are, separating the 'nice to have' from the essentials.
For a micro business, running an accounting program on a PC with customer records in Outlook may be the most cost effective answer, just be careful to back up your information.
For larger businesses a system that combines accounting, CRM, and sometimes other functions such as purchasing, manufacturing, HR and vehicles can create a genuinely substantial gain in productivity. The cost of this system is very dependent on how much customisation a standard system package needs to fit your business.
Windows XP is fast approaching end-of-life, not bad for a system launched in 2001 when a typical PC spec would have been 366MHz processor (single core), 64MB RAM, and an 8GB hard disc.
Windows 7 has proved to be a stable OS that satisfies most needs, has good hardware compatibility and is very widely supported. Windows 8.1 is now out and further improves on earlier versions for security and speed.
Linux operating systems continue to provide an alternative for servers and specific desktop applications, and expect to see further developments of Android and Linux on smartphones, able to provide a full desktop computing experience as devices get more capable.
We have been working with this open source product for four years now, and are not looking back. The issues of defined and hard to change system functionalty and layout, limited partner resources and associated spiralling costs have gone, to be replaced by the challenges of actually defining what each business process needs, and implementing it. It is not the fact of reduced (zero) outlay cost in the deployment that is significant, so much as the flexibility and controllability of the ongoing costs and direction of the system.
Practically speaking the advantages of having no software to install, and being device independant, are a game changer - the system is accessible on anything that can reach the internet, from anywhere in the world (should you configure it to be so). Speed of access of data is another major plus - being SQL based and well optimised large numbers of records and asymetric searches are not able to slow the response time down significantly.
Much has been written and no doubt will be for many years as to the merits and issues of open source software, but the hardening reality is that for both operating systems and applications, for complex line of business applications and specialist programmes, the availability of commercial support, coupled with generally available first line answers has trumped the traditional commercial model for value readiness and performance.
From a business perspective, it is mission critical to understand the basis on which the open source software in question is offered. Generally the information secured by the supplier, or the paid service or functionality made available is the key, and this may run counter to the businesses requirements, or may not be relevant, it just needs to be made clear.
Whether it's Google or Apple or free software, we've got some fantastic competitors and it keeps us on our toes. - Bill Gates
F Whether you beleive it is the best browser or not, Mozilla's achievement in producing a platform that the world uses extensively, that supports a vast range of extensions to add a variety of functionalities, and that works across most operating systems is a striking testimony to teh power of open source, backed by vision and creativity.
G Many examples coudl be offered, but the GIMP image manipulation programme is an excellent cross platform tool that stands up well to comparison with commercially developed standards.
A In the audio world, Audacity stands out as a cross platform audio editor that jsut works, and again allows a limitless variety of add-ons to perform tasks that are very specific to applications.