What kinds of software do smaller businesses need?

Tuesday, 2006-December-05 at 10:32

Of course there are several general categories to consider.

  • Office suites: You will need to send out letters and other documents.  Although you do not usually need to send attachments (and generally should neither send nor receive e-mail file attachments), there is a need to be able to interchange files occasionally, and therefore, you need to have the ability to use a universal file format.
  • Internet-related software: Web browser, e-mail client, and sometimes other software such as FTP client, directory & authentication server, Web server, Mail server, FTP server, file server.
  • Bookkeeping & accounting software: It is quite a bit faster and a lot less stressful to do the books with software than it is to use handwritten journal entries.  Either is preferable to the process of using guesses, your memory and estimates to give yourself a general feel of where you are financially.
  • Industry-specific general software:  There are some industries where you have to have certain kinds of software (and often specific brands and product versions) in order to compete.
  • Company-specific software: Here is where your business can use its computing resources to gain an advantage over other companies in the industry.

Within each category, there are some things you should be looking for.   Remember that the person who talks to you about your software needs is trying to sell you something.  He (or she) is really looking after his (or her) own needs.  Every once in a while, your needs and theirs will conflict. If your salesperson does not tell you up front that his product or service does not really meet your needs, or that you and your company may have to adapt to the software's ways instead of your established ways, you need to sever any relationship with that salesperson and possibly the company that he or she represents.

With that in mind, here are some recommendations from my mind:

  1. Office suites: Your documents need to be stored in a format that is openly available for whomever wishes to implement.  If not, you could be in trouble when you upgrade your software version a couple of times.  Imagine a long-time client initiates legal action against you after ten years.  You have upgraded your office suite three to four times in that period, and your operating system two to three times.  Can your current software read the early documents that established the parameters of your client's relationship with you?  If not, it may cost you.  The fact is, many proprietary formats (such as .doc, .xls, .ppt) tends to change with each new version of the software.  After a couple of versions, support for older versions tends to be dropped.  Afterward, only they can let you in to your data, and they often are not willing.  The DMCA can actually prevent a skilled programmer from unlocking your data, even though it is your own property, because it is stored in a proprietary format.  For that reason, you should ensure that all of your documents are stored in an open format (currently, the only such formats are the OpenDocument Formats [ODF]).  If you need to send a file to someone outside your company, most ODF-capable office suites can translate your document into some popular proprietary formats.
  2. Internet-related software: You should ensure that your business uses standard formats, such as XHTML/1.0+CSS+JavaScript for the Web, with limited use of proprietary extensions and add-ons.  Your business should use a Web browser that offers advanced support of these standards plus added security options.  For mail servers, you want support for standards such as SMTP, POP3, and IMAP4.  Proprietary extensions can add some nice additional functionality, but at the price of locking you into a particular client.  That lock-in is not good, because it places your business at the mercy of an outside supplier that has its own agenda.  Test out your mail server with at least three different mail client programs.  If it does not work correctly in all of them, you should choose a different server program.  For e-mail clients, again, you want full support for standardized formats. 
  3. Bookkeeping software: I have not personally used any such software, other than an educational model of such software in a computerized bookkeeping/accounting class I took.  However, there are only a few names that you will hear mentioned, such as QuickBooks and PeachTree.  Most businesses should stick with these five or six names.

There is more to come on this fascinating topic. There are some things about which you just have to be passionate. For me, this topic is one of them.

Entry filed under: Computers, Networks, Small Business, Software.

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