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Nathan Upchurch

Free Software is the Future for SMEs and Small Nonprofits

Nathan Upchurch,

If you're a cottage industry solopreneur, a cricut hobbyist, or a makerspace regular, you've probably heard of Inkscape. Often dismissed by design professionals as a poor substitute for fully fleshed out design tools or simply "not industry standard," this 19 year old vector graphics powerhouse allows artists, designers, scrapbookers and makers alike to create high quality graphics and illustrations that can be used anywhere, from the browser to printed collateral and laser-etched goods. Inkscape, like many other free and open source software (FOSS) projects, has been taking great strides in recent years to match, if not surpass, commercial alternatives in terms of features, output, and usability. FOSS users have long been privy to a a world of software all but unknown to those who have never ventured from the comfort of Microsoft, Adobe, Alphabet, and Oracle, or the shimmering walled-garden of the Apple ecosystem. It hasn't always been easy, pretty, or even stable, but these days free and open source software projects are more organized, better funded, and more accountable than ever before, and people are starting to take notice.

FOSS offers a level of flexibility and transparency that proprietary mainstays can't or won't provide. #

As free and open source software becomes increasingly attractive to small businesses and nonprofits due to expanding feature-sets and improved user-interfaces, the principles at the core of its creation, perhaps counterintuitively, render projects such as Inkscape ideal for a business environment. While those unfamiliar with the concept of FOSS projects may interpret "free" to reflect its pricing structure, developers can and do charge for access to their products. Instead, the "F" in FOSS represents the freedom to run the program however you want, to study how it works, to change it, and to redistribute copies. FOSS software, in addition, must also publish its source code publicly. This radically transparent approach, beyond the obvious implication that FOSS software is vastly more flexible than proprietary mainstays, can have a tremendous effect on security and privacy, both key with software present on devices containing sensitive employee information, intellectual property, and credentials. While the dialogue surrounding digital privacy has almost exclusively focused on individual users, as we're now aware of the ability of marketers, campaigns, (or even John Oliver) to purchase highly targeted, fine-grained data for any purpose, it's only a matter of time before more organizations begin to consider the implications of the potential for proprietary software to indiscriminately collect employee web-searches, map routes, downloads, and discussions to turn into data-points available for purchase by anyone with the budget, such as competitors, marketers, journalists, or government and regulatory bodies, domestic and abroad.

This is where FOSS starts to make a lot more sense from a privacy perspective; because human-readable source code is generally transformed, or compiled, into a more efficient language that can only be read by computers before software is distributed to users, FOSS software authors publish their human-readable source code publicly, enabling anyone to review it. In contrast, companies behind proprietary software do not publicly publish their source code, making it almost impossible to understand precisely how their software works, or what it's doing at any given time. We already know that just about all big names in tech collect private data; we either shrug our shoulders and make peace with it, or we suffer through innumerable privacy policies, settings, sliders, and toggles, and still itch a little afterwards. But what about the tools we use every day that don't have a privacy policy? What about your picture viewer, your file browser, or even your calculator app? The stringent efforts of even the most militant IT departments to block users from installing unapproved software are moot in the face of the fact that we have no way of truly knowing what even the most fundamental software tools from trusted brands are actually doing on the devices that we use to do our work each day. By enabling public access to its source code, free and open source software can see have dozens, hundreds or even thousands of tech-savvy users pointing out security flaws to be fixed, alerting developers to bugs, and raising alarm bells about potential privacy issues.

Individual users and small organizations can directly influence development of the FOSS tools they use every day. #

The focus on transparency in FOSS software engenders a culture of collaboration all but alien to organizations accustomed to proprietary solutions. Successful projects build communities of developers and other contributors, who are each free to work in their own way. Some contributors are individuals who stop by to implement a feature they wish a project had, while others are teams paid by large enterprises to improve open source projects that form a part of their digital infrastructure. Some individuals simply work on FOSS projects as a hobby, and others, like Inkscape's Martin Owens, are freelance developers who collect donations to work on bug fixes and features using donor feedback to prioritize their tasks and steer their work. Martin regularly uploads videos on his YouTube channel and Patreon to fill in donors on the latest Inkscape updates and development work, and uses polls to allow them to vote on which features should be prioritized for the next release. Donors can message him directly, for technical support, questions, or suggestions. Developers on Inkscape and other FOSS projects can be reached via public mailing lists and chat channels, and software users often interact directly with them via bug reports and feature requests. This makes each user a potential collaborator in the development of the tools they use.

Only a few weeks ago, I filed a feature request for Kasts, a desktop app that syncs and plays podcasts. After a discussion with one of the developers, they eventually sent me a link to test the feature, which is now in the latest release. This culture of collaboration represents a unique opportunity for SMEs and nonprofits that may not have the budget for custom enterprise solutions. So long as organizations understand and respect the culture, a reasonable donation budget and a willingness to collaborate can open avenues for smaller organizations to work with developers, freelancers, designers, and others within FOSS projects to work towards better experiences and expanded feature sets. Whether this takes the shape of donating a sum in support of the project, and participating by filing competent bug reports and feature requests, or directly commissioning a developer on the project to design and implement a needed feature, needed funds are usually a far cry away from big-budget proprietary-software customizations, and having the option to even speak to a developer at all is a breath of fresh air when compared to the usual experience dealing with sales representatives and account managers. Of course, commercial users of free and open source software must temper their expectations; as with proprietary software, there are no guarantees that the project will go in the direction you'd like, and FOSS projects have no obligation to provide support or develop suggested features no matter how much you donate.

Many FOSS projects have long been ready for professional and enterprise use. #

Beyond privacy, security, and collaboration potential, FOSS alternatives are getting better by the day. Many open source projects are being developed at a breakneck pace while receiving major corporate support, and projects strictly manned by volunteers are more organized than ever before. An uptick in donations sees some projects considering diverting a portion of donated funds to outsourcing some of the more arduous development tasks less likely to be quickly tackled by volunteers. While FOSS projects such as GNU/Linux based operating systems and the software written for them have long played a critical role in the world's digital infrastructure, often even serving as the base upon which commercial products are built, free software is no longer resigned to the server room, with consumer products such as Valve's Steam Deck being based on projects such as the Arch Linux desktop operating system and KDE's Plasma desktop environment, a computer graphical user interface that looks good enough to compete with large commercial players like Microsoft's Windows Shell and Apple's Aqua, and flogs both of them when it comes to flexibility and customization. It is not uncommon for free-of-charge FOSS projects such as Inkscape to now boast a feature-set comparable, or as in the case of Inkscape, even exceeding that of their paid competitors, and large communities such as those of GNOME and KDE have developed extensive collections of software that can take the place of hundreds of proprietary software tools at zero cost.

As organizations begin to see FOSS benefits, big tech is likely to begin losing market share. #

While big names in tech continue to erode user privacy and ownership of their software via expanding data collection and subscription models that see users unable to use a PDF reader without connecting to the internet, knowledge of FOSS projects is becoming less and less of the domain of the hyper tech-literate. Our world has already become one in which feature-rich, fast, and well designed free and open source software can replace most black-box proprietary solutions, and for SMEs and nonprofits in the know, the flexibility, privacy expectations, and price-point makes FOSS an extremely attractive proposition. Tech giants won't lose sluggish enterprise clients any time soon, but the writing is on the wall for the many smaller organizations without the budgets for multi-million dollar IT contracts, unless they do something fast.

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