Of all the words that inspire affection in a small-business owner’s heart, few can compete with “free,” especially in this economy, with companies trying to rein in spending as tightly as possible. Still, it is virtually impossible, even in a buyer’s market, to get something for nothing when it comes to enterprise software.
On the other hand, PC utilities — small programs that perform specific, narrowly defined tasks — can be a great alternative in some cases, allowing small businesses to stretch their IT dollars. Although these businesses have a variety of different systems and needs, just like bigger companies, buying giant software suites can feel like overkill. Using utilities instead of bloated applications can help boost the bottom line — and many of these tools are not only free, but also time-tested and useful.
Utilities can take many forms, but they typically are used to streamline processes that need only a minor fix. They also can be slightly more expansive in terms of functionality. For example, a small firm that needs an HTML editor does not have to employ a major solution, such as FrontPage or DreamWeaver. A freeware utility can do the trick.
Not all free utilities are useful, however. Some companies release freeware but later choose to discontinue it or make it pay-to-play. Other utility software providers go the way of Pets.com after only a few years in business. So, which PC utilities are worth installing?
Not Just a Test
Like for-pay software, every free utility has different characteristics and functions that help users work more efficiently.
One such program, NoteTab Light, is a Notepad replacement and HTML editor that is a slimmer version of NoteTab Pro, an application that costs US$19.95. It allows users to cut and paste chunks of text from different files and set up a paste board that automatically saves these clips. It also can strip HTML tags from a document, and users can set up text macros. As some small businesses will appreciate, the program can be customized with different features.
Why is such a tool free? Eric Fookes, the developer of the software, said he created it as a test program to familiarize himself with a new programming environment. Now, the application is used as a gateway to his other offerings, which come at a price.
He told the E-Commerce Times that NoteTab attracts faithful and dedicated users that have formed a community to help other users. Small businesses just like it because it works, he added, noting, “They often find that NoteTab enables them to perform tasks that were done manually or required multiple, sometimes expensive, tools.”
Still UUencoding After All These Years
Another freeware utility called WinCode, archived on the Tela Communications site, UUEncodes and UUDecodes files. Jill Swift at Tela told the E-Commerce Times that the software was once wildly popular and almost a requirement in business. “Its heyday was when different e-mail software required users to choose between Mime, Binhex or UUencoding to send file attachments,” she explained.
WinCode now is considered ancient by some users, since the number of options for sending e-mail attachments has increased. However, Swift said the software is still in use, and in some circumstances it can decode troublesome attachments where other software fails.
Swift added that she makes WinCode available on Tela’s site because the developer dropped out of sight and the software became almost impossible to find.
“It’s not any sort of bother,” she said, “and once in a while someone writes and says, ‘Thank you for making it available.'”
Sea of Options
Yet another utility, 602Pro PC Suite, is a free alternative to Microsoft Office that consists of four applications: a word processor, photo editor, spreadsheet and photo organizer. It uses the Word document format and also can open plain text, rich text and HTML files. Although it is not as jam-packed with features as its pricey kin, the suite is designed to be a simple alternative to Office, and users seeking stripped-down elegance will like the price tag.
Of course, the programs mentioned above are just the tip of the iceberg. There are literally thousands of shareware and freeware utilities available. Many of them can be downloaded from VersionTracker, a virtual warehouse of software. With new offerings posted each day, the site contains a wealth of useful programs within its digital walls.
However, although free utilities can help a company minimize costs and maximize efficiency, not all software is created equal. Helen Chan, a senior analyst at the Yankee Group, told the E-Commerce Times that small businesses should be aware of the limitations of free utilities.
“The downside is that sometimes they don’t know how to use them, or they could use them in a way that’s detrimental,” she said. “They could waste a lot of time on figuring out these different tools.”
Chan also cautioned that some freeware developers may be here today but gonetomorrow. “There’s a danger that if you’re working with a provider, they may not have sufficient resources to last.”
It is true that utilities may not be the only low-cost option for a small business. Gartner research director Mika Krammer told the E-Commerce Times that small firms can expect to see a rush of targeted products in the coming months.
“There’s a mass movement among most IT vendors to offer something to small businesses,” she said, noting that a significant portion of IT spending occurs in this sector. “The large enterprise market is saturated, so [vendors are] reusing their code and shaping it in different ways.”
However, even software tailored for small businesses is likely to carry a relatively hefty price tag if it is sold by a large vendor. Free utilities, in contrast, can be tried and then discarded if they are not suitable, with little revenue lost. Krammer suggested that small businesses considering utilities ask their peers for software recommendations or contact users who are running the freeware in question via message boards or e-mail.
“Small businesses have to be careful if they’re depending on something that’s free,” she said. “Sometimes you get what you pay for.”
For companies that can find a solid utility provider that seems built to last, however, there is nothing like the budget boost of freedom.