December 30, 2005

Open source software helps online tea vendor

Author: Madhulika Pareek

A couple years ago, I decided to start a Web-based tea business. My hardware decision was already made -- I had an old iMac at home, which was going to become the main business computer. Software was more of a worry. I realized that if I wanted to keep the business on a shoestring, I was going to have to find creative ways of cutting back expenses. For me, the answer was open source software. Many of the open source programs I use are maturing fast, and can now be used as full-featured substitutes for similar proprietary software.

The first thing I did was to make a list of all my software needs. The iMac provides a mail program, address book, and the AppleWorks software which I used for my minor database and writing needs. But for running the business I would need software for HTML coding, a shopping cart, image manipulation and graphics, word processing, and page layout software.

I quickly found competent open source applications on the Web to suit my needs. For example, there was Nvu for HTML authoring, OSCommerce for my shopping cart needs, the GIMP for image manipulation, Inkscape for vector graphics, OpenOffice.org for word processing, and Scribus for page layout. I would just need to find a way to install them onto my computer, and learn to use them.

Once again the Web came to my rescue when I found the Fink project, which is dedicated to porting the Unix software over to Mac. While initially it was quite difficult to understand how Fink worked and how I could set it up (I was a Mac-head, oblivious to how the guts of Unix worked), with a little persistence and help from the Fink mailing list I learned how to use Fink to install Unix programs. A hallmark of the open source movement is that there are many many helpful people who will guide neophytes through the hazards of installing and upgrading open source programs.

Fortunately today things are not so difficult for a Mac user. Most of the programs I just mentioned are now available as native ports, or at least have easy installers for Mac OS even if they use X11 system. Most are also available for Windows too.

For creating my Web site, I found several open source alternatives available. Netscape used to come with a WYSIWG coding module called Composer, which has been developed into a brand new standalone program called Nvu. There are two major advantages to Nvu. One is that it a program fully developed for Mac; it comes with a Mac installer, and has the look and feel of a Mac program. This made installing Nvu a cinch, and using it a pleasure.

While Nvu is a nice enough program, I also wanted to try out a program based on the X11 system. I had great luck with Bluefish, a beautiful program that, in my opinion, competes well with the biggies of HTML coding like BBEdit. It has a clutter-free interface and allows for HTML and PHP coding, among others. Eventually I ended up using Bluefish more than I used Nvu. (I also used another free program called Taco HTML, which is not open source.)

My next need was a shopping cart program. There are several proprietary shopping cart programs available, and I did a thorough search to learn the strengths and weaknesses of each. Eventually, for philosophical reasons as much as for business reasons, I ended up with OSCommerce, an open source shopping cart that uses the open source MySQL database. Rather than install the OSCommerce software myself, I turned to a Web host that provided OSCommerce installation.

Setting up OSCommerce through an automated process was easy, but customizing the site was a different matter. I am still learning PHP, so I knew I would need a lot of help from experts. Luckily, OSCommerce has a fabulous online forum. The dedication of the folks manning the OSCommerce forums is amazing; ask a question and within minutes you will usually have an answer. If I had signed up for a proprietary system, I would have had to pay big bucks for this kind of support, and I know that the level of service would not have been half as good.

Every retail tea business has a catalog. To produce mine, I needed image processing software and page layout software. For image processing, I turned to the GIMP for all our post production processing, and I am quite happy with it. Sure, it would be helpful if it supported CMYK, but hey, my printer told me not to worry, that he would make sure that the production copies would have images that look just like photographs.

Initially I used Fink to install the GIMP, but recently the developers put out an easy installer for Mac which makes the installation a cinch. GIMP still uses X11 on Mac, but now you don't need to use command prompt to use the program. The GIMP is constantly improving and has a great community of helpful volunteers who will walk you through problems. There are also many helpful tutorials on the Web.

For putting the catalog together, I needed a page layout program. I thought of using AppleWorks, but it just was not up to the task. As luck would have it, a new project called Scribus had started just a few months before, and was far enough along for me to try. I am proud to say that I first started using the 0.7 version of Scribus for designing the caddy for my business early last year, which makes us one of the few early business users of Scribus.

Having never used a page layout program, and having never printed any metal caddies before, I found navigating through the terminology used by printers quite a challenge. But the Scribus developers were very helpful, as were the people on the Scribus mailing list, where I kept asking questions. I not only designed our metal caddy on Scribus, but eventually published our catalog, designed our business cards and stationery, and designed bookmarks and promotional materials on Scribus. Scribus has saved us hundreds of dollars in software costs while enabling us to put out high-quality work. It has also allowed us to become self-sufficient, in that we get a lot of design work done in-house, saving ourselves a lot of money.

At the time I started doing all this, Scribus was just a baby. Today, Mac users can take advantage of an easy installer. The program has grown significantly in sophistication. Scribus is a very competent program for small business.

Two other programs deserve a mention here. The OpenOffice.org suite is small business's best friend. We have now completely switched from Microsoft Office to OpenOffice.org. There are still some minor irritations with the newest version, such as the amount of time the program takes to boot up, and the amount of disk space it takes, but those are warts, not barnacles. With the 1.9 version, the developers provided Mac users with an easy installer. Other users on the Web can offer tricks to make the experience more Mac-like, but those are not necessary to enjoy the program's benefits.

Finally, periodically I need a vector graphics program. Until recently I used Sodipodi on X11, but lately I've turned to Inkscape. Inkscape developers recently made an easy installer available for Mac users. When combined with the Open Clip Art project, Inkscape works wonders. I used it to create most of the banners on our Web site (such as this Snowman banner).

We use many other open source programs on a daily basis, from Cyberduck for FTP, to WordPress for blogging, to Thunderbird for email, to Firefox for browsing. Our small business would have needed hundreds of dollars more in startup costs had there been no open source programs available to us.

Jaya Teas has completely migrated over to open source, and we are proud of it. The journey to total dependence on open source has had its pitfalls, but the learning experience has been rich, and along the way I have made many friends in the open source community who have supported us by answering our questions. I feel like I have made a contribution by trying these sometimes experimental products in a business setting. By asking questions and pressing for features, I feel I have helped make the products better than when we started out.

Most important of all, open source movement is a fountainhead of new ideas and creativity. It is the ultimate business model in which the customer is central to how the product gets developed. This kind of symbiotic relationship is what open source is all about.

Category:

  • Business
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