One thing most small and mid-sized businesses will agree upon is the necessity to keep costs down wherever possible -- but without comprising the company's ability to stay productive and competitive.

A potentially costly area is in computer software, whether it's a spreadsheet program, anti-virus protection against malicious threats in cyberspace, or other tools entrepreneurs and businesses might rely upon, including financial applications, online backup, disc burning utilities, or photo editing programs.

“It’s a great time to look for free software,” says Michael Gartenberg, vice president and research director at Jupiter Research, a New York-based technology advisory firm. “There’s so much available, and quality products, ranging from office suites and Web browsers to image editors and sound recorders.”

Office suites

They might not offer the same feature set as Microsoft Word and Excel, but downloadable programs such as Sun Microsystems’ open-source OpenOffice.org or online tools including Google Docs & Spreadsheets are no-cost but powerful alternatives for word processing and spreadsheet management. With Google’s offerings, for example, users simply begin a new document or spreadsheet or import an existing one, including .doc, .rtf, .xls, .odt, .ods, and .csv files. You can access your documents and spreadsheets anywhere in the world you've got an Internet connection and Web browser -- but yes, you need to be online, so you can't work on a sales report while at 30,000 feet (at least you can sync these files with your BlackBerry, though, to continue working on the plane).

“These programs will meet the needs of an average user and are going to do the job really well,” says Gartenberg. “You can do a lot for free.”

Gartenberg says, however, that there are drawbacks. “You often need to be connected to the ‘cloud,’" he says, as in cloud computing, in which dumb terminals need a connection to a network of computers to take advantage of more sophisticated functionality. "They might not have all the bells and whistles found in commercial programs. And you don’t necessarily have a vendor to go to for support if you need it.”

Online storage

Many companies spend hundreds -- or hundreds of thousands -- of dollars on backup solutions to ensure company information is protected against theft, fire, flood, viruses, power surges, or accidental delete.

Depending on the size of your business and the number of files you need to backup, you might opt for online storage, which can help protect from local problems. Microsoft has recently unveiled up to 5 gigabytes (GB) of free storage per month with its new Windows Live SkyDrive. Not only is this password-protected online file storage solution easy to use but you can access your files from any Internet-connected computer in the world, which can prove very handy for you and your traveling employees.

Need to send large files to someone? Along with Windows Live SkyDrive, which also offers a “sharing” feature, try the free YouSendIt.com (with or without the Outlook plug-in) to “e-mail” up to 100 megabits (Mb) of data to someone.

Anti-virus, anti-spyware

Just as you wouldn't leave your front or backdoor unlocked at home, your office PCs be running without decent anti-virus and anti-spyware protection, respectively. Reliable free options exist, including AVG Anti-Virus Free Edition and Avast! for antivirus protection and Ad-Aware 2008 for spyware.

“AVG has a good product for those who want a free alternative to paid software,” says Adam Hils, principal research analyst for security, privacy, and risk at the Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner. “It might not have as deep a feature set as paid antivirus software but does the job for many people.”

Hils mirrors Gartenberg’s cautionary note about the lack of support often found with free software, but advises to look for an online community of users, usually linked or on the product’s webpage, for answers to frequently asked questions and other troubleshooting tips. “Or, in some cases the software is free but the support costs something, which is an option for some businesses,” adds Hils.

Money management and more

Here are some other free programs you might want to try to help your business meet software needs:

  • While it's no Quicken or Simply Accounting, small businesses in need of some finance software might want to check out GnuCash, which runs on Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux. The program handles the management of customers, vendors and jobs, supports double-entry accounting, and can import QIF and OFX files from other accounting programs.
  • Put down that disc burning software package at your local big box retailer -- instead, download JetBee, freebie software that can burn CDs, DVDs, Blu-ray Discs, and HD DVDs. Burn commands can be added as a right-click menu option within Windows.
  • If Adobe's PhotoShop will break the bank but you're in need of decent photo editing tools, consider Google's Picasa, Adobe PhotoShop Express or the powerful GIMP.
  • And before you buy a pricey audio recording suite, be sure to try to download and install the amazing -- and free -- Audacity software.