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Why you shouldn't wait for the perfect open source Windows-apps replacement

The issues faced when migrating from Microsoft to Linux desktops

By Dave Kearns, Network World
April 20, 2006 01:59 PM ET
Kearns

Last issue we began to explore the issues involved in moving from a Windows-based desktop with Microsoft proprietary apps to a Linux desktop with open source apps. Novell had announced a project to do that internally back in March 2004, and has now moved all of its employees to a Linux desktop - albeit for the majority of them one that can dual boot to Windows. One reason could be the unavailability of open source apps that include all of the functionality of the Microsoft apps they would replace, and we talked about that in the last issue.

A second problem is backwards compatibility. You've got thousands, maybe millions, of documents created with various versions of Microsoft applications over the years. You still need to be able to open those docs and read them. Perhaps they also need to be maintained so that people can write to them.

Many organizations have standardized on a particular format for writing Microsoft Office documents to preserve the ability for everyone to be able to open them, read or write to them, then save them again. Even me. I write this newsletter in "Word 6/95" format. It supports all of the functionality I need, and is readable by just about any version of a word processor application released in the past 6 years. This doesn't mean, though, that any new word processor I install needs to read/write that format. Reading Word 95 and writing some newer format would suffice. But even if it couldn't read Word 95, it would only take a few moments to write a script that would open every Word 95 document I have and convert it (with no loss of functionality) to some newer format. That solution might have a much lower cost (in terms of both time and money) than continuing to pay Microsoft's huge licensing fees.

Then there's the issue of training. The standard thinking is that you need open source apps that have the same "look and feel" as the Microsoft apps they're replacing. But logic tells you (as does trademark, copyright and patent law!) that the new app won't be 100% equivalent. It's been my experience that 95% equivalent is a lot more irritating than 25%. Here's my reasoning: With a new look and feel, you spend longer learning the new application thereby learning about all of its functionality. With an "almost equivalent" app, you don't bother training yourself and continuously bump up against those functions that are different. Better, to my thinking, to acquire those apps with the 20% equivalent functionality that 80% of your users employ and train them to use it effectively - something they aren't doing with the Microsoft apps.

So there are three reasons why you shouldn't wait for the "perfect" open source apps to replace your Windows productivity tools. But also learn from Novell's experience that dual-boot systems can go a long way towards easing the transition. Still, don't fall into the trap of using dual-boot as a crutch because it will multiply the problems your IT and help desk personnel will have to solve every day.

Read more about software in Network World's Software section.

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