Anybody But Microsoft

* Diving into OpenOffice and Linux

Many readers tell me they're avoiding Microsoft. Some object to the cost, some to the security problems, and many are appalled at Microsoft's abuse of good customers with paperwork problems through the Bully Software Alliance. So today the information is for the Anybody But Microsoft (ABM) crowd, and others who are unaware how much progress has been made in the last two years on alternative operating systems and applications.

Following the old 80/20 rule, we know that four of five users never touch advanced features in application or operating system software. I believe at least 80% of Microsoft Word customers would be perfectly happy with Microsoft's free accessory word processor WordPad if it included spell checking.

As a test, when I rebuilt my personal system after a horrific war between nVidia and Microsoft drivers, I installed OpenOffice 2.0 rather than Microsoft Office. Could it do everything I needed, or would I have to break down and reinstall Microsoft Office?

So far, so good for OpenOffice. I've edited book length manuscript Word files using OpenOffice Writer, read and modified PowerPoint presentations with OpenOffice Impress, and massaged Excel-created spreadsheets in OpenOffice Calc. I've even sent documents created in or modified by OpenOffice programs to unsuspecting fellow PTA members (none of whom can be called technically savvy) with no problems. They all used the files just like any other files.

Since I spend my day torturing text, I use OpenOffice Writer the most. The biggest feature Microsoft Word has that I wish OpenOffice Writer had is the split document window. This allows you to separate a document and scroll the two portions independently. I tend to put my notes at the bottom of the document and write in the top window. Another feature I miss is the ability to change blocks of text into Title Case, because OpenOffice only converts text to upper or lower case.

The features I appreciate in OpenOffice includes lack of weird characters when I cut and paste text from OpenOffice Writer to an HTML editor. Do that with Microsoft Word and you spend time finding and fixing all the bizarre smart quotes and the like that don't transfer. I also like the fact that OpenOffice Writer's word count function (it's important to track the number of words for publications) gives word count numbers for both the highlighted block of text and the full document, while Microsoft Word only shows the count of the selected text or full document.

One feature of OpenOffice makes me laugh at the poor design of Microsoft Office. Have you ever tried to open a file in Word and accidentally clicked an Excel spreadsheet instead? In Microsoft Office, the file opens as garbage characters inside of Word. OpenOffice does it right and starts OpenOffice Calc to properly handle the spreadsheet.

If you don't want an entire office suite but need a good writing application, try AbiWord. This open source word processor handles WordPerfect file formats (which Microsoft Word doesn't) and also handles documents with 100,000 words with no problem (Windows, Linux, and Mac versions available).

Currently I have two Linux operating systems loaded on test machines. One is the new Xandros Home Edition Premium Version 4.0, and the other is Linspire 5.0. I'll ignore the wealth of audio and video features in both operating systems because we're looking at business applications. Both come with plenty of software (browser, e-mail, office suite etc.) free, unlike Microsoft XP which does not include Microsoft Office.

Xandros includes OpenOffice 2.0 while Linspire provides OpenOffice 1.1. Linspire provides a consistent look and feel across all of its programs, unlike Xandros which comes with the Firefox Web browser and Thunderbird e-mail client. Linspire's applications are based on code from, makers of Firefox and Thunderbird, so the applications function the same on both systems.

I installed Ubuntu 6.06 Linux, based on good reports, but it couldn't handle the video board in my Compaq Pentium III system. Since every other Linux I've tried does work, I dumped Ubuntu. Yes, I searched the Web and found help for various fixes, but since Windows doesn't make you edit configuration files by hand, users won't put up with a Linux that forces you to do so. I'll try Ubuntu on another PC and tell you what happens.

Novell's SuSE Linux 10 gets great reviews and is aimed at businesses. I'll try that soon if Novell will still talk to me. I expect Xandros to upgrade its excellent Business Desktop 3.0 version soon, and I look forward to seeing that upgrade.

Three books deserve mention for the ABM crowd:

* First, Just Say NO to Microsoft by Tony Bove (No Starch Press, ISBN 1-59327-064-x) dives into the politics surrounding Microsoft and alternatives, but does offer an overview into Linux and Open Source Software alternatives to Microsoft.

* Moving From Windows to Linux by Chuck Easttom and Bryan Hoff (Charles River Media, ISBN 1-58450-442-0) provides detailed hands-on help in all manner of ways to productively move to Linux and Open Source.

* Finally, Open Source Solutions for Small Business Problems by my friend John Locke (Charles River Media, ISBN 1-58450-320-3) covers all manner of server and Web-based applications as well as desktop applications for Linux and Windows computers.

If there are any books or other resources helping the move from Windows to Macintosh, let me know. I no longer have a Mac here so I can't test those options.

You can switch from Microsoft because of philosophical reasons, or you can switch for financial or security reasons. Realize some users must keep Windows and Microsoft Office, but you can switch 80% of your users to Linux and Open Source alternatives easier today than ever before.

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Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.