Linux

A Microsoft-free office: Is it really possible?

With Linux gaining in popularity, is it possible to dump Microsoft entirely? During this Guild Meeting Jack Wallen, Jr. explored the possibilities.

With Linux gaining in popularity, is it possible to dump Microsoft entirely? On August 9th Jack Wallen, Jr. explored the possibilities. If you couldn’t join us then, enjoy the transcript and we hope to see you on our next live Guild Meeting. You can find a schedule of Guild Meetings in your weekly TechProGuild Notes TechMail, or on the Guild Meeting calendar.

With Linux gaining in popularity, is it possible to dump Microsoft entirely? On August 9th Jack Wallen, Jr. explored the possibilities. If you couldn’t join us then, enjoy the transcript and we hope to see you on our next live Guild Meeting. You can find a schedule of Guild Meetings in your weekly TechProGuild Notes TechMail, or on the Guild Meeting calendar.

Note: TechProGuild edits Guild Meeting transcripts for clarity.

To emphasize his arguments, Jack went head to head with a fictitious Bgates during this Guild Meeting. This is no way implies that Mr. Gates endorsed or attended this particular Guild Meeting. (I think he was really busy with the Justice Department at that time!)

The apps of a successful office
JACK WALLEN: Hello everyone! I see Mr. Gates is here in the Guild meeting. Well, Mr. Gates, I hope you're ready to chat with us about how one can go about freeing his or her office of your very own products. So what I'd like to know, first of all, is what are the critical applications necessary for a successful office?

BGATES: You need a word processor, such as Microsoft Word; an e-mail client, such as Microsoft Office; and a spreadsheet client, such as Microsoft Excel.

JACK WALLEN: That's a good start. Anyone want to add anything to this list?

KYHOTBROWN: A Web browser is helpful. Also, I'd add database programs, business plan software, accounting programs, and whatever programs your office specializes in, such as project management, presentations, and so on.

DSI: I’d add contact management software.

JACK WALLEN: So what we have are the following necessities: word-processing, e-mail client, spreadsheet applications, and a browser. Then we have the specialty applications, such as image manipulation, database, accounting, and presentations. Does that sound like a fairly sufficient list to get us going?

KYHOTBROWN: Yeah!

BGATES: So far so good, but don’t forget about Microsoft FrontPage for HTML.

PETE35: What about graphics programs?

BGATES: I suggest Microsoft PictureIt.

JACK WALLEN: I've added graphics to the list.

KYHOTBROWN: Can we do all this without Microsoft? (I doubt it.)

JHARVEY: Yes.

JACK WALLEN: Yes, we can do this all without MS.

BGATES: Never. That's like saying you'll never need more than 640 KB.

PETE35: But at what cost, oh great speaker. It's taken hundreds of man-hours to get proficient on MS.

BGATES: Who'd need to? Microsoft Office is the best office suite to date. Hands down. The sales of Office 2000 prove that.

JACK WALLEN: So you're basing your evaluation of MS Office on sales? Can you really justify that?

BGATES: Of course I can justify it! Microsoft Office is on almost every office computer around the world. Our sales beat our closest competitor shamelessly.

JACK WALLEN: And just why is MS Office on almost every computer? Because it's the best? I'm afraid not.

BGATES: Show me an office suite that can do everything that MS Office can do.

JACK WALLEN: MS Office is so full of holes and security issues (just go online and do a search for MS Office security bugs and you'll find more than you care to see). Why don't you tell me all that MS Office can do, Mr. Gates?

BGATES: Security issues are a problem with just about any office suite, Mr. Speaker. Unfortunately, I don't have the time to speak about these issues at the moment, because I'm working on other software.

What exactly is an office?
JACK WALLEN: Before we go any further, let's define what we mean by “office.” Obviously, within a company, there are going to be different sections that will manage different tasks and, therefore, will have different needs.

BGATES: I define an office as “a place of work where you use Microsoft products.”

Non-MS office suites
JACK WALLEN: Now before I try to outline a possible successful MS-free office, I'd like to ask all of you if you've ever employed any applications other than MS. Has anyone used an office suite other than MS Office? If so, which one?

KYHOTBROWN: I’ve used Corel!

JACK WALLEN: Corel is a very good office suite. The Linux version, unfortunately, has a way to go.

TSAVO: I’ve tried SmartSuite and Star Office.

DSI: I've been playing with Star Office (SO) 5.2, and it's pretty good.

JACK WALLEN: That's a good start. Star Office is a very powerful application that can do so much more than MS Office. Of course SO does have its shortcomings.

KYHOTBROWN: For example, it's very slow.

BGATES: Yes, Star Office is a memory hog! You couldn't use it with under 640 KB!

JACK WALLEN: Yes, SO is a memory hog but how many of today’s machines come with less the 64 MB of RAM?

JCARLISLE: That was 640 K, not 64 MB. You need 64 MB to run O2k.

DSI: Star Office runs really slow on my machine, and it's a 750 with 256 MB RAM. That's my main concern: speed.

JACK WALLEN: SO runs very slow because of its lack of modularity. Instead of loading the suite one piece at a time, Star Division (the company that created SO) built it so that everything could be done in one place.

KYHOTBROWN: So what you're saying is SO is only so-so.

JACK WALLEN: Star Office isn't so-so, actually. Once you get beyond the requirements (and just take a look at nearly any newer application’s memory requirements), SO doesn't look so bad. Star Office is one of the most compatible and environmentally friendly suites to date. Now that's a measure of a good office suite—how well it interoperates with others. MS is horrible at allowing other applications to interact. If you take a look at all the Linux Office suites (Star Office, Applixware, Corel, KOffice, etc.) you'll see that all of them work at integrating with MS Office and most of them do an outstanding job.

MOJ: Excuse me, but a Microsoft-free office is fundamentally impossible. I mean, just to get everyone from your grandparents to your coworkers to share without problems, you're required to standardize. So even if it requires 1400 gigs of hard drive and 999 MB of RAM, we're stuck with Microsoft.

JACK WALLEN: There are so many standards currently floating around the computer industry. Which do you choose? For instance, do you go with .doc files, which is a horrible format (horribly documented and followed) or do you use .rtf?

MOJ: I must concur that there are perhaps many choices, but how does one convince one's superiors on the superiority of other products to Microsoft?

JACK WALLEN: I've tested pretty much all the Linux office suites, comparing them to MS Office, and here's what I've deduced: Applixware's word processing application far exceeds MS Word in usability, stability, and flexibility. Star Office's word processor interacts with all other word processors better than any on the market, WordPerfect Office Suite 2000 (although hindered by WINE) is very user friendly but has a ways to go before it's stable enough to consider, KOffice is still in beta but will have the smallest footprint (it'll be faster) than any suite.

KYHOTBROWN: What's WINE?

JACK WALLEN: WINE is a Windows emulator. WINE enables you to run Windows applications within Linux. It's not very user friendly yet, not nearly as much as VMware.

KYHOTBROWN: I've tried Applixware, and it seems to be a nice system, though I haven't had time to fully explore it.

MOJ: Might the title of this Guild Meeting be a tad misleading? After all, we are discussing Linux applications here. However, it is possible to discuss a Microsoft-OFFICE-free environment within a Microsoft OS universe. This maybe is more possible for an IT department to accomplish, depending on need, such as using Lotus or Corel or some other productivity suite. Then I would ask, with all the inevitable importing and exporting that would result, is the overhead in time and training simply worth it?

JCARLISLE: It's possible to go completely MS-free from the front end to the back end.

JACK WALLEN: Imagine you're a first time user. It's not going to make any difference if you're learning a Windows application or a Linux application. If you used any of the latest Linux apps, you'll know that the learning curve is just as shallow as the MS curve.

KYHOTBROWN: Shallow! I'd say learning curves are steep for all computer users.

JCARLISLE: You could put Linux servers and desktops everywhere. Or put NetWare in the background. Heck, even replace everything with OS/2 if you wanted to.

JACK WALLEN: Linux has come farther in the last year than ANY OS to date. It's grown to the point where any MS Windows user can use it without so much as a hitch.

MOJ: I beg to differ, Mr. Speaker. I have installed several flavors of Linux and found it to have hitches and glitches.

JACK WALLEN: I've installed many different OSs. I've had Windows installations bring me to screaming and cussing. Trying to install NT and get it to recognize a network card once took me nearly 2 1/2 hours. The same system took a Linux installation 20 minutes.

KYHOTBROWN: Right, has Moj tried to install Windows NT Workstation on a laptop? Just as hard as any Linux I've ever tried. The fact is that none of them is easy.

JACK WALLEN: Installing an OS is rarely “hitchless,” especially when you buy factory made machines that have onboard sound and video.

KYHOTBROWN: Jwallen, Linux, I find, is easier with newer machines with newer hardware.

MOJ: That's why we should all go to thin clients and let IT worry about the installs.

JCARLISLE: Oh jeez... at that rate, let’s just rip out all of the PCs and install green screens again.

MOJ: I'm for that, Jcarlisle.

JACK WALLEN: But what happens when your thin client server goes down? You can't work. I'm completely against thin clients. The cost of losing an entire day of company work vs. the IT department having to administer more than one machine...

MOJ: Or we can use a reliable OS, like DOS.

JACK WALLEN: That's one of the reasons why Linux makes for a perfect office OS. You have the flexibility and usability of Windows but the stability of DOS.

KYHOTBROWN: True, Jwallen, but what happens when the network goes down, you can hardly work then, anyway.

JCARLISLE: The only reason why that would happen would be poor network design. A network outage shouldn’t take down Windows clients any more than Linux clients. If you centrally locate your files, you’re just as vulnerable no matter what OS you run.

JACK WALLEN: Granted a good network design shouldn't take down Windows clients, but show me an actually “good” network design without weak links.

Let me say one thing: Here at work there have been a number of times that the network has gone out and I am one of the only employees that can work. Why? I use Linux.

JCARLISLE: Yes, but my point is that there are just as many weak links in an all-Linux environment as there are in an all-MS environment. Just because you wave the magic Linux wand, all your problems aren’t solved.

JACK WALLEN: But it's so much easier to configure a more stable Linux environment than it is a Windows environment. Take for instance GPFs and memory protection errors. How many times do you see these issues in Windows? Linux doesn't suffer from those problems, so you don't have to worry about losing productivity due to that General Protection Fault!

JCARLISLE: Most of these come from poor drivers. That's a well-documented fact. With proper hardware and software combinations, NT can be very stable.

JACK WALLEN: I wouldn't disagree that NT is stable.

MOJ: I would have to interject here that I believe Windows NT workstation is a very stable OS.

JACK WALLEN: Yes, but not out of the box! I'll bet the bank on Linux over NT (out of the box) any day.

JCARLISLE: That's kind of a silly comparison when NT out of the box is circa 1996 code.

JACK WALLEN: I'll still put a circa 1996 Linux out of the box up against NT any day.

JCARLISLE: Best thing would be to compare the latest builds of both: NT SP6a or Win2k SP1, rather than out of the box stuff.

MOJ: I have frequently seen Linux crash or hang or corrupt a hard drive, though, without the benefit of BSDs and GPF errors, which do, after all, contain diagnostic information if one is able to understand it.

JACK WALLEN: As do Linux core files. And you can use Linux's various debugging applications to find exactly what caused those problems. And you can send that information to those who actually wrote the application and rest assured that the bug will be taken care of. That's another area where Linux exceeds MS—updates. When you have thousands of people working on the code every day and getting and giving feedback and patches, a bug fix will occur overnight.

JCARLISLE: A bug fix can appear overnight, but it won’t necessarily happen. Besides, when critical holes have appeared in NT, MS has been very quick to release hot fixes. Their problem comes with timely service packs.

A Linux-only office
JACK WALLEN: To get back to our MS-free office, let me try to outline what I use for my own Linux-only office... app by app. My OS is Red Hat Linux 6.2, using the helix GNOME desktop environment. My office suite is Applixware 5.0.

PETE35: Jack, while you go through your laundry list of apps, be sure to include the cost of each so we have some idea of the money involved. Thanks.

JACK WALLEN: Good idea, Pete35. Red Hat 6.2 is $29.95 from linuxmall.com. Applixware 5.0 is $89.00 from many retail and online stores. The spreadsheet, GNUMERIC (part of GNOME) costs nothing. For image editing/creating, there’s Gimp, which is free. The presentation package, Applixpresents is part of the office suite. The e-mail software is a bit tricky, because there are so many possibilities. I’m currently using Balsa, which is a GUI e-mail application that is fully functional and very flexible. I also use pine, which is a text based e-mail application and probably the single most stable e-mail client available.

KYHOTBROWN: Gimp is very good; it’s on par with Paintshop Pro I believe. But is image editing typically a strength of Microsoft?

JACK WALLEN: No, it's not, but image editing is many times a necessity within an office.

JCARLISLE: OK, we all see that you can configure a Linux office package with the change found in your pocket, but Bgates had a very good point earlier about file formats. What good is it going to do you to go MS-free when your biggest customer or vendor sends you an order in a file format you can't read? Do you want to turn down a very large order or tick off a good customer because you don't use compatible software?

JACK WALLEN: What format will you not be able to read?

JCARLISLE: It's a very well-known fact that the most common formats are going to be .doc and .xls. These formats almost never convert properly on non-MS platforms, especially where macros are involved.

JACK WALLEN: I rarely have any problem converting or reading either a .doc or .xls format within Applixware or Star Office. Sometimes a table will be askew or the formatting will be somewhat different, but it's certainly readable and usable.

JCARLISLE: Readable and useable... sounds like "Close enough for government work." In a professional environment you don’t have the time to spend reformatting things just because your software can't handle it. It makes you waste time and look silly.

Pre-packaged PCs
JCARLISLE: Why should I go to the time and effort of ripping out MS stuff when it comes free on the hardware I'm buying already? The conversion and retraining time alone put an MS-free office out of the price range.

JACK WALLEN: Did you know that many times that free software you get on your PC (that “free” MS software) has cost you twice what you should have paid for it?

JCARLISLE: It doesn’t matter because the vendor is going to charge you whether it’s there or not. And many times, you can't get a vendor to send you the box w/o the bundle. At least not and remove the cost of the bundle. That’s because they've already paid for it.

JACK WALLEN: It was recently discovered that MS was charging for many of its applications twice on new PCs.

JCARLISLE: The charge is built in by the vendor; it’s very hard to escape it. And it's not cost-effective because it takes time to remove the old software, install the new stuff, and retrain your users who are completely clueless about Applix or whatever software you install.

JACK WALLEN: So you're saying that it's not cost-effective to try to implement Linux, but it is cost-effective to be overcharged for something that is supposed to be free? There are many places that will sell a PC without an OS or with an alternate OS.

JCARLISLE: Many places, yes, but do you want common junk tossed in a box and handed to you?

JACK WALLEN: Jcarlisle, have you ever used a Linux office suite and have you ever shopped with a vendor like www.buypogo.com?

JCARLISLE: I don’t need to. My users do, and they never have. They have work to do; they don't have time to retrain in something they'll never use anywhere else.

JACK WALLEN: I didn't ask if you needed to. I asked if you ever have. There's a big difference. If you've never tried it you have no idea how simple it is. Star Writer (the Star Office word processor) works exactly like MS Word, down to the keyboard shortcuts.

JCARLISLE: That's not the point. The point is what's in the best interest of the business and the end users. I’ve seen Star. It's close, but not close enough for the secretary who barely knows how to turn her computer on, let alone figure out the differences between the software she's used for four years and Star.

JACK WALLEN: I've actually thrown new computer users in front of Star Office and Applixware and they had absolutely no problem learning Applix.

KYHOTBROWN: Yes, but it's odd that to make Star Office and Applixware easy to learn they had to standardize MS's user interface! Isn't that conceding victory to Microsoft’s way of doing things?

JACK WALLEN: Not in the case of Applixware. They didn't adopt the MS UI, but it's amazingly intuitive.

So you're saying that it's in the best interest of the business and the end users to use MS.

JCARLISLE: It’s in the best interest to use what the users know and what your customers and vendors are using. If you can’t communicate with them, what's the point?

COLIN.NICHOLL: It is in the best interest of end users to use MS because you know what you get.

JACK WALLEN: There are many, many companies that would disagree with you. Many companies have adopted a Linux environment or even a Mac environment and have done so successfully. Maybe it's not for you, but there are many who see the value.

JCARLISLE: Many companies? Maybe, but with a 98% marketshare, I'd say there are a whole lot more who disagree with you.

KYHOTBROWN: From this meeting, I've learned that one of the things most hampering the adoption of non-MS apps is not the lack of Linux or PC offerings, but the entrenchment of the MS software and attitude of end users.

COLIN.NICHOLL: In a free offering how can you guarantee consistency from one version to the next?

JACK WALLEN: In a free offering, you can guarantee consistency because open source movement philosophy is one that builds upon strengths, not weaknesses.

Time’s up
MODERATOR: Thanks, everyone, for your time and participation. As you can probably see, it's very hard to break free of MS's grip. But there are alternatives.

JACK WALLEN: With Linux there are so many possibilities, for nearly any situation you can guarantee at least a dozen or so solutions.

JCARLISLE: Thanks, Jack!

JACK WALLEN: You're welcome everyone. If anyone has any questions, feel free to e-mail me at jwallen@techrepublic.com. I'll do everything I can to aid you in your quest to be MS-free… yes, even you, JCarlisle!

JACK WALLEN: Take care everyone.
Our Guild Meetings feature top-flight professionals leading discussions on interesting and valuable IT issues. You can find a schedule of Guild Meetings in your weekly TechProGuild Notes TechMail, or on the Guild Meeting calendar.

About

Jack Wallen is an award-winning writer for TechRepublic and Linux.com. He’s an avid promoter of open source and the voice of The Android Expert. For more news about Jack Wallen, visit his website getjackd.net.

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