Linux optimize

Piling on: More reasons why the Linux desktop doesn't shine in business

Marco Fioretti adds his thoughts on why Linux desktops have such a hard time catching on in business. Here are some of the biggest roadblocks that he has come across in his experience.

As it happened last year with the Linux Desktop Configuration Anarchy, the post of this week is a reaction (in the positive sense, of course) to something that Jack Wallen wrote here on TechRepublic about the Linux desktop: a perspective on why it doesn't shine in business.

I've spent a few years working in a multinational. That company had lots of Unix servers and CAD workstations, and I already knew and liked Linux. Over the years, I and others succeeded in introducing Linux alongside commercial Unix for some of those servers and workstations. Emboldened by those successes, one or two times we suggested that we should also move to Linux our office desktops. We failed because of the Outlook issue explained by Jack, and for other problems he didn't mention. Here they are, because in my opinion they have important consequences on how FOSS advocacy should be done.

File formats

This crucial point is too often overlooked. Software is a really unique technology. The way some user runs some program, namely his or her choice of file formats, severely limits the viable software choices of all the other users with whom that person exchanges files -- both in the present, and (which is even worse) in the future.

Convincing the Pointy Haired Bosses of a company that Linux desktops are gratis, free from viruses, secure, and more beautiful than Windows was the easy part. But then, even before the "can it do Outlook?" question, they invariably asked: "Will I surely, always be able to open all the files our department has created in the last 10 years, without more compatibility problems than what I've seen sometimes, when changing version of MS Office?" And I lost. As irrational as it is, that one report in a thousand files with weird fonts, modified headers, nested tables and/or lots of formulas that OpenOffice couldn't render in the exact same way as Microsoft Office was enough to stop talks. Ditto for the supercool slideshow with video clips of the CEO's speech that circulates in all big companies. Oh, and now that I think of it, we even had thousands of legacy FrameMaker files...

Proprietary file formats keep Linux away from the desktop more than any other factor. How do we break this chain? One way is to demand that Public Administrations only exchange files in open formats with their suppliers and contractors. This would force those companies to discover those formats, and eventually spread them around their suppliers, making software choice finally possible.

No escape route from Microsoft Project

This is just a particular case of the previous point, but it is also crucial. Complex projects need project management software (they also need competent project managers, but that's another story). If you ask me, the TaskJuggler way to Project Management is much more powerful than that of MS Project. But, besides being completely different, there is no way to migrate complete Microsoft Project files to TaskJuggler. Or to any other FOSS project management software that I know of.

User ignorance

In my experience, besides file formats, the problem between chair and keyboard is the other big reason why documents created with MS Office "look bad" in OpenOffice, thus keeping Linux away from desktops. I'm speaking of the people who never understood what "word processor" really means, and consequently make consistent rendering of files impossible. I'm speaking of the people who type white spaces to center text, number chapter headings by hand, put more fonts than words in their texts, use macros to feel cool when no macro would be needed, and so on. They are legion, and have already filled the world with files that make OpenOffice and LibreOffice "look bad", simply because they were written and edited in the stupidest ways.

The training myth

When I suggested that the company should stop paying for licenses of MS Office and use OpenOffice instead, the answer I got was:

  • changing software means training employees to use the new software
  • but we aren't a garage shop, so that training must be a real, formal course, lasting for days
  • and the price of such a course, plus the cost of work not done by the employees during the course, is much higher than the cost of one license
  • (implicit) ... and to think that you looked like such a smart guy
Training?!? This isn't CAD software! Personally, I find it embarrassing, in this day and age, that people who have been daily, basic users of any browser or office suite for years must take a course to start using new ones. Or that they don't feel humiliated by such proposals. Still, this is how many big organizations still handle all software migrations.

People education

Of course, none of the problems above is the fault of Linux, or of any other Free Software for the desktop. However, the point of this post is that it doesn't make sense to ignore them, if you care about this issue. Especially because, at the end of the day, all those things are different symptoms of the same problem: lack of education. Most people simply haven't a clue about how computers actually work.

Solving that problem means creating the necessary conditions for Free Software to succeed on the desktop or any other mass market. But solving it in the right way means to help people to learn the right concepts first. Even if those concepts are humbler and different from those that many FOSS advocates hold as priorities: source code, licenses, freedom in coding ,and so on.

About

Marco Fioretti is a freelance writer and teacher whose work focuses on the impact of open digital technologies on education, ethics, civil rights, and environmental issues.

33 comments
apotheon
apotheon

TR's brokenness now has me posting stuff in the wrong discussion. Great.

sysop-dr
sysop-dr

Linux is not supposed to replace Windows, it's an alternative to Windows and the distinction is clear. Linux doesn't have to be on every desktop to be successful, by just being there as an alternative and a good one at that it has caused changes in everything around it. It has been very well accepted in the server room and has driven Windows to become compatible in a lot of ways. It has also driven development of other types of software and enabled all kinds of other alternatives to proprietary software. But it was never intended as a Windows killer but a Windows alternative and it has been very successful at that. Open Source is not about attacking closed source but about offering alternatives and sharing. I don't care that other people use one OS or the other but I do care about that people know they have an alternative and that they can make the choice, in an educated manner, on their own. Now if someone requires Office but wants to run Linux there are ways to do that, VMs and Wine or like some companies have done, one person in each group has Windows to do the final port to the office format and do all of the formatting. (Why do people think that the author of a document should be the editor and publisher of the document anyway? making a scientist or engineer format and layout a word doc is just asking for trouble anyway.) And if you want it to look the same to everyone PDF the thing. Never give people the word or libre office doc, use PDF or similar and your formatting on Linux problem is solved. Email, sorry there you have this problem, either switch to something else or use the web interface with Evolution.

gebauer
gebauer

People is getting used to Android (wich is Linux, remember ) and other net centered systems. In the end people is going to demand something familiar, and for the vast majority that will mean Android and iOS. Consoles with heavy operating systems are going to be used by professionals in the CAD, arts and development industries.

Odipides
Odipides

As soon ad I see a .docx file attachment in my in-box in I know I'm in for trouble. Libre-Office is pretty good but there is still a lot of collateral damage on very new M$ format trnslations

wuboyblue
wuboyblue

I was a believer, I hung in there from Red Hat 6.1 through Ubuntu 10.2, all the while searching for a stable 'Nix desktop that would have both app and game support. All those years and it never really happened. In the server room it was a God, even the Gnome desktop did what it had to do. Finally, I wanted a 'Nix desktop that is supported and stable. Well, after years I just bought a Mac desktop. It was easy, except for the totally propriety hardware and the attempt by Apple to force me into their eco-system, I have an attractive, stable, working 'Nix desktop. I know it's a union of Open Darwin and BSD and I'm okay with it. I never liked BSD that much, but I got used to it. Now I have a working 'Nix desktop that is supported and evolves the old fashioned way, by spending money.

jscott418-22447200638980614791982928182376
jscott418-22447200638980614791982928182376

Hardware,plain and simple hardware compatibility and the ability to make hardware work all the time every time without a lot of BS. Its why Android has been so successful because the hardware is built around the OS and not the other way. Put out canned hardware built for Linux and you will find better results. Such as the case of Dell and its small but steady showing of Linux PC's. The other case for Linux is in Tablets where developers are responsible for making things work and not the end user. Another example of building hardware around a OS. Apple basically does this same thing as it build OS X and IOS around the hardware and limits what hardware it works on. Makes supporting it a whole lot easier. I think end users could better enjoy Linux if and only if the devices were built around it rather then users downloading a distro and hoping it supports all of the hardware.

adamleemiller
adamleemiller

Honestly, using ubuntu in the enterprise can be accomplished if companies started using google apps for their companies. Mail + Drive access is a nice replacement. Lack of project is a downside but there will always be alternatives. People just need to stop being so afraid of change.

mfioretti
mfioretti

" Linux doesn't have to be on every desktop to be successful," What I did was to explain why, in my opinion, it is not successful. That's different than arguing that it MUST be succesful "And if you want it to look the same to everyone PDF the thing. Never give people the word or libre office doc, use PDF or similar and your formatting on Linux problem is solved." this attitude is exactly the reason why we are in such a mess. To begin with, this is only doable when people need a read-only version of some document. Second, it does nothing to solve the problem of proprietary file formats. Solving that problem is one of the necessary preconditions to have Linux on the desktop, IF one cares, but is also necessary for many other reasons.

Deadly Ernest
Deadly Ernest

than MS do, and there is no reason why MS can't use the international standards. In fact, I know of businesses that have set their MS Office systems to save files in open document standards as default as that's what they need them in when dealing with some European companies.

earlehartshorn
earlehartshorn

Especially for new and legacy devices. How many times has an Exec wanted the latest new toy? And there is no such thing as a Linux driver for it. And how many companies still use older, specialized input devices (think scanners, for one) that have no Linux drivers, but still work just great? I have tried to move the OS of my primary desktop to Linux several times, but drivers always get in the way.

mfioretti
mfioretti

"Put out canned hardware built for Linux and you will find better results" I really don't think so. Put out hardware built for Linux and people will find themselves with boxes that run Linux without a hitch, but are still useless in the sense I explained in the articles, that is they have trouble handling pre-existing documents

Deadly Ernest
Deadly Ernest

hardware manufacturers make Linux specific hardware, you just need to have them STOP making Windows specific hardware. There are Internationally agreed Industry Standard command sets for the operating of hardware, at one time Microsoft used those standards in their Operating Systems, then they walked away from those standards and started pressuring hardware manufacturers to make hardware that came with the MS Windows Command Sets built in so you didn't need to install device drivers to run on THAT version of Windows. This started with Win 95, then a new set of Command Sets for Win 2000 / XP, and then another set for Win Vista / Win 7. Which is why you need different device drivers for Win NT, Win 9x, Win 2000/XP, and Win Vista/7, and anything else that does NOT use the same command sets as the current version of Windows of the time the hardware was being made. Linux is designed to the Industry Standard Command Sets and thus any version of Linux or Unix that has not been doctored to another Command Set (like Mac OS) will work with any hardware designed to the Industry Standards. Thus all you need to do is convince the hardware manufacturers to stop kowtowing to Microsoft - some already do make to the Industry Standards and then make Windows drivers.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

Linux is compatible with at least as many personal computer components as Windows, and with far more embedded controllers and single-function devices. I do agree that Linux would achieve a greater slice of the desktop / laptop market if major hardware vendors offered more models with Linux pre-installed. But as to building hardware around the OS like Apple does, Apple only has around 5% of the PC market.

mfioretti
mfioretti

Adam, strictly speaking, what you say is true, but I don't think it is really applicable in this case. First because many companies, not to mention non-USA public administrations, will NOT put their data on any platform owned by one (foreign) private company. Secondly, because... this wouldn't change the fact that there is no microsoft project or, more important, that those companies (feel that) they must keep using all their all preexisting docs without any compatibility issue.

apotheon
apotheon

That doesn't seem to actually address the statement you quoted. You seem to think sysop-dr said "Being on every desktop is success, but Linux doesn't have to be successful." What sysop-dr actually said was "Linux doesn't have to be on every desktop to be successful." The point is that Linux can be successful without measuring up to *your* standards of success -- because success is a matter of reaching one's own goals, and not of reaching someone else's (i.e. Microsoft's) goals. I'm not so sure that sysop-dr's idea of what constitutes success for Linux-based systems is exactly right, but a good point was made nonetheless -- and you seem to have blown right past it.

Deadly Ernest
Deadly Ernest

also have different internal format instructions you often get messed up files when opening them in a different version of MS Word to the one it was made in, you can also end up with a different display to what you wanted if the recipient's default MS Word settings are different to those you used as they will often override the settings within the document. Thus the only way to be sure it displays the same is to send it as a pdf file.

apotheon
apotheon

Can you really imagine someone like that fitting into a "community"? On the other hand, there are definitely some pathological sub-communities out there, including within the Linux community.

Deadly Ernest
Deadly Ernest

and you only need a driver for a device that is NOT designed to use the ISC, but something else, the only time you have a driver issue in Linux or Unix is when the hardware has been made to use the Command Set of a specific version of Windows. Then you need a driver for any other version of Windows or operating system apart from the one it was designed to use. Thus if wanting to run a device created to natively use Win 9x drivers on a Win XP or Win 7 system, you need to find drivers for it as well. I've got a printer made back in 1996 that still works perfectly with my newest version of Linux, but I can't find any Windows drivers for it apart from Win 9x. One issue with a lot of vendor PCs, like those from HP, Dell, Gateway etc is they often build them around hardware made only for a specific version of Windows command sets and not to the ISC sets, thus making it all but impossible to move to anything else - it's called planned obsolescence so they can sell you a new one.

Deadly Ernest
Deadly Ernest

while it is the job of the operating system to take that code and convert it to what is needed for the hardware to process it, as that's not the job of the hardware. A classic example of that is documents created in MS Word for Windows 2a can NOT be viewed properly in MS Word 2003 or MS Word 2007 or MS Word 2010 despite having the same extension, this is due to the command set information for the formatting has been changed in the application and the operating system, and thus not compatible, but however it comes up on the screen is how the hardware was told by the operating system and the same instructions will be sued when it's sent to printing - side note: Open Office and Libre Office have no trouble displaying and printing these older documents properly in either Linux or Windows. The reason the International Body set a set of International Industry Command Sets back in the early 1990s was to do away with the need for hardware drivers because having the one set of commands used for the operating system and the hardware made the hardware OS independent. For a little while Microsoft went along, then they stopped using the Industry Standards set to use their own and make their operating system incompatible with the standards, then they applied economic pressure on the hardware manufacturers to make the hardware compatible with Windows and not the Industry Standard, that has caused the current situation with the need for drivers for different versions of Windows or any OS other than the one the manufacturer made the gear compatible with. However, not all manufacturers went along with Microsoft so some hardware is still made to the Industry Standards and needs drivers to work with Windows.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

Many countries have privacy laws that currently block companies from storing some times of information on a third-party service like Google. Medical and financial records are at the top of the list.

apotheon
apotheon

. . . but to some people, "computer" means "desktop", which means that to them Linux is not a "success" until it is ubiquitous on the desktop. It doesn't help that many of these people think that to succeed one must make others fail, as well -- which is why the only "successful" product is the one doing better than all its competitors.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

Linux IS a success, despite not being popular on desktops. It's the OS of choice in so many other applications, far more than Windows. I'd like to see all those products that run Linux display a Tux logo, similar to how foods used to have the 'Nutrasweet' logo. Maybe then people would realize how wide-spread it is.

apotheon
apotheon

That is not how your response came off, at all. I appreciate your clarification. I'm in full agreement that open digital standards should absolutely be the default, and that working toward those ends is a good thing. Interestingly, Adobe has published specifications for PDF documents for general use, and it is effectively at least as much of an "open standard" as OOXML (the new MS Office document format). Adobe violates or destructively extends its own specifications at times, of course, but so does Microsoft, so the result is much the same (probably worse for MS Office, actually). In terms of principle, choosing between PDFs and MS Office documents is kind of a matter of six of one and half a dozen of the other; in practice, however, non-interactive PDFs are much more widely accessible. There are also more open source applications that can read and properly render non-interactive PDFs than MS Office documents, and even ODF files impose some problems in viewing and accessibility that do not apply to PDFs. EPUB would be a better format for many purposes. Best of all would be plain text, when at all reasonable -- possibly using Markdown formatting, given the wide availability of Markdown rendering options. Of course, these formats have relatively limited formatting options, somewhat restricting their suitability to use in some circumstances, but that's not always a bad thing.

mfioretti
mfioretti

success=market domination is the argument (not mine) from which I started replying by writing the post. Later on, answering that other comment, I replied that dumb statement like that one about PDFs being enough, are what prevents ANOTHER, really different type of success, which has nothing to do with market domination of any given software or sw development model, or markets in general. The success, that is, that society achieves as a whole, from a civil rights point of view, when open digital standards become the default. I agree that the two things didn't come out very well separated in the flow of discussion. Thanks for helping me to explain this.

apotheon
apotheon

I'm talking about the fact that you are basing your entire argument on notions of "success", where your arguments suggest that "success" must necessarily mean market domination. That is an unwarranted assumption.

mfioretti
mfioretti

"having open file formats and standards is success. No, it's a necessity. Way before, and regardless, of the success of Linux itself, however you measure it" I have, indeed, blown right past "sysop-dr's idea of what constitutes success for Linux-based systems" because he concluded with a partially unrelated, but very superficial statement "And if you want it to look the same to everyone PDF the thing". I've already explained why I think it's superficial, no need to rewrite it. I'll only specify that the mess I referred to is the general one the current world is in wrt digitization, nothing specific to Linux.

mfioretti
mfioretti

This is an answer to the comment made yesterday by "Deadly Ernest". I am writing it here because, for some reason, the system won't let me reply directly to that comment. "Which specific formats are you talking about?" I am talking of proprietary file formats. This includes both: - MS Office files, because they have plenty of "traps" that make them not completely compatible with LibreOffice/OOo etc. When you say that those apps have "no trouble reading and accurately displaying documents made on MS Word or MS Excel" you are wrong. You should say, instead "PERSONALLY, AS OF TODAY, I have never come across through MS Office files that LO/OOo could not render without any glitch" There are thousands of people online complaining that this is the case. I am the first to agree (heck, I did write it plainly in the article, didn't I?) that this is often a dumb issue caused by people unable to use any word processor, but it exists nonetheless - lots of other files for specific applications: MS Project, Autocad, Electronic CAD, GIS... "This is important as it then comes down to the apps on the system and NOT the operating system itself... the file formats are all application dependent and not operating dependent or hardware dependent" Of course, but so what? The topic here is "why Linux isn't on business desktops". If on my job I must deal with the .dwg format by autocad, which (both the file format and the software) are not usable on Linux, I can't use Linux for business. Not so much because AutoCad won't run on Linux, but because the .dwg format isn't open, so it isn't possible to write software for Linux that can use it fully.

Deadly Ernest
Deadly Ernest

issue and not a hardware issue as it's the file formats. Which specific formats are you talking about? This is important as it then comes down to the apps on the system and NOT the operating system itself. For example, last Saturday I was given a USB drive with a file to check the information on it was right before the local government body had the document printed and distributed - the file had been given to the go between on Friday. I went to the computer of the organisation the information was about - the system is a few months old Dell with Win 7 Enterprise Edition. The file would NOT open as it was a .pub file and you needed MS Publisher to view. MS Publisher does NOT come with any edition of MS Office, so it's a separate purchase of A$300.00 to get. I'd have had this same problem if I viewed the file on my Linux system. Now, my Linux system has Libre Office installed, and that app has no trouble reading and accurately displaying documents made on MS Word or MS Excel as .doc, .docx, or .xls files. I have VLC and Xine installed, I have no troubles displaying and playing files with the extensions .avi and .wmv and .mpg. In short, the file formats are all application dependent and not operating dependent or hardware dependent. With the exception of the hardware and application drivers made for a specific operating system, thus drivers for Win XP will only work with Win XP, the same for any OS specific dynamic link library files - but they are OS files not normal file formats.

mfioretti
mfioretti

"You're saying that Linux compatible hardware is not capable of handling pre-existing documents due to the file formats" No, I didn't say that. I said that boxes that run Linux are not capable etc etc. Because they run Linux, ie software issues period, regardless whether their hardware specs had been written for Linux or not. I really thought it was obvious. Sorry that you went off a tangent.

Deadly Ernest
Deadly Ernest

"I really don't think so. Put out hardware built for Linux and people will find themselves with boxes that run Linux without a hitch, but are still useless in the sense I explained in the articles, that is they have trouble handling pre-existing documents. " You're saying that Linux compatible hardware is not capable of handling pre-existing documents due to the file formats. My reply is the details of why the file format is totally independent of the hardware, the file format is software code that needs to be interpreted by the operating system, and the hardware requires commands on what to do from the operating system. In short, it matters not what the document file format is as it has NOTHING to do with the hardware itself, that's all up to the operating system that interprets the code between the two. Further proof of that is the fact I've many old documents created in Word for Windows on Win 3.11 and Win 95/98 that display and print perfectly in my copy of Libre Office on Zorin OS 5 Linux, ditto with some old Excel files from the early 1990s. The file formats are irrelevant to the hardware, it's all in the hardware command sets and the operating system command sets.

mfioretti
mfioretti

Sorry, I really fail to see how this last comments is related to my previous one, or what is meaning is anyway

tbmay
tbmay

I would personally give pause to putting sensitive data on Google servers. Not because I don't think they provide great services, because they do. But their privacy policies are grey, and you can never say with 100% certainty who is looking at your data when you're putting it on "some server somewhere." Regarding the Linux desktop....please don't take me for an MS shill...in fact my job title is Linux Engineer....so it's not like I'm an MS freek... Lets just assume, for the sake of argument, a *nix desktop of some flavor could be proven to be superior in all ways to Windows, and was 100% compatible with all their apps.. Even then, business leadership would have to weigh the costs of replacing it in terms of changing what their users are used to. And we can't prove it 100%. In fact, which operating system is superior is COMPLETELY a matter of individual opinion. Why do people even care that Windows dominates the workplace? The fact of the matter is tech moves too fast to fall in love with any of it on a personal level, and the business is only interested in it's own mission, not tech. We tech workers can be revenue enablers, but rarely are we revenue generators. Therefore, the leadership is going to generally resist to ANY change. If a person is interested in IT because she/he has visions of changing the world, making a big difference, etc, most would be better of doing something else. Unless they're lucky enough to be a Bill Gates or a Steve Jobs, they will probably not get that opportunity.