Open source is not just for Linux. Yes, you’ll certainly find a much larger selection of open-source software for the Linux platform, but both Windows and Apple also enjoy a good number of titles. Regardless of what Free Open Source Software (FOSS) you need to use, you might not always find it the most natural evolution — especially when you’ve spent the whole of your career using proprietary software. The thing is, a lot of open-source software has matured to the point where it rivals (and sometimes bests) its proprietary counterpart.

With that in mind, I wanted to offer up my five best tips for migrating from a closed-software ecosystem to an open one. This may mean you’re just dropping Microsoft Office for LibreOffice — or you might be diving into deeper open-source waters and migrating from Windows to Linux. No matter the change you are about to make, these tips should make the transition easier.

1. Start small

If you’re planning on migrating to open-source software in your business, do so with baby steps. Don’t just drop Linux onto your users’ desktops and expect them to pick it up like riding a bike. Instead, start with the obvious choices — a browser (such as Firefox) or an office suite (such as LibreOffice). Starting out small will help end users realize how easy it is to make a paradigm shift that might otherwise have sent them into apoplectic fits. Ease your end users into this change, and when it comes time to make a major shift, you’ll be surprised at how easy the migration can be.

2. Don’t always expect a “drop-in” replacement

What do I mean by “drop-in”? That means the new software will work exactly like the old software. This is, most often, not the case — even if we’re looking at the top level user interface. Take, for instance, the Microsoft Office Ribbon interface. You will not find that particular UI on any major open-source software. LibreOffice continues on with the standard menu-driven system, so anyone who has used an older version of Microsoft Office will be right at home.

You must also not expect everything to be in the same spot. Most open-source applications do everything they can to follow logic in the placement of menu items, toolbars, launchers, etc. For the most part, they succeed. The developers of those software titles cannot, however, account for the placement of such items in your previous software. What trips up a lot of people, when migrating from one piece of software to another, is the assumption that the original software did everything exactly right. The truth is, it’s just what you’ve grown accustomed to. After using your new piece of software, you’ll soon grow accustomed to the placement of the various elements. Give it time, and everything will fall into place.

3. Look for similar titles

Although you can’t expect a drop-in replacement, you can always search out software that does try to mimic what you’re accustomed to. In some cases, this is easy. Migrating from Internet Explorer to Firefox is pretty much a no-brainer. It’s a web browser — the most challenging element you’ll face is changing your terminology (think Favorites to Bookmarks). There are other pieces of software that might be more difficult, such as finding a replacement for Microsoft Outlook. Although an overwhelming majority of users are migrating to web-based clients (which almost completely neutralize the platform), there are some that still demand client-based software. One possibility for Outlook is Evolution. Another possibility is to massage Thunderbird into offering all the features of Outlook. To achieve this, you must add the Lightning extension.

4. Adjust your file formats

One thing that open-source software tries very hard to do is follow standards. This is especially true in the likes of LibreOffice. The Open Document Format (ODF) is alive and well within LibreOffice. So, when you’re using those tools, your best bet is to start saving in their native format, particularly when you’re either not sharing documents or sharing them with other users who employ the same software title. You should never assume the old file format you used is the only choice. Also, by adopting file formats that better adhere to standards, you’ll have fewer issues moving forward.

5. Locate the documentation

Nearly every major open-source project includes solid documentation. For example, if you’re using The Gimp, click on Help | User Manual, and you’ll see a nice collection of document categories to choose from (Figure A).

Figure A

The Gimp’s help menu.

LibreOffice also has its own built-in help system. Click Help | LibreOffice Help (or F1) to open the extensive help system. Outside of using the built-in systems, you’ll find that most major open-source software titles have a dedicated website for help (such as The Gimp, LibreOffice, Scribus, Thunderbird, Firefox, Audacity, and GnuCash). In addition, you can search for user forums and mailing lists for your application. You might find mailing lists to be a bit out of your standard wheelhouse, but it’s one of the best ways to get specific questions answered.

If you have any plans to migrate from closed to open-source software, with just a little care and planning, the switch can swift and painless. Above these tips, however, you yourself must be prepared. Don’t expect your end users to adopt open source if you’re not prepared to help them make the switch.

Have you migrated to open-source software? If not, do you have any plans on migrating — or what is stopping you? Share your thoughts in the discussion thread below.