Open source software on the desktop -- Is it right for you?

Thinking of switching to open source? Don't underestimate what the true acquisition cost will be.

There are few topics more heated than the discussion surrounding Open Source vs. Microsoft. This discussion typically focuses on the difference between Linux and Windows as an operating system. This is, however, only one dimension of the problem. You have to consider both the operating system and the office software that most users use. You must add to that everything else you have to support that isn't included in the basic office applications.

Comparable and compatible

One of the arguments towards placing open source software on the desktop is that it's "comparable and compatible." Comparable means it’s largely similar; it performs the same functions. Compatible is saying simply that it works with the recognized leader in the area (Microsoft). For instance, Linux is comparable to Windows in that it’s an operating system. It’s compatible because it can read and write files to a Windows-based server (through Samba and some configuration.)  Similarly, OpenOffice is comparable to Microsoft Office in that it offers the same basic functions. It’s compatible in that it can read and write Microsoft Office files.

The rub comes in when you evaluate how comparable and compatible the solution is. From a comparable standpoint, does the solution offer the same user experience in terms of ease of use? How much will change from what’s already familiar? How about help? Despite the challenges with the help in commercial systems, it’s substantially better than the help files that exist for open source software.

So how compatible is compatible? OpenOffice warns you the first time you start Open Office Write the ability to write Microsoft Word format is not guaranteed. It does, in fact, warn you that you may lose some of your formatting. How many documents need to be reformatted to pay for a license of Microsoft Office? How much embarrassment will it cause to have your documents arrive at a customer in a poorly formatted state?

In the end, you have to ask hard questions about how comparable it is -- and how much the differences are worth. You’ll have to ask how much time you’re willing to give up when compatibility requires extra steps or when it isn’t compatible.

Training anyone?

No one can argue that putting open source software on the desktop will require some training. Although there are training, support, and help materials, there's a large gap between the training options for Microsoft-based solutions and those available for open source solutions. Instructor-led classes are hard to find and the instructor quality varies widely. If you’re just looking for self-led training such as a book to help your users, you’ll easily find it. However, if you’re looking for custom solutions for training the open source software you may find it challenging to find a trainer with experience.

Stretching support

Since support calls are all too often caused by a lack of training or understanding of how to use the product, it stands to reason that the demands placed on support will increase with a switch to open source. 

In most cases, support professionals are themselves unfamiliar with open source software. They have to be trained, or they have to train themselves, and the level that they need to understand the software is substantially deeper than the general user.

Getting them that training can be a big challenge. Although Open Source community support is often touted by its supporters, getting people to leverage that support is sometimes a challenge. Since it's community support, there’s no one central location for open source solutions. What’s even more challenging is that each version of open source software--specifically Linux in every distribution--has its own quirks. This means that a "community" solution that works for one version of Linux may not work at all for your version. Also, there's a lack of fact checking in community feedback, so technical accuracy can’t be guaranteed.

Acquisition cost

For most organizations, acquisition cost in terms of time for training and support is more than they can bear. It’s a challenge to make any change. It’s especially a challenge to migrate to a platform for which there are limited training and support options. Make your own decisions but don’t underestimate what the true acquisition cost will be.