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.