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.