A Small Business Guide to Linux on the Desktop

By Drew Robb | Posted March 25, 2004

The Open Source community is loudly proclaiming that the Linux desktop is ready for prime time. As a result, many small businesses are considering the move, hoping the switch will mean that with a miniscule investment in software, they can run much of their company on Linux.

Here, then, are a few of the pros and cons of a possible move to the Linux desktop.

Free Isn't A Bargain
Free software sounds good, but it is not always the cheapest way to go on Linux, particularly for small businesses. Most business people, after all, have more productive ways to spend their days and nights than struggling to learn the technical details of an unfamiliar and sometimes technical operating system (define) as would-be users attempt to download it from one of the many free Linux download sites. Perhaps the most apparently economical route, though, isn't the cheapest. By spending a little money on software, there are many vendors who offer easy-to-use Linux desktops along with plenty of support.

Xandros, for example, offers several desktop possibilities from $39 for a basic Linux desktop running the OpenOffice.org office suite to a Deluxe Linux Business Desktop package with the superior StarOffice suite for $129. The latter offering gives pretty much everything you need to begin operating a desktop on Linux. Alternatively, you can download the OS from any of a dozen reliable sources like Debian GNU/Linux for free, and add Sun Microsystems' StarOffice Suite for $80. You may have to work a little harder on installation and configuration, but the resulting office functionality is excellent.


Rent-A-Guide
When it comes to Linux desktop software, the OS is the stable foundation, on top of which lies the "desktop" graphical user interface (define). Just as in Windows, the GUI is simply a place to store icons to click, and there are a dozen good desktop versions around. Then you add the applications you need for office functionality from a variety of alternatives. Most users, however, are not used to so much freedom of choice. When you come from a world of Microsoft XP Home edition or XP Professional, having to mix and match so many elements can appear bewildering.

One way around the confusion is to hire one of the larger Linux vendors to hold your hand, and rent plenty of technical support. For instance, you can purchase a complete OS with the basic OpenOffice.org package from Red Hat for $179 and install it on up to three workstations. Or pay a bit more for a much wider package like the Novell's SUSE Linux Desktop at $598 that covers five workstations. The higher-priced SUSE Linux Desktop includes StarOffice, the Crossover Office Windows emulator — to run Windows applications you still need — among other features.

One possible advantage of the Red Hat package is their Open Source Assurance program to protect buyers from legal claims against Linux. Novell does not include the SUSE Linux workstation version in their indemnity program. Assurance programs are helpful, but before hiring any vendor, you should learn a bit more about the desktop landscape.

Desktop Geography
The most basic office suite for the desktop is the set of applications available for free from OpenOffice.org. "Writer" does word processing, "Calc" does spreadsheets, "Impress" makes presentations, and "Draw," of course, draws. Many believe that Writer is better at word processing than Microsoft Word. And open source programmers are able to fix known Writer problems faster than Microsoft. Calc and Impress are quite similar to Excel and PowerPoint, and contain most of the familiar functions. Interestingly, the 2D and 3D Draw program outstrips the capabilities of Microsoft Office. However, OpenOffice lacks any database counterpart to Microsoft Access, though for many small businesses, the database may not be that important.

Going a step up from OpenOffice, we have StarOffice. The StarOffice people have always worked closely with OpenOffice programmers, and now Sun is able to add resources to improve the suite. When Sun makes fixes in StarOffice, those changes percolate over into OpenOffice, and vice versa, but StarOffice always has extras, like additional file translation options, more fonts, and a printed manual. OpenOffice.org and StarOffice are very similar in operation.

The biggest addition StarOffice makes is the database program "Base." This database application does not directly correspond to Microsoft Access, but at least it is relational and supports SQL (define). The Novell SUSE Linux Desktop and the Xandros Desktop OS Business Edition packages include StarOffice.

Documentation for both of the office suites is available on the respective Websites, and there is already enough experience with these office suites to have generated many third party books. A quick search on Amazon.com reveals that there are 18 titles for OpenOffice and 45 StarOffice how-to books available, in various languages and versions. You might start with Taming OpenOffice.org Writer 1.1 by Jean Hollis Weber. OpenOffice and StarOffice both include free online help, too.

Plays Well With Others
The big question small businesses should ask before making any desktop changes is whether Linux documents are usable in the Microsoft world. Can the Microsoft Word user read your files, edit them, and return them to you? If you send them to your clients, will they be able to read them without suffering corruption? The answer is yes — over 90 percent of the time. Most issues are usually minor such as bullet points coming out strange, slight formatting glitches or unusual characters appearing differently. But this is not that common, and there are definite steps you can take to eliminate trouble.

Most importantly, do not use the native OpenOffice file format for any documents you plan to share as most people will not be able to open them. Make a habit of saving in Word (.doc) or Rich Text Format (.rtf). This is easy to accomplish using commands from the "Save As" tab.

The good news is that transmitting your documents to users of Microsoft Office is not a problem for simpler files. And if you keep the formatting as simple as possible, you minimize the chances of errors. For best results, avoid exotic fonts and page layouts. Stick to those that are well known in Microsoft Office.

When a document does not need to be edited by the recipient, there is a surefire way to eradicate any possibility of these minor issues. Use the easy PDF (define) conversion that is built in to OpenOffice or StarOffice, and have the recipient open the document in Acrobat Reader. One warning — forms do not seem to travel well from Microsoft Word to Linux Writer, often because of font problems — experiment with forms used with your vendors and suppliers and see how they come through. There is usually an easy way to work things out.

On the rare occasion when there are interoperability problems you cannot fix, try Crossover Office, from CodeWeavers This interface runs on Linux and emulates the Windows OS. The Microsoft Office 2000 suite, Internet Explorer and many other Windows applications run very happily on Linux with Crossover Office. So if you absolutely, positively need certain Windows-based apps, this is the way to do it. As mentioned above, Crossover Office is already integrated into Novell SUSE Linux, and Xandros Desktop OS Business Edition packages. The program provides an excellent safety net for your move to the Linux desktop.

Good Timing
Now is actually a good time to be moving to a Linux desktop. The office applications have already gone through the worst part of development curve, and most of the kinks have been worked out. Feature tweaking will continue, but the major development work is done. So if your company is one of those still running Windows NT or having problems with Windows licensing issues, it is a fine time to take a closer look at the Linux desktop.

Do you have a comment or question about this article or other small business topics in general? Speak out in the SmallBusinessComputing.com Forums. Join the discussion today!

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