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10/08/2005 Archived Entry: "Switching away from Windows"

"I can't afford to switch away from Windows."

Congratulations, sucker: you've just handed Microsoft a blank check. Because when you say you must use a sole-sourced product, you've just said "price no object" to its vendor. Microsoft knows this, and intends to take you for all it can.

I speculate that the main limitation on Microsoft's avarice isn't competing software -- it's bootleg software. Which is why Microsoft is so determined, through technological and legislative measures, to stamp it out. Haven't you noticed that every time they make another step toward protecting their "intellectual property," the price of Windows goes up?

Remember their claims that it was "bootlegging" that made Windows so expensive, and that they could charge less if everyone bought a legit copy? Someone call Penn & Teller, because that was just so much bullshit. Sir Bill of the Blue Screen knows that if he makes Windows too expensive, ordinary folks will install one copy of Windows on four or five computers. He's doing his damnedest to block that, and when (if) he succeeds, watch the prices soar.

However, I emphatically do not recommend that you violate your Windows license. I recommend instead that you revise your thinking, and realize that you can afford to switch away from Windows. And the sooner you do it, the less it will cost, and the more time you'll have for the transition.

What's the cost?

I'd say that there are four costs to the migration (to Linux or Mac): a) new software, b) data conversion, c) conversion of custom or specialized software, and d) changing habits.

(a) Depending on your situation this can be modest to zero. There are plenty of distros (distributions) available for the cost of the media, but let's assume that you need one of the polished commercial products. Even the most expensive desktop Linuxes I've seen cost roughly $99 [1], with office software, which is significantly cheaper than MS Windows + MS Office. If you're converting a large enterprise, you can probably get better per-seat pricing. For home use, a lot of Linux distros charge one price for all the computers in the home. (A Mac is expensive, so I'd only recommend that avenue if you're planning to replace your computer anyway.)

(b) Data conversion is probably the most daunting task. The worst case is if you have lots and lots of documents, spreadsheets, and databases in MS-proprietary formats. I've used OpenOffice to import .DOC and .XLS files, but I've found that the formatting conversion isn't perfect for documents. (OpenOffice 2.0 is rumored to be better at this.) If this is going to be a major problem, you might want to investigate one of the Linux products [1,2] that lets you run MS Office under Linux. But your goal should be to move your documents and data away from proprietary formats. (Start now: stop using Office 2003 formats.)

(c)(1) I still use some specialized software that's only available for Windows (e.g., Metrowerks CodeWarrior, an awful product for other reasons, but one which I am compelled to use). You might find, as I did, that you can't give up such software entirely....but it might run under Linux, using either emulation [2,3,4] or virtual-machine [5,6] software. Now would be a good time to check it out. (To date I have found only one program which will not run under Win4Lin.) If you're running an enterprise, chances are that only a few of your computers need this backward compatibility.

(c)(2) Probably only enterprise users will have written custom Windows software...in which case, you've got a programming staff. Depending on the software, either (i) the conversion should be straightforward, or (ii) you should be able to run the software under Windows emulation. Try running the software under Linux using Wine or CrossOver Office, and see if it works. If it doesn't, ask your programmers why. (They're likely using some oddball system calls.)

(d) Frankly, this is the biggest obstacle to conversion. I've known too many users who are set in their ways, and refuse to use software that looks funny or acts differently in any way. (How they made the transition from Win 9x to XP, or worse from Win 3.1 to 9x, is a mystery to me.) If this is you, ask yourself: what dollar value do you place on your stubbornness or your pride? Because you'll be paying that amount, possibly more, to Microsoft.

What about support, you ask? I think this is a wash; it's going to be about even for Windows or Linux/Mac. Despite the FUD you may have heard, you can get support for Linux...that's why you buy the commercial products. (And don't forget the savings in not having to constantly install security patches and fend off worm and virus attacks.)

Planning the migration

Right now: start saving your documents in easily-convertible form. For MS Word, this means save your documents in Word 97 or Word 2000 format. Likewise for Excel.

Right now: don't accept any new software that only works on Windows. If the vendor doesn't offer it for Mac and/or Linux, find something else that will do the job. (And tell the vendor why.)

Right now: adopt cross-platform software for your Windows use. OpenOffice, StarOffice, Firefox browser, Thunderbird e-mail, Opera browser, GIMP image processing, and many others are available. Get a copy of The Open CD and start using those programs.

Right now: don't buy any new hardware that only works with Windows. If you're shopping for a printer, scanner, camera, laptop, or whatever, check them for Linux (or Mac) compatibility. (Shopping for a new PC? Take a Mepis CD-ROM along and see if it will run.)

Right now: set up a Linux or Mac computer, and try it out. For many Linux distros, if you have enough space on your hard disk, you can install Linux alongside Windows on your PC, and then select Linux or Windows at boot time. (Some Linux distros [7,8,9,10] will even make your Windows files available under Linux....very handy for the transition.) Try converting some of your documents, or your address book, or your browser bookmarks. Test the specialized software that you'll still need to use.

It's a sucker bet that Windows Vista is going to require you to upgrade your hardware, possibly buy new hardware, and lock you in even more firmly to Microsoft. It may even break some of your old software (like XP did to many users). And you can be sure that support for XP will cease a few years after the advent of Vista. If you're going to that trouble and expense anyway, why not use the occasion to break your dependency on Microsoft?


1. Xandros Linux Deluxe
2. CodeWeavers CrossOver Office
3. The Wine Project
4. Transgaming Cedega and AclereX
5. Win4Lin
6. VMWare
7. Xandros Linux Open Circulation Edition and all paid editions
8. SuSE Linux
9. Linspire (formerly Lindows)
10. Many other Linux distros automatically import Windows files. Sorry I can't list them all.

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