Two ways Microsoft's mindshare sabotages Linux desktop adoption

Microsoft may not make flawless software, but its proprietary strategy is hard to fault. In particular, Microsoft has mastered desktop lock-in, undermining users' confidence in any alternatives and creating a slew of minor difficulties that irritate those who do switch.

Two themes dominate the stories I hear about the tribulations of using and adopting non-Microsoft business desktops: the difficulty in finding compatible hardware and the stranglehold Microsoft Word has on users. In the last week, IT pros have shared their experiences with these two adoption inhibitors. In this column, I relate two IT pros' experiences, which are representative of other stories I've heard.

The table that killed a desktop migration

A failing OpenOffice rollout haunts Shaun Holt, technical director of Merchant Pagan (MP), a United Kingdom IT services group.

MP helped a business move from Windows NT4 to Red Hat Enterprise Linux four years ago. Since then, the business has trebled in size, in revenues, facilities, data, transactions and users.

"This has been an unqualified success," said Holt. "The Linux server has not flinched." The business' management has been delighted with the cost-performance gains.

The server migration was transparent to users, an important point to remember as the plot thickens.

With the Linux server win in hand, Holt successfully pitched to the same company a migration to OpenOffice 2.0 from WordPerfect and Microsoft Office, which were being used in a costly and fragmented way. Document compatibility tests showed no problems for the client, so the migration was green-lighted.

Holt created training materials for users. To get them on board, he emphasized OpenOffice's virtues, including the following:

  • cost savings in reduced licensing expenses; document compatibility;
  • favorable reviews of OpenOffice 2.0;
  • productivity and ease-of-use improvements over the patchwork of legacy office suites;
  • the free importing facility to Adobe PDF for legal documents; and,
  • its foundation on the Open Document Format, soon to be the de facto standard for European Commission and other supplier/client transactions.

MP installed OpenOffice 2.0 onto every workstation and made the install part of the new image for every subsequent new workstation deployment.

A date was set to migrate from the other office suites. A training session introduced everyone to OpenOffice 2.0 and the Gimp image- manipulation tool.

The power of MS brainwashing

Six months later," 80% of users have and had no problem with OpenOffice," Holt said.

Unfortunately, the other 20% have fouled the nest. One had some minor issues with a table inserted into a document and others reported number of everyday formatting issues. This vocal minority has rebelled against OpenOffice.

The OpenOffice migration is floundering, as, once again, some employees have returned to using MS Word.

Microsoft's mindshare with some employees has been harder to overcome than the problems with the table and formatting. Holt now knows that the success of an OpenOffice migration can depend on early identification and deprogramming of employees who are fiercely loyal to MS Office. "Just one person like this may upset the whole project," he said.

How to succeed

Learning from his own mistakes, Holt offers this advice to IT shops who want to dump MS Office for non-Microsoft desktops:

  • Remove the outgoing office suite and enforce usage of OpenOffice. "Once someone is used to it, they don't go back," Holt said. There has to be a "no-going-back policy."
  • Talk about success stories to show that others have been able to make the change and like it.
  • Relate the cost savings to company profitability and potential salary/benefit increases.

"OpenOffice is now ready for the workstation, as is The GIMP," Holt said. He firmly believes that Linux should not be relegated to the back room.

Troubles don't end after migration

In Andy Canfield's opinion, lack of confidence in hardware support is the top Linux desktop adoption inhibitor. Hardware support issues plague his company, Arakka Limited of Thailand, which uses Linux desktops internally and helps other companies port and migrate applications to Linux.

Canfield gave me an example of the hardware support problem, based on a recent purchase of a Fujitsu laptop for an Arakka employee. He used Partition Magic to shrink the pre-installed Windows XP and added Red Hat Linux. This is a common practice at Arakka.

Linux on the laptop won't recognize the built-in touchpad. Also, the laptop's Linux can't detect wired versus battery power. Finally, there's not a Linux driver for the PC's built-in modem.

A PCMCIA card was used to replace the unsupported modem problem. "Nobody expects..built-in 'winmodems' to work anymore," Canfield said.

Workarounds can't make the touchpad work with Linux, however, so an external mouse must be used.

As for the power problem, Canfield said that "Linux is infamously lacking in drivers for USB devices." Unlike older protocols like RS-232, USB requires an exact driver for an exact PC model. Of course, almost all drivers are only written for Windows.

Confidence killers

More on this topic:

Linux desktop adoption sabotage: FUD or fact?

Stopping Linux desktop adoption sabotage

Microsoft and the world's most expensive pizza  

Most peripheral hardware and chipsets are made for Windows, so the list of hardware gaps faced by Linux desktop users is long. Hardware vendors find it hard to buck the dominant paradigm. In an interview, Linux evangelist John H. Terpstra told me: "Microsoft has used its market dominance to coerce OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) and resellers not to sell competing products and services."

Canfield is committed to Linux, but many people and companies are not. It's tough to evangelize Linux desktops, he said, when a random set of features on many PCs just won't play well with Linux.

After hearing Holt's and Canfield's stories and many others like theirs, I have to admire Microsoft's handling of users and OEMs. The company has convinced users that a switch to a competing office suite would require too many sacrifices. That's powerful propagandizing. It's also truthful, because Linux and open source desktop application adopters do have to find ways to workaround the barriers Microsoft has built.

Holt said: "It is the brave individual who will migrate their organization's desktops to Linux."

Despite the difficulties they've encountered, both Canfield and Holt will continue using and evangelizing Linux desktops. They firmly believe, as do I, that the business that plans, trains and implements Linux and OpenOffice desktops well can overcome the short-term hassles and get long-term cost and productivity benefits.

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