There's no need to fear switching your business desktop from Microsoft Windows to Linux. It's a lot easier and lot more transparent to users than you think, says Marcel Gagne. In this interview, Gagne offers advice about file sharing and the features of OpenOffice.org, that open source alternative to Microsoft Word. Gagne is author of
Ready...Set...Linux! a new book, Moving to the Linux Business Desktop.
IT directors say that their users are always worried about not being able to share files between Microsoft Word and OpenOffice.org, or that they'll lose their MS Word files altogether if the organization moves to OpenOffice.org. Why are these fears unfounded or justified?
Gagne:There's really nothing to fear here. Many organizations routinely use OpenOffice to communicate with people using Microsoft Office products. OpenOffice reads and writes Microsoft Office formats (like Word, Excel, or Powerpoint) almost flawlessly. The differences aren't enough to justify the worries and using the free OpenOffice (which is available for Windows as well) instead of paying for Microsoft Office can save even a small business thousands of dollars.
It's possible to share files and folders with Windows users as well. Samba on Linux is well established as a replacement for Windows servers (and again, transparent to users once the admin sets things up). Newer Linux distributions have file and folder sharing built in to their desktop environments. For instance, on my KDE desktop, I can right click on a directory (or folder), select Properties, then click on the Sharing tab to share a folder with other users. It's pretty simple.
Why is OpenOffice.org and its OpenWriter apps a better alternative to MS Word than KOffice/KWord and Abiword?
Gagne: Mostly because the filters that allow reading and writing to and from Microsoft Office are more mature and more accurate with OpenOffice.
Would KWord or Abiword be more useful in certain situations or business applications?
KWord's approach is different than that of Abiword or OpenOffice and the one with the biggest learning curve. It's not difficult but it does take some getting used to. It is a frame-based word processor in the style of FrameMaker (users familiar with this application won't find KWord quite so unusual), allowing for extremely accurate document creation. In many ways, it's more of a desktop publishing application.
Abiword is an excellent choice if you have don't have a lot of resources in therms of CPU or memory. Abiword is very lightweight and is available for both Linux and Windows, another plus to easy transition concerns.
As I said, the downside is that the import/export filters aren't quite as accurate as those in OpenOffice.
What's good, bad and tricky about running Microsoft Word as OpenOffice.org's default document format?
Gagne: Nothing is particularly tricky. Many people just set OpenOffice to use the Microsoft Office format by default and leave it at that. The biggest disadvantage is that Microsoft Word's document format is proprietary while OpenOffice is fully open and unfettered by patent or licensing issues.
What's missing from OpenOffice.org Calc that can be found in Microsoft Excel, and vice versa?
Gagne: Most users will never notice the difference of one over the other. The big exception to that rule has to do with VB macros in Excel. These won't work in OpenOffice Calc.
How do Gnumeric and KSpread measure up to Microsoft Excel?
Gagne: Gnumeric is an excellent replacement for Microsoft Excel and historically has had the most accurate and complete set of features and document filters of any of the other spreadsheets. If you spend a lot of time in Excel, it is certainly worth your time to take a look. KSpread is a fine spreadsheet program and is wonderfully integrated into KDE and the rest of the KOffice suite, but it's not the best drop in replacement for MS Excel or for sharing documents. If this isn't a concern, (your shop has gone Linux anyhow), give it a try.
This was first published in November 2004