Using Linux at Home: #1

Lots of people have told you that Linux is cheaper than Microsoft's Windows brand systems; this column explores a different question: what are the risks and consequences of using it at home?

In today's installment I'll look at a very basic and important question: can you do useful work on your home Linux system if your PC at work runs XP and XP/Office Professional?

The answer to that is both "Yes" and "it depends" --mostly on your willingness to adopt some new ideas but also on the extent to which your office Windows gurus protect their turf.

To start with the easy stuff first: the office productivity packages you get with Linux are not the same as Microsoft Office. They can seem either better or worse depending on your specific needs, skills, and values but they are definitively not the same.

The free suite contains most of the same elements but is far more tightly integrated than Microsoft Office. In, as in the commercially supported StarOffice product set, the tool you use (word processor, spreadsheet, etc) is just a way of defining how you see the file and the components are therefore inherently more tightly integrated than in a Microsoft Office environment where external glues have to be used to bind together otherwise unrelated products like Microsoft Word and Microsoft Excel.

In Linux, furthermore, you get to choose which product set suits you. In addition to and Staroffice there are several other free suites as well as commerical products including WordPerfect and GoBeproductive. All of them will, of course, read and write files produced by products like the Windows word processor: Microsoft Word.

Or, you can just use Microsoft's product.

Microsoft has not announced plans to sell Office for Linux although it does sell licenses for the BSD Unix variant forming the basis for Apple's new MacOS X and you have to think that porting it from there to Linux would be utterly trivial.

You should know, however, that most Windows applications, including Microsoft Word, Excel, Powerpoint, etc can be licensed and run under Linux:

  1. through use of an emulator like Netraverse's Win4Lin which lets you run a Microsoft operating system, and thus its applications, in a normal Linux window just like any other Linux application;
  2. through products, like the stuff from codeweavers, which let you run many Microsoft applications, including the Office suite, as native Linux processes without having to license a Microsoft OS; or,
  3. through use of Linux distributions, like that from xandros specifically tailored to make loading and running Microsoft applications like Word a snap.

For some users staying with Word, at least temporarily, may make sense. People are working on automatically converting macros and programmed tables from Microsoft Office to products like StarOffice and back, but it's not really there yet and those who rely on these facilities should probably stay with Word until it is.

But a word of warning: many people suggest that you set your machine up to dual boot - giving you a choice at boot time between your new Linux system and your old Windows variant. Don't do it; not only is this like giving up smoking only on even numbered days but it's much harder to make work than a straight install with one of these Microsoft compatibility suites.

For most people, most of the time, using Linux for office stuff at home works well. Just email your files home, work on them using an open source tool like Staroffice, save them as Word or Excel (or whatever) files again, and email them back to yourself at work.

It's a simple and effective process that can save you real cash. First because you don't have to license a Windows OS and applications suite at home and, secondly, because Linux will run on much less hardware than the latest Windows OS. That 18 month old P3 you've been thinking about replacing so you could load XP, will work just fine for Linux.

So what's the catch? Well, the four main things that go wrong are:

  1. Some people never get the software installed properly, and so get poor results, particularly with respect to screen graphics. Linux is actually easier and quicker to install than something like Windows 2000, but the people who make graphics boards for PCs generally optimize them for Microsoft's approach to font and window management, not for the X/PDS stuff that's standard on all Unix variants including Linux.

    The Linux install programs are, of course, designed with this problem in mind but there are lots of unusual combinations of monitor, graphics processor, graphics memory, and graphics ROM code that need special tweaking to run exactly right. On these the standard install programs may therefore produce less than optimal results.

    That's usually easy to fix -if you're an expert; but a first time user may take the default results as typical of Linux or, at least, as the best his hardware can produce, and so end up with a system that limps when it should fly.

  2. there are some things, particularly games, that simply don't work at all; while others don't work as well, or in the same way as they do on your office system.

    These differences often become focal points for user frustration with Linux if those users don't get offsetting social or other personal benefits. Those come naturally as you learn a bit about what can be done with Linux and experiment with it, but a lot of people don't do that. Instead they set themselves up to fail by seeing Linux at home as merely cheaper than Windows at home when, in fact, they should be motivating themselves to succeed with it by seeing it as smarter.

  3. You will come under social pressure, not just from the Windows bigots at work, but from people like web site operators who rely on extensions unique to IE or and so treat Linux users as second class citizens. There's not much you can do about them, except maybe run IE (which is possible) or you can do what I do: recognize that less than one third of web servers worldwide run Microsoft IIS and just say no. There are lots of other people who value your time and business higher than these wingots do.

  4. In some circumstances your use of Linux at home to work on office documents could expose you to being unfairly, and incorrectly, accused of compromising office network security.

    Suppose, for example, you have the typical office set-up, Word on desktop PCs with document storage backended to the usual rackmount of Windows 2000 servers. Now when some kind of document integrity problem comes up in a file you've touched, you may find yourself trying to prove a negative: that the problem has nothing to do with your use of Linux.

    From the wingot perspective blaming your use of Linux will look pretty good, after all it combines slapping down an upstart who questions their expertise on technology with shifting responsibility away from them.

    The charge is almost certainly nonsense since Linux is far more secure than most of Microsoft's operating environments and application suites, but the bottom line is that you'll never prove it to the satisfaction of the people whose poor product choices have actually led to the problem.

    To get past it you have to counter with something they'll listen to. Try putting the shoe on their feet by pointing out that a virus attached to the document while in your hands should have been caught by the company anti-virus software when you emailed it back - they won't buy it, but their bosses might. Better yet, head things off up front by getting a few of your organization's top people to use Linux at home too. You'd be amazed at how quickly a wingot can decide to look at his own problems when the alternative is to accuse the CFO of malfeasance.

On the other hand, most people will never be affected by any of these issues, so if you're willing to put even a small amount of effort into learning "to think Linux," then you'll almost certainly be happier with Linux at home than Windows at home. After all, in these times of economic restraint it means something to be able to tell people at work that you not only have smarter tools at home, but that they cost less too.

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