Tuesday, July 27, 2010

No Operating System is Replaceable

So many people out there just love to talk about how Linux is now a "drop in replacement" for Microsoft Windows or Macintosh OSX. This isn't the case. The sad truth is that there are no "drop in replacements" for most software, and especially so for operating systems.

Let's look at Windows for a moment. There are two things that hold people to Windows like super glue. The first one is MS Office. We need to be realistic. OpenOffice.org is fantastic. It's my personal favorite as an office suite. It is NOT 100% compatible with MS Office, and that's just how it is. Quite often, rulers are going to be off. Advanced formatting will always be skewed, and fonts are never accurate. Telling someone that they need to alter (potentially) thousands of documents to switch to a "free" software stack is effectively making the software stack anything but free. Microsoft Access compatibility is almost non-existent in OOo. The OOo site says the following about Access compatibility: "You can modify the data in the tables and you can add and remove records. You can create new tables, but you cannot alter the structure of existing tables. Queries in MS Access are shown as views in the table container. You can use the query results, but you have no access to the underlying definitions and you cannot alter them. You cannot read MS Access forms or reports. There is no way to use the table linking mechanism in Access to connect to a Base database. It is possible for a Base database to update data in the Access database. At this time this will require however that the Access database be opened and locked by the Base file. Data could also be passed back to the Access database by creating a linked CSV file in the Base database. Then linking to this CSV file to a table in the Access database. Base can not create a new Access database file; or new tables, queries, forms etc. within an existing mdb file." So, as it turns out, there is no real compatibility with Access, Word is about 50%, Excel is nearly 100%, and PowerPoint is about as well off as Word. Beyond those, many programs do not have equivalents OOo.

The second reason many people stick with Windows is due to 3rd party software they depend on for their businesses. Many tax programs, payroll programs, and other such software are not available for Linux. Running them in WINE is a bad idea considering that these applications are mission critical. Switching to an open source alternative would require a lot of time, training, and file format conversion that is simply too expensive to consider.

With OSX, the problems are similar. There is no alternative to iWork. If you have a few thousand files in a pages, keynote, or numbers format nothing but iWork will open them. Likewise, finding alternatives to the iLife suite is rather difficult. iTunes works with your iPhone, iPod, and iPad... while Linux candle music, pictures, and some movies on those devices you are out of luck for your books, contacts, apps, bookmarks, notes, and mail. You also cannot access the iTunes store on Linux. Another thing that will be difficult to match on Linux is Adobe CS. Alternatives to each application in the suite exist, but they are not compatible with Adobe formats. If you wanted to copy every single feature of the standard OSX suite (OSX, iLife, iWork) you will not be able to do so. If you wanted to copy every feature of Adobe CS, you would not be able to do so. And if you are a professional photographer, graphic artist, or website designer who had depended upon Adobe CS, I would never advise switching to Linux from OSX. You need your livelihood. You might could purchase a second machine, and in your down time explore Linux alternatives. Then once you are comfortable with those Linux alternatives you could easily switch to Linux, but your cost is high. You will have had to have relearned how to do your job.

All of these problems are things that must be considered. For the average home user, Linux is more than adequate for daily tasks. But by that standard, so are OSX and Windows. For any new company or young professional, Linux is more than adequate for any task. The only problem is that once a company or professional is established and using a certain platform, that platform becomes a necessity. Switching to a new platform is time intensive, and that migration requires quite a bit of training.

Perhaps, the best example of what I am saying is cellular telephones. Once you are using an iPhone, you are used to the apps available on the iPhone. You are used to the way the iPhone works. You are accustomed to the way you sync your iPhone with your computer. You are invested in the iPhone platform. Switching to another cellular telephone can present several road blocks, take you a lot of time, and cause a lot of disruption. The same would hold true for Android, Symbian, Blackberry, or Windows Mobile cellular telephones. This is something few people really argue. Yet, when we look at multipurpose microcomputer operating systems people act as if their OS of choice is the ultimate solution for all possible situations. That simply isn't so.

This was in response to this PC World article, which was more of a Linux advertisement than it was an article.


Grant Johnson said...

In the same way, Windows is not a drop in replacement for Linux. The system is unstable under heavy load, especially multitasking. I simply cannot tell it to re-encode a video I edited, and then just drop the priority and continue to use the machine. As it can take 8-10 hours to do this task, Windows is unusable.

The worst thing, though, is that there is no APT for Windows. No way to update every application at the same time. Secunia PSI comes closest by telling me which ones need to be updated, but is not enough. There is also no way to resolve issues when applications require incompatible DLL versions.

Ck said...

Thats all true if your only looking into the next quarter. But for forward thinking business, and people looking at the long haul, migration to Linux (And the freedom Linux does afford.) Become a more worthwhile endeavor. Does it have everything? No, and no one OS ever will. Big businesses usually have custom software to begin with, at least on Linux you wont need to pay licences to port you software over. When the change is finished your costs significantly drop, and productivity goes up. I believe its the constant need to post record profits every quarter that is holding Linux back, undermining infrastructure, and stifling innovation.

macias said...

Well said!

It is not a matter of closed/open-source, but simply investment of time in learning of given product. If you start from opensuse it is hard to switch to ubuntu, if you start with windows xp it is hard to switch windows 7. Any switch has non-zero cost and sometimes the cost is too high considering possible advantages of target product.

Away Goals Rule said...

I use Windows because i play games and don't want the hassle of trying to get them to run through Linux. Until Games are Linux compatible it will never get close to winning the war

AmrH said...

It's not all about games.

For example, I don't play games on my PC; however, I need Microsoft's Visual Studio for my everyday work. I've tried mono and it doesn't fulfill all my needs. That's what keeps me away from switching to Linux as my main OS.

Gurubie said...

Complete and utter BS. It's already a given that OS's are not the same.

If you were to actually use them all, you would understand that Ubuntu is the lesser of evils.

jjc said...

Horses for courses, every one to their own however I agree with Ck, companies must look to the long haul and not short term cost/profit
open formats will pay for themselves in the long run.

Dennis said...

It depends on what you're doing. For instance, Linux is a great drop-in replacement OS for Windows if you're running Oracle, while the reverse is not so good. The simple reality is that OS choice is determined by the apps you're going to run.

But the idea that *no* operating system is replaceable is utter BS. OpenVMS, CPM, MS-DOS, MPE/iX, Irix, etc., illustrate that point pretty well.

KimTjik said...

As already commented, Windows can't be drop-in replacement for Linux either.

A problem with your reasoning is that it's locked to a homogeneous perspective. A Windows terminal server could be all you need, while replacing all other servers and workstations with something else, like Linux. CALs for a terminal server is significant lower. A Samba server integrates perfectly well by joining or controlling a Windows domain, meaning that storage concerns can be solved by a more efficient and robust solution.

Try to imagine the cost and hassle to go the other way, replacing Linux servers and workstations. You can always find certain implementations that doesn't work well on Linux, but you find that the same is true about Windows.

By the way, why do so many adopt the dinosauric use of Access and Excel? Or how many do actually know how to use Word beyond the level of even Abiword? I don't mind people do these choices, but as arguments it's in many cases just hot air. It's however sad to see that Access is confused with a real database and that Excel is used as a small database.

xenoterracide said...

You lost me on Microsoft Office. Is Crossover Office really not capable of running MS Office well enough? I can understand OOo or Google Docs not being enough for some... but the fact that there are ways of running MS Office apps on Linux...

I agree with the comment that Windows is no replacement for Linux. Most of my workflow does not work on windows and if it does it requires me to visit something on the order of 20 websites + downloads to get set up in a new env.

Jack said...

For several months, I've needed a file server for my small business (4 computers running xp pro). I tried several times to install a linux solution. I finally gave up. I'm just not smart enough and I couldn't find any knowledgeable local people to help with the installation.

Out of desperation, I tried Windows Home Server. It took a couple of hours to install on a new server and it works great. Cost $94.50.

I REALLY wanted a Linux solution. It just wasn't practical.

Dave Lyon said...

2 Thoughts:

1) A lot of app lock-in comes from the file format itself, not really the application. Someone pointed out that most users do not use most features in their software. But once it's saved in a special format, open software may not be able to help you. I think people would feel less grumpy about 'lock-in' if the app we use were just so awesome we couldn't think of using anything else. Being forced to because your files can't be opened by anything else is a sign that you should be looking elsewhere, even if it's painful.

2) I know this is an unpopular view, but shouldn't we be trying to employ bright people that are smart- not just people that remember where an option is in a specific software package? "It's what I know" makes no sense. It's like saying "I can't learn". I know a lot of software may not be replaceable, but tying your career to a software package is idiocy. Example? How about genius Flash developers excited to develop for iPhone. At a word from Apple, it doesn't matter that Adobe wants to let Flash developers in, and even provides tools- they can't get into iPhone. If that's critical to your business, you can't just hug your Adobe CS box and say "It's all I know". We sell people short when we (or even they) say they can't switch to something because it's different than what they're used to.

Yes, there's a cost. Very few software solutions are drop-in replacements. But if you hold onto what you chose previously, that painful ride you're experiencing right now with the software you can't live without could get worse when you go over a cliff.

Khurt said...

I think some of the commenters miss the point. I don't think this article makes a case against Linux or has a pro Windows/Mac position.

I think it's making the case that non-geeks - the vast majority of the computer buying public - buy whichever solution allows them to work with the applications they CHOOSE to work with that meets their needs.

I work for a large pharma company (over 20,000 desktops ). Switching from Thunderbird to Outlook cost us almost as much in training as it did in Microsoft licenses. Why did they switch? Because Thunderbird no longer met the needs of the business (too numerous to put here).

My employer also discovered that for some database needs, MySQL was sufficient. We started switching some apps to MySQL on Linux for additional cost savings over Oracle on Solaris. But moving to MySQL/Linux was trivial since the staff already has *NIX experience. Things would have been much tougher moving to SQL Server on Windows.

Khurt said...

And one more thing .. since some of the commenters think this argument is only about data formats or a lack of a desire to learn or unused features. If users don't need the advanced feature why run OpenOffice at all? Just use a browser and one of the many online document tools.

Jeff said...

@Jack "I couldn't find any knowledgeable local people to help with the installation."
This seems like a significant problem, being able to connect the 'supply' with the 'demand' at a local level. As someone on the 'supply' side of the equation, I admit to being apprehensive about spending much time or money on marketing because I don't know if there's enough demand locally to make it worthwhile.

Michael said...

This article is about 80% baloney. While the inertia of existing applications does slow the pace of adoption of new things, change is inevitable. If it wasn't then people wouldn't have gone from WordStar to WordPerfect to Word for Dos to Word for Windows. Or Netscape to IE to Firefox to Chrome. The fact that things always change means that any given piece of software will die someday. Users will grumble that the new thing doesn't do it the way the old thing does and then six months after that they have no memory of how the old thing works. I've been watching this happen for 30 years, it's probably the only thing that doesn't change.

lycan 762 said...

I get that no system Os is replaceable because of how we use our systems. Windows has a lot of market share, and they basically rule what happen with PCs. Linux is great too, but with out the big backing, and some unity it's going to be some time before it a force to be reckoned with. Mac is good too, but overkill on the price.

Each OS has their own niche, but this is my first couple of years using linux, and I still use windows on the wife's laptop. A few of the thing I like about Linux is that it is stable, secure, and just works. I was supprised how easy it is to setup, and with running a file, and media server on it it is great. It took some research to find what I was looking for, but all and I thing one OS could replace the other fairly well, as long as to take the time to do the research and play with it.

Kerberos said...

@Grant Johnson - The usual propaganda based on a decade old view of Windows. The following is culled from the Ayatana mailing list and was not denied:

"This is just something that I've noticed recently, if it wasn't so tricky to fix it would definitely belong in the "papercut" category as one of those things you learn to live with / stop noticing.

I've had a Vista install alongside my Ubuntu install for some time, but never really used it. Recently I've had some Flash issues in Ubuntu so it was easier just to reboot in to Vista to watch some online video. One thing I noticed was how much more "solid" Vista *felt*. For a while I couldn't figure out why this was, something just gave the illusion of being more robust than Ubuntu.

Just now I figured out what it is, I've just logged into my work PC, and fired up Thunderbird, Netbeans, Firefox etc. and I sat and watched a desktop that appeared to be doing nothing.

There are really two issues here, one is feedback to the user after starting an application. When you start an application from the menu, there is no indication that anything actually happened (aside from the menu vanishing), there's no "I'm thinking about it, one second..." indicator. In Windows of course there is the little busy cursor, our busy cursor doesn't seem to trigger in this situation. I'm not saying that a busy cursor is a good solution to this, but we could do with some kind of "The application is launching" indication.

The other issue is that if some app starts accessing the hard disc / use some CPU, everything seems to stop completely. Just now I ran some updates while trying to type this email and Firefox started "grey screening" me every few seconds. Why? The updates seem to use all the CPU and leave the applications struggling to even refresh. I'm not saying this is an Ubuntu specific thing, obviously we've all seen Window's "The application is not responding" dialog, but I know that I see the greyed window on Ubuntu far more than that dialog on Windows. And in my experience, the Windows dialog actually appears when that program is hanging, not because another program is busy.

I don't know the solution, (better CPU scheduling? Prioritizing of GUI threads? CPU limiting the update manager?), but we should really try to do something to improve this."

Where is your god now?

The Casual Vegan said...

Open Office is not a copy of Microsoft Office, but Microsoft office runs beautifully on GNU/Linux through Crossover Office. You really can have this cake and eat it too.

If you really have advanced formatting in thousands of Word documents, you can junk your operating system, drop in a replacement (OSX, Ubuntu, etc.) and keep your office suite.

Third party business software is an issue for many businesses, but today even warehouse management systems have gone open source. Why pay $50,000 dollars in licensing for a new WMS when the open source WMS is better and free?

The choice of operating system in a business environment is best made when you are already making a change or upgrade in your mission critical business software.

If you're a health care provider, and your replacing your health care records with new digital medical database, then choosing one that's open source or cross platform adds great value to your business.

Kelvin said...

nice post!

Belle said...

Most people grew up with Windows, so, I guess we all find it easy to operate with windows. Unlike Linux, it has programs for payroll (Colorado). Even though online payroll services are on its pick today outsourcing payroll is still needed to pattern employees' time sheets.

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