Microsoft's recent announcement that the long-anticipated new version of its Windows operating system, Vista, has been delayed into January 2007 leaves several questions hanging. Will Vista offer enough benefits to make it worth the cost of upgrading? Will those who hang on to the current version of Windows end up locked out of new software and peripherals? A recent report by the research firm Gartner asserted that as many as half of all PCs will not be able to run many of Vista's most sophisticated features. Given that, is upgrading even a smart option?
But if the confusion over Windows is deepening, the opposite is true of Linux. Linux, of course, is the alternative to Windows that comes from the world of open-source software--meaning no company owns it, it's available for free, and it boasts a worldwide network of programmers constantly trying to perfect it. For the most part, Linux has been used by geeks who enjoy rolling up their sleeves and getting under the hood of their software. Even the mention of Linux is enough to pull most nontechie managers out of their comfort zone.
But the notion that Linux is a complicated, alien, experts-only operating system is no longer true. Not only is Linux becoming a mainstream product that can be considered a reasonable alternative to Windows for just about anyone, it's actually easy for nontechies to install. Linux looks pretty much like Windows these days, so you won't face a steep learning curve in putting it to work. And you'll probably never have to worry about a big-bang upgrade to a radically new version because Linux gets updated routinely every six months or so, incrementally, at little or no cost.
I'm not suggesting that switching an entire company over to Linux and other open-source software is a no-brainer. There are pros and cons that need to be assessed by a smart tech person. On the plus side: You'll save money on computing costs with Linux, you won't be locked into Microsoft (or Apple), and your computers will be safer from hackers and viruses. On the other hand, you'll have fewer options in application software than with Windows, and you'll need access to some new technical expertise.
But let's say you're at least mildly intrigued about this notion of less expensive software that leaves you free of Microsoft's strategies and whims. Perhaps you've heard of other companies in your industry switching, and you've had some of your own staff mention an interest in Linux. Why not see for yourself what the fuss is about? The Linux world has come up with some utterly painless and riskless ways for any average Joe to give Linux a test drive--on your own PC, in as little as a few minutes, no expertise required. Go for it. It's easy, it won't cost you anything, and if you're at all in touch with your inner nerd you might actually have some fun. What's more, it just might end up being the first small step in a revolution in the way your company approaches technology.
In the Linux world, by the time you wish for something, someone else will already be working on it--and usually for free.
There are dozens of versions of Linux--called "distributions," or "distros"--out there, but hold that thought. Your more immediate decision is how to get it on your PC. There are three ways:
Live CD: If you want a truly riskless means for experiencing Linux, this is the way to go. Just stick one of these CDs in your computer, restart it, and Linux will fire up entirely from the CD, ignoring Windows. Until you turn off your computer again, it will operate as a fully functional Linux machine, albeit a very, very slow one. Pull out the CD, restart, and it will be as if the entire trial were a dream. You can even run some distributions of Linux, such as Damn Small Linux, from one of those tiny USB drives.
Parallel installation: Some Linux distributions are easily downloaded and installed on your PC's hard disk alongside Windows, so that each time you turn on your computer you'll have a choice of Linux or Windows. Your Windows world will remain entirely separate and unaffected. You won't be able to switch back and forth between the two operating systems while the computer is running--it's one or the other between restarts--so this wouldn't be a long-term solution for someone who really wants constant access to both. But chances are you'll soon decide you want to either commit to Linux or ditch it.
Windows replacement: This is going whole hog. Windows is wiped out, freeing up your whole disk, so you're all Linux, all the time. Going back to Windows requires a full-on reinstall.
Now, on to the question of which distribution of Linux to try. An exploration of the tradeoffs of the multitude of Linuxes would take a small book. But it's worth noting that while the majority of Linuxes are available for free, a companywide move to Linux might best be undertaken via one of the major vendors that offer business-oriented support, most notably Red Hat and Novell. If you're also in the market for new PCs, consider buying them with Linux preinstalled from HP, or on the cheap from upstart Koobox. If you prefer to do business with a physical store, Micro Center carries Linspire Linux, available with support. Some companies, including SpikeSource, offer businesses third-party support for Linux and other open-source software.
But if your main interest is in giving Linux a test run, then you'll want a distribution that provides a full range of installation options with the least fuss. I recommend that you consider Ubuntu Linux. Though not yet widely known outside the programming community, Ubuntu is winning raves for ease of installation and use, as well as for its robust functionality. Ubuntu will send you CDs for free, or you can download the program. You'll have a choice of running it as a live CD or installing it either in parallel with or instead of Windows.
You can dip your toe into Linux without leaving the comfort of Windows.
I tried Ubuntu both in the live and install versions with a year-old Dell Dimension 2400, a fairly standard desktop PC, and I found it significantly easier to install than Windows XP Home. Most notably, it did a better job than Windows did of automatically recognizing my wireless network, local and network printers, and even an off-brand external DVD burner that never quite worked right with Windows. Equally impressive, it also installed and ran perfectly on an eccentric four-year-old Sony Vaio laptop that's crash-prone under Windows Me and nonfunctional under Windows XP.
Ubuntu fires up right to a Windows-like desktop, complete with OpenOffice.org--a sophisticated clone of Microsoft Office with word processing, spreadsheet, slide show, database, and drawing software. Also included are an Outlook-like e-mail and calendar program called Evolution, the Firefox browser, multimedia players, and many other nifty programs. Most of these applications even worked with my existing Windows files. Everything ran perfectly and intuitively. Did I mention that all this is free? And when a new version of Ubuntu or any one of these programs comes out, you can pick that one up for free, too.
That you're not in Windows-land anymore hits home when you want to install software that is not included with Ubuntu--in my case, a program to play DVDs, left out by Ubuntu to avoid legal hassles with entertainment companies. Doing that and other things in Linux occasionally requires some fancy tech footwork, and I was initially intimidated. But it took only a few minutes on Ubuntu's extensive and well-organized online forums--you'll find much the same for most major distributions of Linux--to get a simple, step-by-step recipe for the job. Even better, a new program called Automatix automates the process of adding dozens of programs you might find handy. And that's typical of the Linux world: By the time you wish for something, someone else will already be working on providing it. And usually for free, as I may have already pointed out.
If you just can't see taking the time to play around with Linux, you can dip your toe into open-source software without leaving the comfort of Windows. There are versions of OpenOffice.org and Firefox that run on Windows, and soon the e-mail and calendar application Evolution should, too. No need to replace anything; try them out in parallel with your current software and see if the open-source world does anything for you. Oddly enough, you can even run Linux itself on Windows: A version of Damn Small Linux is available for Windows, and others are in the works. Conversely, there is software for running Windows programs under Linux, including Wine and CodeWeavers CrossOver Office. And newer PCs with "dual-core" processors should be able to switch between operating systems without having to reboot.
Maybe this sort of gentle approach to trying out Linux will convince you to take a closer look at the idea of switching over your entire company. But don't kid yourself. That sort of jump wouldn't be without its trials and tribulations. The biggest potential hurdle: If you're reliant on enterprisewide software such as a customer-relationship management system, you might have trouble getting it to run on Linux PCs and you'd probably have to replace it with a Linux-friendly product.
That's a conversation to have with your top tech person, of course. But if he or she pales at the mention of Linux and tries to get you to dismiss it out of hand without clear reasons, you may want to consider the possibility that it's not just your operating system that might need replacing.
David H. Freedman (firstname.lastname@example.org), a Boston-based writer and Inc. contributing editor, is the author of several books about business and technology.