Loading your laptop with some version of Linux used to be the private domain of hardcore geeks, certainly not something anyone running a business would ever think of doing. But no more.

"I'm using Ubuntu Linux on my laptop, and I can say it's a lot more stable than Windows ever was," says Mario Pommier, vice president of business development at Webjogger Internet Service, in New York's Hudson Valley. "I don't have the old Windows problem of memory being used up when running five or six programs simultaneously, and I love the mutliple desktops Linux gives me."

"It still took a little tweaking, but I can use it for all my business needs now, both on the road and in the office," Pommier says.

 Spurred by Web apps and virtualization

A growing number of small and mid-size businesses -- some put off by Microsoft's latest operating system (OS) upgrade, Vista -- are testing the waters by migrating some staff or certain functions to open source-based products.

The trend is also being fueled by two other factors: the rise of Web-based applications and virtualization. The increasing availability of Internet-based collaboration tools negates the need to use any particular OS. The growth of collaboration software like Zoho, Yugma, Google Documents, and many other Web applications makes it far easier to do much of the same work on any OS, without any of the compatibility issues that comes with using PC-based software.

The other factor is the advent of dependable virtualization technology, making it possible to run several OS's on one PC. This neatly eliminates the potentially high cost of replacing software that will only run on XP, or 2000, or Vista. With virtualization, all things at least seem possible. At the LinuxWorld Conference in San Francisco last August, Dell CTO Kevin Kettler predicted in his keynote speech that desktop virtualization will provide the missing link for Linux to shine on the corporate desktop. "A lot of people are predicting that next year could be the year where we really see an explosive growth of Linux on the desktop in business applications, " Kettler said at the time.

How to start your migration

If you find that Linux does indeed fit into your company needs, and you feel it's time to consider changing, then make sure you first acquaint your office workers with the Windows version of OpenOffice before making the final move to the new OS. A full migration to Linux might be a bit daunting, but if your workers are at least comfortable with the open source alternative to MS Office, then it's not insurmountable. Considering how different the Vista version of Office is from previous versions, the learning curve to swap over to OpenOffice is likely easier than trying to learn the newest MS Office anyway, some experts say.

Certainly, the idea of being able to use an operating system that's free of licensing fees as well as a more stable, robust platform, can be tempting to small business owners. If you have workers who aren't dependent on proprietary software, it might make sense to let a few give a Linux desktop a trial run, and see if it's a viable alternative. Using a virtual machine software, like VMware, you can easily load any Linux version on an existing Windows installation without losing your Windows system. It's even more stable to do the reverse -- have a computer with Linux installed running a virtual instance of Windows.

Alternatively, Linux makes it quite easy to dip your company's toes in and test the open source waters with a "live CD." Many distributions, like Ubuntu, Knoppix, Mepis, and many other desktop oriented distributions offer this option. Simply boot your computer from the CD, and it will load with a fully functional Linux system, complete with tons of software. Once you're done testing, simply remove the CD and reboot, and you'll be back to whatever you have installed, with no changes.

If you find Linux works for some of your company needs, then you've saved money, not to mention gaining a potentially stronger desktop OS. If, however, you find it doesn't work for your needs, then at least you know, and won't have that nagging "what if" hanging in the back of your head. Either way, exploring all your options is good business.