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It's Got Wings!

But will Linux desktops ever get off the ground in a Windows-dominated world?

Can businesspeople survive without Microsoft Office? Not only can they survive, but they may be able to do so with lower hardware, software and support costs, says Bill Faust, co-owner of Optim Microwave. Faust's Westlake Village, California, satellite dish designer has two dozen Linux-based desktops working in tandem on massive design projects. They're never turned off and they never stop crunching numbers; and if one should crash, so would Optim's delivery schedule.

Because of Linux, the 37-year-old is able to run his high-octane programs on white boxes that he describes as "a generation or so behind," and for which he rarely pays more than $500. Five of those number-crunchers comfortably double as desktops for staff members.

Instead of Word and Outlook, Optim uses LaTeX and KMail shipped free with the KDE interface; instead of Excel, the GNOME environment's Gnumeric. Optim uses Mozilla for browsing and, under certain circumstances, might have to use Sun's StarOffice suite to convert super-complex Windows documents.

A growing number of businesses like Optim that have had good experiences with their Linux servers are now trying the operating system out on knowledge worker PCs. Linux became the OS of choice on 2.4 percent of desktops in 2001, reports IDC vice president of system software Dan Kusnetzky, a 49 percent increase over 2000. Linux flourished while every other OS lost ground--every one but Windows. Microsoft now owns 93 percent of all desktops.

Don't look for that to change anytime soon. Although mass-market kingpin Wal-Mart is selling $199 PCs running Lindows, the Linux flavor from San Diego start-up Lindows.com, and Sun is building a Linux-based thin client for corporations next year, Microsoft makes more in two days than the entire Linux community makes in a year, notes Kusnetzky. (His figures don't include unpaid copies of Linux-about two for every copy purchased.)

Faust paid trivial amounts the first time he downloaded Linux; then he copied it onto dozens of machines. That's not possible with all Linux products--and vendors often charge for CD-ROM distribution, support and various kinds of value-added services--but the costs are tens of dollars, as opposed to hundreds of dollars for Windows.

Pain: More or Less?

So what's it like to use a Linux desktop? Probably painless, but potentially more expensive, depending on your configuration. Faust reports no problems at all with his all-Linux configuration, even though his company easily mingles applications from different Linux suites and graphical environments.

But problems could crop up if you run Microsoft Office on top of Linux, warns Kusnetzky. Programs designed to let Windows applications run on top of Linux can't read files from every Office version. CodeWeavers' CrossOver Office lets you run only the Office 97 and Office 2000 editions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook, Internet Explorer and Visio--as well as Lotus Notes and Intuit Quicken. Support for Access, FrontPage and other Windows applications is in the works. Likewise, the Ximian Evolution/Connector e-mail client/server lets you read Microsoft Exchange mail and calendars, but without access to some features. And you may encounter formatting incompatibilities reading Office files into suites like Sun's StarOffice--a few outline bullets lost here, a table setting there.

"It doesn't take much before you're paying the same in people's time that you would have paid just buying Microsoft products in the first place," warns Kusnetzky.

The irony is that you probably experience far more problems when switching between Office versions or style files, importing Web pages or reading mail from supposedly compatible Windows e-mail clients. Certainly, few things in computing are as incomprehensible or maddening as Word's formatting logic. That given, you may find Linux applications are probably more compatible with Windows apps than other Windows apps are.

ALMOST OFFICE

These let you swap your Microsoft Windows for Linux and still use Microsoft Office applications--mostly.

  • CrossOver Office 1.2: Software bridge lets a Linux desktop run some Microsoft Office versions, Lotus Notes and Intuit Quicken without a licensed copy of Windows.
    Street price: $55
  • Sun StarOffice Suite 6.0): OpenOffice.org productivity suite compatible with Windows, Linux and Solaris.
    Street price: $76


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This article was originally published in the December 2002 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: It's Got Wings!.

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