Open Source Small Business Software: Ubuntu Linux
Many people have dubbed Windows XP as "the OS that refuses to die." Even though Microsoft has sold 240 million Windows 7 licenses in the year since its debut, XP is still the dominant operating system with about 60 percent of the market -- compared with Win7's 17 percent. Windows 7 is doing better than Vista, but it's not knocking XP off the desktop. Why? Because, in large part, small businesses struggle with switching to Windows 7.
Microsoft will support XP until 2014, at least, but there's no way around it: Sooner or later you'll have to switch. So why not make it sooner, and consider making a switch to an open source, Linux-based OS that will cause fewer headaches down the road?
The transition from Windows XP can be a breaking point away from Windows altogether, depending on your business needs. Though I'm a strong Linux supporter, I'll be the first to admit that Linux isn't always a good idea. For instance, if your business depends on Windows-only software like AutoCAD, or some other package that runs your business but isn't available for Linux -- you're pretty much stuck with Windows. This is especially true with small businesses that don't have the resources to simply write new applications.
But if you largely use standard productivity applications, email, office suites, and Web-based apps, then Linux is more than ready for your business.
Why consider Ubuntu? The most recent releases of Ubuntu are likely to be the most popular with people familiar with Windows and Mac OS X. They're slick, easy to use, and come with a standard set of applications that give most people what they need (and want) right out of the box. Canonical (the company behind Ubuntu) also offers support packages, if you feel the need, which allow you to easily manage software updates on your PCs and get support with Linux if needed.
If your business uses Microsoft Exchange, you can easily configure Evolution to connect to Exchange. OpenOffice.org can do about 90 percent of what Microsoft Office can do, and at the low, low price of free.
Web-based applications? No problem. Ubuntu comes with the Firefox 3.6 browser, and Google Chrome is readily available for Ubuntu as well. Most, if not all, popular Web services run well under Chrome and Firefox.
App Store? Ubuntu's Already Got One
And Ubuntu offers a few things you don't get (by default) in Microsoft Windows: Like hundreds of productivity applications for free via Ubuntu's repository. Examples include Tomboy for taking notes and managing information or Getting Things GNOME for people who follow the Getting Things Done (GTD) time management methodology.
Apple's App Store caught the tech world's fancy, but here's a little secret: Ubuntu Linux (and other distros) has had App Stores for years that are comprehensive and filled with applications that are open source and free software. Of course, users can only install additional software if you give them permission to -- so there's no worry about "rogue" software on the network. I'm talking about the Software Center in Ubuntu that lets users pick from all the open source software in the repositories.
Other distros have similar features, of course, but Ubuntu 10.10 has raised the bar in this regard, especially with Canonical's addition of a store for proprietary software. It's a bit lonely at the moment, only one application is for sale, but the company is paving the way for a more active Linux desktop market.
Which Version: Ubuntu 10.10 or Ubuntu 10.04 LTS
Some businesses may want to consider going with Ubuntu 10.04, because it's a Long Term Support (LTS) release. That means that Canonical will provide updates and support for the desktop release of Ubuntu 10.04 through April of 2013. Ubuntu 10.10 is a standard release that will only see support for 18 months. Aside from incremental updates with applications, the primary improvements in Ubuntu 10.10 are to Ubuntu One and the Software Center.
If you want to give your users synchronization features via Ubuntu One, I'd recommend going with Ubuntu 10.10. Otherwise, stick with Ubuntu 10.04 LTS. While Ubuntu 10.10 is a fine OS, it's not a compelling enough upgrade to warrant losing more than a year of support.
But that brings me to my last point about considering Ubuntu when leaving Windows XP. The upgrade process from Windows XP to Windows 7 can be painful. Upgrading between Ubuntu LTS releases, unless you've added some third-party repositories or other unsupported software, is a piece of cake. Ubuntu supports an in-place distribution upgrade that is as painless as operating system upgrades can be.
And Ubuntu doesn't require cutting-edge hardware, either. If your XP machines are less than three years old, they'll be good to run Ubuntu for another three years, easily (barring hardware failures, of course.)
For basic office use, and for Web app use, Ubuntu is more than ready to fill the gap. The desktop is not unlike Windows or Mac OS X -- most people will take to it in no time. Remember, there's going to be a learning curve going from XP to Windows 7 anyway, so you might as well take advantage of the transition to move to an operating system that is non-proprietary and freely available.
Joe 'Zonker' Brockmeier is a freelance writer and editor with more than 10 years covering IT. Formerly the openSUSE Community Manager for Novell, Brockmeier has written for Linux Magazine, Sys Admin, Linux Pro Magazine, IBM developerWorks, Linux.com, CIO.com, Linux Weekly News, ZDNet, and many other publications. Brockmeier is also a FLOSS advocate and participates in several projects, including GNOME as the PR team lead. You can reach Zonker at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter.
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