COMMENTARY -- With Office and Windows XP looming on the horizon, and all the forthcoming "XP" branded programs soon to follow, I have heard many people complaining about the course Microsoft is taking with their products. While some of these complaints are FUD, I do respect those messages that make valid points, and I have heard a lot of people talking about making the "big switch" from a Windows operating system to a Linux distribution.
In the latest issue of Open Magazine, there was a very well written article about "Breaking the Windows Habit," in which the author, Mr. Robin Miller, explains our human tendencies to revert back to something old when we can't make heads or tails out of something new. Unfortunately, due to the target audience of Open Magazine, the article is short and, if you've never used Linux before, it wouldn't be of much help.
This prompted me to think: "What advice would I give to those who are talking about going to Linux but have never used it before?" If you're thinking about going to Linux, here are some steps to follow to reduce the likelihood of being caught by Microsoft's lesser known product: Withdrawal Version 3.0.
Step One: Evaluate your computing needs
What do you need out of your computer? Are you one of the many who just use your computer as an advanced typewriter that happens to have an Internet connection, or are you a hardcore gamer? Proper identification of what, exactly, you need your computer for is essential for deciding what path you want to take at this fork at Operating System road. For example, while there are a lot of games that run on Linux, the library of games available is nowhere near as great as what's available for Windows-based PCs. This is, of course, just one scenario. Everyone I know has a different purpose for their computer, and in this step, all we're aiming to do is discover what you need out of your computing experience.
During your evaluation, take pause to note what applications you use most. These applications are your 'mission critical' applications, and no matter which path you take, you will need products that can perform similar functions as your current applications.
Step Two: Research
As important as evaluating your needs, you will need to research. Most people that I know cringe at the idea of researching, but a little research can go a long way. At this point, I want you to stick this message in your head and keep it there: Changing your operating system after having used a certain brand for a number of years will not be as easy as changing your underwear. You will have to put a little effort into it if you want the best possible computing experience, regardless of your computing needs. If you're not going to put effort into it, you won't have a positive experience. This holds true for any computer product, and often, holds true for almost anything, computer-based or otherwise.
If you're contemplating going to a Linux distribution, do research on the various available distributions is a requirement. Pay attention to detail. Nearly every Linux distributor has their own Web site, and when you're tired of the endless corporate propaganda given by each "official" site, start visiting third-party Linux sites. See what each distribution includes, including packaged commercial Linux software and what desktop packages are available. When you run across something you don't understand and you want more information, just search for it. Information on nearly everything Linux is only a search engine away. Read 'How To' files for Linux before you even attempt to install it, get involved with forums and chats with people who use Linux and don't be afraid to ask questions. I can't speak for the Linux community at large, but when I went through this process many months ago, I found that most Linux aficionados were very open to helping those who wanted to join the ranks of Linux users.
Step Three: Systematic replacement of 'mission critical' applications
So you've done your research and decided on a particular Linux distribution. That's great, but don't run off to hit the "Format C:" command just yet. I don't recommend that you drop everything and expect to start from scratch, as it will become overwhelming very quickly. The first thing you should do is replace your 'mission critical' applications--remember, these are the ones you just can't live without.
While you were evaluating your computing needs and noting your necessary applications, did you notice how many times the letters "MS" kept popping up? For most people, Microsoft Office (or Microsoft Works) and Microsoft Internet Explorer are usually on the list of necessary applications. However, don't fret, there are suitable replacements for Linux, and many of them also happen to have Windows based programs.
In this step, we remove your current Microsoft dependency in favor of other, often free, Windows applications that have a counterpart in Linux. If you're a Microsoft Office junkie, go to Sun Microsystems and download the free Star Office suite for Windows. Install Star Office, and remove Microsoft Office. If you find yourself always using Internet Explorer, download both Netscape 6 and Netscape 4.7, and try to get yourself in the habit of using Netscape over MSIE. If Netscape doesn't float your boat, grab the Opera browser for Windows and force yourself to use that instead of MSIE. Both Netscape and Opera are also available for Linux.
One of Linux's great strengths is that it has a wide range of software that is similar to Windows applications. However, should you come across an application that just doesn't have a Linux counterpart, or has a Linux counterpart that wouldn't be useful to you, be sure to research VMWare Workstation for Linux and Netraverse's Win4Lin, both of which allow you to run Windows from within Linux, allowing you to use some, but not all, of your Windows applications. If you really don't ever want to see Windows again, also research WINE, the Windows Environment program that is working to allow use of Win32 applications without having a virtual Windows machine.
Step Four: Migration
You've evaluated your needs. You've done your research, gotten yourself a distribution and are willing to take the time to learn and work through any differences that are inherent with a complete OS change. On top of all that, in the last step, you've broken your other Microsoft dependencies and used your current interface to learn the new software that you'll have available to you in Linux.
Now it's time for your 'Format C:' command, and you're ready to go to Linux. Hopefully, if you've followed steps one through three above, you'll find the transition to be very smooth. In all fairness, the path won't be without bumps, but if you've taken the time to research and learn your new applications before-hand, you'll find the transition to be less daunting than if you were to wipe everything and start from scratch. By breaking your dependency on other Microsoft products prior to going to Linux, you will find that you won't want to have anything to do with Windows again, and you can keep MS-Withdrawal out of your home.
Warnie L. Pritchett II is a Network Technician and part time college student currently residing in Newport News, Virginia
Disclaimer: 'Reader TalkBack' is a commentary column written by a ZDNet News reader. The opinions expressed herein are those of the author, not those of ZDNet, ZDNet News nor its editors.
We want to feature "you" as a guest columnist on TalkBack Central -- The page dedicated to you and your views! Got a column for Your Turn or Reader TalkBack? Submit it here.