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Why I Can Never Be Exclusive to Linux and Open Source on the Desktop

Why can't I move to Linux and Open Source applications as my desktop exclusively? My profession as a Systems Architect requires that I live in both the Windows and Linux worlds.

My profession as a Systems Architect requires that I live in both the Windows and Linux worlds. But even if I wanted to run Linux exclusively, the file compatibility of the current productivity stack for Linux and the lack of a few key applications that I need for work requires at least a minimal virtualized Windows environment for me to get my work done.

As some of you may I know, I have been a proponent of the Linux operating system and Open Source for quite some time. I've been using Linux on a day to day basis in various different incarnations on both the server and client side since 1997 or so, and I served as Sr. Technology Editor of Linux Magazine from 1999 to 2008 where I wrote a column about using Linux as a desktop OS. However, in all that time, I have never been able to use Linux as my exclusive operating environment, due to practical limitations that have kept me from doing so, and I don't expect the situation to change anytime soon.

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This is not to say that I don't find Linux incredibly useful and liberating to use. Believe me, I do. I like Linux's efficiency, its reliability, its responsiveness, and its immunity to malware/viruses/spyware that the Windows environment is constantly under siege from.  I also like, use and enjoy many of the Open Source and Free Software that originated on that platform. However, even all of that is not enough of a lure for me to use Linux exclusively for both my professional and personal computing needs.

Why not?

Arguably, in the last 10 years, Linux has matured from a OS that was strictly for UNIX and technical sysadmin-types to a robust enterprise server OS that can scale all the way up from low-power x86 processors to the most powerful mainframe computers and massively distributed architectures. Nobody, especially myself, will question Linux's huge impact on mid-range and enterprise computing as well as in embedded devices.

As a desktop OS, the situation has improved greatly, especially in the last 3 to 4 years, particularly with the rise of the user-friendly Ubuntu Linux distribution. Sun's OpenOffice.org has matured to become a very functional office suite and even my employer, IBM, has gotten in on the Linux productivity suite act with Lotus Symphony 1.3 and we've all been encouraged to learn and start using the software.  Symphony can run on Windows, Mac and Linux.

So why can't I use Linux alone? Let's begin with what I do for a living and take it from there. I architect and design the infrastructure of large distributed computing environments for some of our biggest enterprise customers. This involves assessing the current state of a customer's systems architecture, recommending and developing solutions and also implementing them if needed.

To perform the basic aspects of my job role I use e-Mail, a number of web-based applications and a productivity suite. So Linux should be able to handle all of my needs at work, correct? Well, not really. It should be no surprise that at IBM, we use Lotus Notes 8.x as our corporate email system and that runs on the Linux desktop just fine. Our internal Web apps run on Linux just peachy as well. But where things get awfully tricky is in the office productivity apps -- word processing, spreadsheets and presentations.

Now, bear in mind I know that IBM has put a HUGE amount of work into making Lotus Symphony -- which anyone can download for free from the Symphony web site -- an extremely polished product and very much compatible with the majority of files you'd get in typical usage scenarios as output from different environments that use Microsoft Office. In fact, I am flat out AMAZED how well Word and Excel files from Office 2007 and Office 2003 import into Symphony.  If I were a small or mid-sized organization or even a large enterprise that were up for license renewal on Microsoft Office, I would strongly suggest that they look at Symphony and see if it would meet their needs.

However, I don't work in a vacuum. I don't just swap productivity documents with other people at IBM. I have to create work products and manipulate intellectual capital that I have to deliver to customers. Customers which currently use Microsoft Office.

As good as I know our Symphony software is, I'm not going to hand over a 70-page deliverable and accompanying spreadsheets and other work products in its native format and ask the customer nicely to install our software in order to read it. For the customer to accept it I have to hand it over in DOC or XLS and Adobe Acrobat. And when the customer gets it, it had better darned look and print out perfect.

So even though I might use Symphony 1.3 for producing the deliverable, I at least need Office 2003 available to ensure that I just didn't munge the heck out of my deliverable materials by exporting the document in Office-compatible formats. Some of our deliverable documents are awfully complicated, with embedded graphics and tables and indexed TOCs and various other things.

When I save something in Office format from Symphony or even OpenOffice.org, will it look okay 90 percent of the time? Probably. But I know that the sales and the marketing folks at IBM have spent a lot of time and money developing templates for PowerPoints which I frequently customize that when imported to Symphony and exported back and forth to PowerPoint tend to get a bit messed up, so I use native PowerPoint 2003 instead unless I started a presentation from scratch using the new Symphony templates or use new presentations that are being developed in-house as new ICAP.

Now, I realize a lot of these issues are transitional. I have no doubt that our software engineers at Lotus will figure out how do deal with these problems so that one day, nobody at IBM will need to use Office ever again. But even if the productivity suite issues are solved, that's just the tip of the iceberg for someone like me.

I also use a number of other applications which have no true functional equivalents on Linux or as an Open Source application. I make extensive use of Microsoft Visio, which is a very sophisticated diagramming tool. More often than not my customers have documented their LAN and server infrastructure using the application and I need to at least view what they have created if not make end-state modifications to it.

Yes, there's software like Dia, but Dia is no Visio, not by a long shot, and isn't even compatible with it, and as far as I know there is no project related to OpenOffice.org or any of the other major desktop application efforts for Linux to create a compatible Visio clone. A lot of vendors have also standardized on Visio for diagramming and there's a huge amount of custom stencils available for it at sites like VisioCafe as well as from 3rd-party vendors. I use Visio frequently enough that if I decided to switch over to Linux as my main desktop OS on my work laptop -- something which I recently did as an ongoing experiment -- that I need to run at least an XP Virtual Machine to run Visio as well as a number of other tools that only run on Windows.

In addition to Visio, another software application that I require Windows for is Microsoft Project. I'll put it to you this way, if you work in service delivery and have to work on a team project of even the most minimal complexity you're going to have to look at project plans and somebody who is the project manager is going to ask you to to add and manipulate tasks and timeliness on it.

Now, I've heard of OpenProj, and that it is Project-compatible, but it doesn't appear to be under active development -- the parent company, Serena, appears to be focusing its energies on Projects on Demand, a hosted web-based app. There's also ]project-open[ which appears to be a sophisticated web-based app which like Projects on Demand is positioned towards the SAAS space rather than a desktop app. I can tell you right now that none of my customer confidential project data is going on someone else's cloud. No way, no how. So as long as I'm committed to an XP VM for Visio, I'm going to continue to use Microsoft Project.

These are just the obstacles that prevent me from using Linux exclusively as my desktop in my own professional life. At home, I can't be a Linux-exclusive either. I run a bunch of multimedia stuff that I know will not run on Linux, such as the Slingbox player, Google Picasa and Adobe Photoshop. Yeah, I know you can run Google Picasa and Photoshop with some degree of success in WINE, and you can even use Photoshop extensions in GIMP, but I'd much rather run Photoshop and Picasa natively. There's also any number of other browser plugins and other apps that I use on Windows which have no true Linux equivalents. So to get around this issue I run a Windows 7 desktop as my primary home system, and I use Synergy2 to pan my mouse and keyboard input back and forth with a secondary Linux workstation.

Is it an ideal solution? No, but when you're like me and you have to live in both worlds, you make the best of what you have.

Are you also "Stuck between both worlds" like myself? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

Disclaimer: The postings and opinions on this blog are my own and don’t necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions.