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Running a business on desktop Linux
by Howard Fosdick

Foreword -- This paper surveys Linux's suitability for use by owners of very small businesses and the self-employed. It was written by Howard Fosdick, a self-employed database consultant who finds Linux fairly well-suited to his needs, and reckons it has saved him thousands of dollars in recent years.

Running a business on desktop Linux
by Howard Fosdick

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How many are self-employed in the United States? No one knows for sure, but estimates range around twenty million. Add to this millions of small businesses, and you have a huge pool of workers who run their businesses on personal computers. Dentists, handymen, shop owners, yoga instructors, lawyers... all require reliable, easy-to-use computers for their work.

Should they use Linux?

Here's my take as someone who has run his one-person business on Linux for several years. I'll be objective. This is not a promotional piece. Let's state up front that I have an advantage over many business Linux users because I'm an IT professional. Yet we all depend on business Linux.

What We Want

What do the self-employed require of their computers? The list varies by the person and the kind of work they do. Here are the essentials:

Easy to use
Workers want to spend time on their business, not learning computer programs
Help is readily available
People want quick answers to problems
The system should "just work" without losing data or messing up applications
Run office applications
Everyone needs office suites, email, and web access
It's essential to exchange email and office documents with customers and suppliers
Run business applications
These vary by the business
Manage finances
Everyone must "keep the books" somehow
Computers are overhead
Nothing is worse than a slow computer when you're trying to get your work done

Small business workers are on their own, without IT support. They depend on computers and just want to do their jobs without computer headaches. I feel the same way. Though I'm an IT professional, I can't squander time on random PC issues. I need to get my work done.

How Does Linux Rate?

I'll discuss each of the criteria in light of my Ubuntu experiences. Ubuntu is the most popular Linux, it's consumer-oriented, and it's one of the two Linuxes I use.

Easy to Use -- As a hobby, I fix up computers donated to charity, which we then give to deserving families. I observe adults and children using Linux for the first time. Most instantly recognize the graphical user interface as just another Windows-like GUI. (Microsoft has done an excellent job in training computer users to adapt to GUI changes, having altered the user interface in every Windows release.) You may need to point out which programs are equivalent to the Windows programs they're used to, but most have little difficulty switching to Ubuntu.

It's the same with applications. OpenOffice programs do not look much different than their Microsoft Office counterparts. Users tentatively explore the menus to find the functions they want, and usually they succeed. Only when trying advanced features do they struggle -- but then you're likely to see the same distress when they try Office's advanced features.

What happens when they face a problem? Most know to search the web for an answer. Windows and Ubuntu solutions often require altering obscure GUI panel settings. But in Ubuntu you sometimes have to run line commands. Unless users can cut-and-paste the commands, this is a show-stopper.

A few years ago, Linux was suitable for servers and embedded systems, but wasn't user-friendly enough for desktops. Now that's changed. Ubuntu competes head-to-head with Windows. But the line commands indicate there's still room for improvement.

Help is Readily Available -- Ubuntu has attained critical mass. If you "google" a problem you'll find the answer. Rarely do you need to post a forum question. (This compares favorably with less popular Linux distributions, where answers require time-consuming posts.) You can find an Ubuntu answer as easy as you can find a Windows answer.

Ubuntu's popularity means that everyday people use it at work or at home. Business owners and freelancers feel comfortable because they talk with others like themselves in resolving problems.

One issue for business workers is that they don't have time for the rudeness and aggression sometimes found online. This applies to both Linux and Windows, unfortunately. Forums that tolerate juvenile behavior repell serious people.

Reliable -- For most people, "reliability" means that their computer will allow them to do their work without interruption. They don't get side-tracked to figure out computer problems. They don't have to worry whether their system is "corrupted." Business owners just want their systems to work. Like a car, it's ok if you have to schedule occasional maintenance, but your chances of being stranded while driving should be nil.

How does reliability compare for Linux and Windows? Most familiar with both give the advantage to Linux for these reasons:
  • Systems don't slow down over time
  • Little risk of malware infection
  • No vulnerable, complex Registry
  • Little need for software maintenance
Here's evidence that verifies this view. I developed a comprehensive guide for Windows users called "How to Secure Your Windows Computer and Protect Your Privacy." In simple, non-technical terms, it tells Windows users about their security and privacy exposures. It shows how to address them through a combination of "best practices" and free software. Most -- but not all -- of the risks this e-book addresses are unique to Windows. They don't pertain to Linux. You can download this twenty-page guide here.

Run Office Applications -- Here are Windows office applications and their Linux equivalents. Ubuntu's default, bundled applications are underlined:

Office suite
Microsoft Office
OpenOffice, GNOME Office, KOffice
Word processor
Microsoft Word
OpenOffice Writer, Abiword, others
Microsoft Excel
OpenOffice Calc, Gnumeric, others
Presentation graphics
Microsoft Powerpoint
OpenOffice Impress, others
Microsoft Outlook
Evolution, Thunderbird
Microsoft Internet Explorer
Firefox, Opera, SeaMonkey, Epiphany, others
File manager
Microsoft Explorer
Nautilus, many others
Web sites / HTML editor
MS FrontPage, Dreamweaver, others
Nvu, Composer, Amaya, Bluefish, others
Text editor
Notepad, others
Gedit, Adie, Mousepad, many others

Windows customers assume they must pay for office applications. As proven by Microsoft's market share, they assume Microsoft will be the provider. These costs are major expenses for the freelancer or small business. Office 2007 costs between $149.95 and $679.95. Windows Vista retails between $199.95 for Home Basic and $319.95 for Ultimate edition.

Linux users enjoy a great variety of applications. All are free. Ubuntu helps anyone download and install them with just a few mouse clicks. Installing Ubuntu software is as easy as installing Windows programs.

One place where Ubuntu falters is in providing full web access. You have to install browser plug-ins and multimedia codecs to run web video and audio. Why? Ideology about "open source" and "free" software. Business customers don't care about that. They expect full web access right out of the box. Linux distributions like Mint and Vector meet this expectation, while Ubuntu offers a band-aid solution in recent releases with "plug-in install wizards."

Compatible -- Windows dominates the consumer computer market, so all my customers use it. I can only support them if we can exchange documents.

Start with email. Everyone relies on it. Email has long been standardized regardless of operating system and email program. You can send and receive email between Windows, Linux, and Mac computers. It doesn't matter whether you use Microsoft Outlook on a Windows computer, or Thunderbird or Evolution on a Linux computer. No problem there.

How about office documents? Microsoft Office file formats are the de facto world standard. Linux applications must seamlessly interchange and create Word files, Excel files, and Powerpoint files (*.doc, *.xls, and *.ppt).

Among Linux office suites, OpenOffice is most compatible with Microsoft Office. I use OpenOffice Writer to read Word files from clients, edit them, and send them back. I also create new documents in Word format with OO Writer.

I've never had a problem reading a Word document, no matter how complex. I have run into minor incompatibilities when creating Word documents from scratch (eg, web links that show up in incorrect font sizes in Word, or tables of contents that don't render correctly). It took me a couple months to learn to avoid these incompatibilities. Now I create documents in Microsoft format with 100 percent accurate rendering in Word. (See how to set up OO Writer for Word compatibility here and here.)

When your income depends on documents looking professional, you can't afford to take chances. Initially, I kept an old Windows 98 computer around with Office-97 to check compatibility. I don't anymore. Others buy Microsoft Office and run it under Wine. Wine runs Windows applications within Linux.

With spreadsheets and presentation graphics, I encounter the same situation. Not once have I ever had a problem reading documents sent to me by clients. But if I create an MS-file-format document from scratch I must be careful to use only compatible product features.

I'm witnessing movement away from the Microsoft standards. Many publishers and vendor clients now accept or even prefer HTML files. Increasingly I create content with HTML tools like Composer. For data interchange, businesses use the open standard Extensible Markup Language (XML).

Microsoft recently retired their decade-old binary Office file formats. They introduced new formats called Office Open XML. Will the new formats result in a greater OpenOffice compatibility, since OOXML is a published standard? Or will their influence will be disruptive, due to departure from the long-used formats? Those of us who run business Linux absolutely require OpenOffice to support OOXML.

I've found a several advantages to OpenOffice over Microsoft Office. OO Writer generates PDF files. (Only in Office 2007 does Microsoft finally offer an "add-in" to save documents in PDF format.) OpenOffice generates better HTML than Microsoft Office. Publishers reject Office-generated HTML as unusable. OO doesn't bloat with every release, so I don't have to upgrade my hardware just to run a current office suite. Why do Windows customers accept inflated hardware requirements to run the same office applications they have for years on older computers?

Run Business Applications -- Whether Linux fits the bill here depends on the applications you need.

Most of my work is database administration, so I'm glad Linux hosts commercial databases like Oracle and IBM DB2 and open source systems like MySQL and PostgreSQL. The only major database system that does not run under Linux is Microsoft SQL Server.

I remotely support client databases through the Internet. Any browser works. The days when special software or local logins were necessary to administer remote servers are past. Many knowledge workers now access company applications remotely with browsers.

I also create and maintain web sites. Ubuntu offers great free tools like Nvu and Amaya. But I face the same issue with the web sites I support as I do with the published products I create in Word format. Customers view my web sites using Microsoft's Internet Explorer. Sometimes IE renders web pages a little differently than do Ubuntu and Firefox. For example, spacing and formatting differ.

I used to double-check my web sites by viewing the final product on Windows with Internet Explorer. These days I just verify my product on different Linux computers with different screen sizes, resolutions, and browsers. If the result looks good, it will look fine with IE.

What other Windows applications might the sole proprietor need? A thread on the Puppy Linux forum suggests video editing, printer and device drivers, and legacy applications. You can use Wine to run legacy Windows applications within Linux. It supports 10,000 applications. A few Windows programs won't run on Wine or just take too much time or expertise to set up properly.

Manage Finances -- Linux runs many financial and accounting applications suitable for small businesses. Sites like Linux Online or EnterpriseITPlanet list business applications. Use the Linux AppFinder to find them or simply google on "linux accounting applications." The problem isn't finding enough software, it is evaluating which best meets your needs.

Inexpensive and Performance -- I'll discuss the final two criteria together because they're interrelated -- you can always solve a performance problem if you're willing to spend more money. (Ultimately you could just buy a new computer!)

Low cost is a major Linux benefit. Not only is the operating system free, but so are its applications.

There is much more to cost equation than the up-front price you pay. Microsoft has done an outstanding job of hiding the true costs of its software from consumers. Linux eliminates these hidden costs from Windows:
  • Fewer security and privacy problems
  • No loss of support as systems age
  • No problems running current software on older computers
  • No forced software and hardware upgrades every couple years
  • No system slowdown over time (due to Registry bloat, malware, or other causes)
  • No forced upgrade of one product due to artificial coupling with another ("Installing this product requires IE 8!")
  • No need to re-install the operating system due to software corruption
  • No performance costs from built-in digital rights management (Vista Content Management)
  • No worry about whether you understand the legalistic license terms
  • No buying multiple licenses for desktop and laptop, or for primary and backup systems
  • No risk that the software CD you purchased in good faith is counterfeit
  • No system outages due to inaccurate license checks by Windows Genuine Advantage
  • No errant "piracy pop-ups" when you're running legal software due to Microsoft's Office Genuine Advantage
  • No restrictions on computer upgrades (no Windows Product Activation / Windows Genuine Advantage)
  • No restrictions on disk image backups (no WPA/WGA or Registry problems)
  • No restrictions on moving disks between computers during upgrades (no WPA/WGA or Registry problems)
Linux empowers you to run your business on low-cost computers that are deemed worthless within the distorted perspective of "Windows world." I'm writing this article, for example, on a Pentium III. It runs Ubuntu just fine, and it runs Puppy Linux fast as a scalded greyhound.

This low-end laptop supports all requirements in this article. It was given to me, free, by an dissatisfied Windows user because it was "too slow." Apparently it was sold to him as an Windows XP computer, but no one told him he had to eliminate unnecessary Windows Services and craplets and double its 256 meg of memory to get it running acceptably. Or, install Ubuntu.

The Verdict

From a sole proprietor's perspective, here's how I'd rate Ubuntu Linux:


Ease of use
Help is available
Run office applications
Minimally acceptable
Run business-specific applications
Manage business finances

Linux lags in one key area -- compatibility with Microsoft file formats. This requirement is critical because businesses must work with Windows-based customers. I hope the Linux community uses the new OOXML standards to improve compatibility.

For all other requirements, Ubuntu is competitive. It even excels in reliability and price/performance. Why has Linux not achieved greater market share?

The reason is that Windows is bundled with over 90 percent of all new computers sold in the U.S. While the courts focus on whether Microsoft engages in monopolistic behavior when they add an anti-spyware or browser program into Windows, they miss the real issue -- Microsoft wields monopoly power in negotiations with personal computer vendors:
  • Why should Microsoft be allowed to force vendors to sell an operating system with every computer?

  • Why aren't vendors allowed to install another operating system along with Windows?
  • How can Microsoft limit vendors to shipping hobbled "restore CDs" instead of the full operating system?
  • Why is there such a huge price difference between retail Windows and bundled Windows? (And why do the courts tolerate such an obvious monopolist tactic?)

To restore competition, we need to fix the unequal relationship between Microsoft and the hardware vendors. But where the courts fail, technology may succeed. The One Laptop Per Child project has ignited an explosion in demand for low-cost Linux laptops. Very low-end computer systems are now proliferating and transforming the marketplace.

At only a few hundred dollars per laptop, these computers won't support Microsoft's seventy percent profit margins. (Remember the old pre-profiteering days when Windows 98 cost $89?). Linux's cost advantages and flexibility are compelling.

I've saved over two thousand dollars in expenses over three years with Linux. This slashes my overhead. Small businesses can extend these savings across their employees for competitive advantage.

About the author -- Howard Fosdick specializes in database administration and systems support. He wrote the book on open-source Rexx scripting, Rexx Programmers Reference. He thanks the Linux community for restoring market place competition and for free business software.

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