I’m a week into my Linux test flight, and Ubuntu is working largely as advertised.

It seems its reputation as a hard-to-use/hard to install OS is outdated – at least for Ubuntu. (For an amusing look at Bill Gates’ take on Windows XP usability, go here).

Ubuntu news header

Over the last few days, I created and shipped a pair of estimates, a couple pieces of copy, a marketing plan, a press release and an invoice (all created in OpenOffice and saved in MS Word format).

Though I asked, I received zero negative feedback from clients about un-openable or malformed documents.

I’m testing a couple twitter clients (Twitterfox & gTwitter), and handling my IM traffic with Pidgin. My blog images are editing nicely in Gimp (a fast open source image editor), and OpenOffice works just like it did when I used it on Windows.

I also edited a pair of landing pages in KompoZer – a WYSIWYG html editor (I use Namo Web Editor in Windows).

I’m less taken with Evolution – the Linux equivalent to Outlook – and may start searching for a calendar/contact manager to pair with Thunderbird.

In short, it’s largely business as usual, only a bit faster. In fact, I’m struck by how easy the transition has been, and how little disruption I’ve experienced.

But then, I already use a lot of open source software. And there have been a few difficulties.

My USB microphone (M-Audio “Podcast Factory”) isn’t playing nice with Ubuntu and Audacity (open source audio editor). It was plug-and-play on Vista (XP required the installation of a truly annoying driver), but I have yet to crack the code on Ubuntu, and don’t have time to invest more than a few minutes.

And my laptop’s display brightness control is far too coarse (no steps between fully bright and too dim).

Finally, I encountered a very, very strange ftp issue, where I couldn’t get files to appear on my server using Filezilla on Linux, yet the exact same settings produced the correct results when using Filezilla on Vista (I’ll troubleshoot this one a bit more).

I like the cleanliness of the Ubuntu interface. And enjoy not having to re-boot the computer after a few hours of intensive program switching (like I did in Windows).

Yes, I’m still pining for a better blog editor. And have yet to find a simple, GUI text editor with realtime character/word/line count stats.

But it’s clear that I could run my business in Linux. But do I want to? And would other writers?

I see three key barriers limiting Linux adoption by rank & file “word workers.”

  • Software availability
  • Compatibility with client systems
  • The “Windows Tax” (PCs arrive with Windows installed, so why switch?)

We’ll look at the second two in subsequent posts; right now, let’s deal with the software question.

Software Availability

Linux fans claim technical superiority for the operating system – a hollow claim if you can’t run the software needed to do your job.

For example, at the right hand of many copywriters lies Microsoft Word – the clear corporate standard and the word processor of choice for many copywriters.

Clearly, if you absolutely must use MS Word, then there’s no reason to run Linux; Word simply isn’t available.

For many copywriters, the story begins and ends right there (though a few will use Word on a Mac).

Still, change is a constant, and the writing world isn’t nearly as MS Word-focused as it has been. In fact, plenty of writers are using anything but MS Word — and without ill effects on their business. Why?

  • We’re seeing a growing emphasis on unformatted copy for online use (any text editor can deliver a .txt or .rtf file)
  • Modern word processors are far better at saving files in MS Word format
  • A powerful, open source alternative to MS Office has emerged (OpenOffice)
  • Hosted office suites have arrived (Google Docs, Zoho, etc)
  • The latest version of MS Word uses a radically different interface, and not everybody’s happy about that
  • Our writing efforts are fragmenting across our desktops (blog editors, twitter & IM clients, email, etc)

I bailed on Word a couple years ago when yet another upgrade arrived – one that actually made the software less useful to me.

I tried OpenOffice, it worked well, I was happy, and I never looked back. I haven’t suffered for the decision.

If I wrote long, technical documents for a corporate client who demanded MS Word compatibility, I don’t know if I’d be similarly happy.

And of course, word processors are only part of the deal.

Clearly, we’re doing more with Web browsers and Java apps every day, but plenty of Windows-only software exists (much of it vertical market), and while I’ve found a serviceable replacement in every “main” category for my Windows software, it’s clear that won’t be true for everyone.

Hardcore Quicken users might find a home in GnuCash, but others won’t. Other problem areas include games, hobby software, some online clients… the list of potential problem software is long.

Linux partisans are quick to point out that Wine offers you the ability to run some Windows programs on the Linux OS, and they’re right – to a point.

The real question is this: why would anyone switch to Linux if it meant running a critical piece of software in emulation?

My time in Linux assures me it’s possible (simple, actually) to run a writing business on Linux. The lack of viruses, the automatic (and daily updates), the low cost, the performance, the stability, the support, and the total absence of Microsoft looking over your shoulder (anyone enjoy downloading the Windows Software Validation tool?) are pluses.

But the absence of some software is a minus. How much of a minus?

That depends wholly on your perspective. Newer writers – with less time and data invested in legacy software – should find it a lot easier.

I’ll delve into the other barriers to Linux adoption — and a few reasons why you should consider Linux — in an upcoming post. Right now, I’m packing for two weeks of fly fishing in Montana, where I’ll be writing and filing blog reports from my Linux-equipped laptop.

Keep writing, Tom Chandler.Technorati Tags: , , , ,