Warning: Five Things to Know Before Switching to Linux

A happy customer might tell someone. An unhappy customer tells everyone. Converting to Linux before taking a dose of reality might make you a very unhappy customer. Let's be perfectly honest. Linux isn't for everyone-yet. However, Ubuntu, Mandriva, and a few other distributions come close but for now, Linux is a little more difficult to use than Windows.

That said, there are still compelling reasons to make the switch to Linux from Windows. Your business and productivity depends on the stability of your computers, the happiness of your employees, and the ability of you and your staff to perform your work in the most efficient and trouble-free ways possible. If you're serious about considering a switch from your current Windows systems, there are a few things you should be aware of before going any further. Linux is an incredibly useful, versatile and interesting operating system, but it does have its drawbacks, so familiarize yourself with them.

1. It Isn't Windows

Although this one should fall under the "duh" category, you shouldn't expect Linux to be Windows. Linux has some striking similarities to Windows: the graphical interface, cascading menus, applications represented by icons, configurable desktop themes, and most of the desktop gadgetry you've come to expect from Windows. It looks and behaves like Windows, but it isn't. Its fans say that it's better because of its stability, its multi-user capability and its overwhelmingly cheaper price (free is hard to beat).

Yet, Linux still falls short of the Windows glory that it attempts to mimic--at least on the surface. Windows enjoys multiple advantages over Linux: thousands of paid developers, a giant marketing machine, third-party vendor support, several more years of existence, and a dedicated individual and corporate user base. It's no small wonder that Windows dominates the market for the world's available computing dollars.

In many ways Windows vs. Linux is like the old VHS vs. Betamax video format struggle. Betamax was the superior product, but it never caught on in the consumer marketplace. Linux is a more modern version of the Betamax format. Linux isn't Windows. It will never be Windows.

2. It Isn't Quite Unix Either

Linux possesses many Unix attributes, such as its filesystem layout, multi-user capability, stability, efficient resource utilization and security. Yet, Linux is very different from commercial Unix flavors too. It runs on commodity x86-based hardware, has full virtualization built into its kernel, has the ability to run embedded, and can operate from a USB pen drive.

This extreme flexibility makes Linux unique in the small business, enterprise, and consumer computing markets. Linux is a type of Unix, but not in the purest sense of the word. Its developers call it a Unix clone. Commercial Unix flavors suffer the same problems as Linux when it comes down to the compatibility question. For example, if you're currently running your applications on IBM's AIX, those applications would be no more or less compatible with Linux than they would be with Sun Solaris or HP-UX.

3. Printers and Other Peripherals

It's true that Linux doesn't have a large number of choices when it comes to peripheral support. And, if you've ever tried to set up printing under Linux, it's likely that you're missing a few locks of your hair. There are hundreds of supported printers in the list but if yours falls outside that list, good luck to you. After spending hours searching forums, you may find that your printer isn't supported at all and neither does it emulate any supported printer.

Linux creates more printer-shaped doorstops and sculptures than any other contemporary operating system. The solution to this problem is to check your Linux distribution's Hardware Compatibility List for printer and other peripheral compatibility prior to conversion. On the other hand, it's probably time to replace that paper-gobbling dinosaur for something newer anyway.

4. Documents and Files

This particular problem has more to do with the applications that run on Linux rather than the operating system itself. You will find general document and file compatibility with users of Microsoft Office, Adobe Photoshop and other popular software programs that run on Windows. General compatibility means that you can open, read and edit most of their attachments and file types. Files that won't work with the OpenOffice.org office suite, the Graphics and Image Manipulation Program (GIMP) or other similar application on Linux likely have some proprietary "hook" or special attribute that can only be interpreted by the original software that created it. Linux users often find themselves asking others to use creative tactics in order to help with compatibility problems. Performing "Save As" operations or exporting to a neutral file format usually solves the problem but requires effort from both parties.

5. Technical Skills Required

Linux requires a higher level of computer knowledge to make things work. That isn't to say that ordinary users can't use Linux, but to perform more advanced functions--such as setting up peripherals that aren't plug-and-play or installing non-packaged software--you'll need those higher level technical skills. Setting up Linux workstations is relatively simple, but Linux server services require a very skilled technical person to enable and configure them. If you're the type that likes to tinker with computers, to learn new things, and to celebrate a victory when you're successful, then Linux is for you.

Making the switch to Linux requires a dedication to the Linux platform, the Linux concept, and the ability to solve problems under often difficult circumstances. Realize that Linux doesn't support every printer or peripheral on the market. If you're considering a switch to Linux, you probably know that some obstacles exist and that you'll have to make a few compromises along the way.

If you want stay with the familiar and comfortable pitfalls that you're accustomed to, use Windows. Or, to really dumb down your computing environment, you can pay the extra money for Apple products. You can also choose to suffer a little pain, make a few exceptions, use Linux to power your desktops and servers and experience a new level of computing freedom.

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