OPINION: Life after Windows XP: another approach

Dave Lane, president of the New Zealand Open Source Society writes about the open source alternatives to a Microsoft platform when businesses move off XP

As many in the business, education and government sectors wring their hands over the impending demise of Microsoft's venerable Windows XP operating system, the media is offering helpful advice on moving to the more recent, apparently quite good MS operating system, Windows 7. Some even boldly suggest moving straight to Windows 8.1.

Perhaps some of you Windows XP users wonder whether there's a way to avoid facing this same predicament when Windows 7 or 8.1 is similarly 'end-of-lifed' by the shrewd strategists at Microsoft – rest assured they won't let this one drag on as long as XP has.

Some of you XP users might even consider stepping off the upgrade treadmill altogether as platform migrations are costly, disruptive, and risky. This migration is being driven by Microsoft, which may not be in your best interest.

The FOSS approach

"Unbelievable" is how many people describe free and open source software (FOSS). It's hard for most of us to comprehend why someone would give the fruits of their labours away – including the entire recipe or "source code". But... they do.

The corporate darlings of the IT media – Google, Facebook, IBM, HP, Yahoo!, Amazon, Apple, Twitter, and many others – have built their entire businesses on FOSS technologies.

Other successful businesses like RedHat and Acquia, and even local companies like Catalyst IT (disclosure: my employer) don't depend on any proprietary components.

A gradual revolution

So, can a modern business, organisation, school, or government agency move from a Windows XP dominated IT landscape to one built primarily on FOSS rather than simply accepting Microsoft's upgrade path? The short answer is yes.

The world over, businesses, schools, cities, regions and even nations are moving from Microsoft to FOSS with little media fanfare.

Legitimate business questions remain. Here are some obvious ones:

Q: Can I use all the same software I use now with Windows XP?

Short answer: yes.

Apps like Gmail, Hotmail, Outlook, WordPress, Salesforce, MS Office 365/Google Docs, Xero – and Facebook, Twitter, and Trademe, too – all run brilliantly on a FOSS desktop.

Any Win XP-specific desktop apps can also be run on a FOSS desktop. More on that next week.

Many Win XP-only desktop apps have excellent FOSS alternatives which you might prefer: the previously mentioned Mozilla Firefox web browser and its email companion Thunderbird (replacing MS Internet Explorer and Outlook). For the graphically inclined, the GIMP and Inkscape can replace Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator. Millions of businesses worldwide use the leading FOSS desktop productivity suite Libre Office.

There are excellent FOSS alternatives in every software niche.

Q: How would the transition from Win XP to a FOSS environment go?

For most businesses, the computing environment is critical infrastructure, so I recommend a thoughtful, staged approach. A FOSS environment, though technically equivalent to a Microsoft environment, is not the same, nor is it meant to be.

IT migrations require staff support and excellent communication. Start with a pilot, engaging the adventurous and technically confident in your organisation – chances are good some are already using FOSS. Encourage these internal champions.

Engage a FOSS-friendly support provider to help you plan and carry out the transition. There are more of them than you might think, all around NZ. They're often small, independent, and busy. Increasingly, bigger players like HP and IBM are moving into FOSS consulting. If you have trouble locating a support vendor, contact the NZ Open Source Society.

You can further ease the transition by providing staff with some FOSS apps on their current desktops. All of the FOSS alternatives described above also run on Windows XP:

Once users are familiar with these applications on their familiar Win XP desktop, they'll have some familiar faces when they trial a FOSS desktop.

Q: Can I access all the shiny, new software I see my mates using?

Generally, yes. Most new software is distributed as web apps these days, built using the rich FOSS tool sets available in modern web browsers. The exceptions are some Windows and Mac-specific desktop apps – all can be run on a FOSS desktops, too. More on that next week.

Q: This FOSS desktop... what does it look like?

The FOSS desktop isn't just a single design like Win XP – it comes in a variety of shapes and sizes and can be configured to suit any taste. Here is just one example: the Ubuntu Linux desktop.

Q: And crucially (for some): can I still play games?

There are tons of FOSS games and educational apps. For A-list titles, influential game distributor Valve has ported Steam to the FOSS desktop. It's also launched SteamOS, a specialised Linux-based gaming platform.

Next week I'll answer the above in more depth, and provide some more detail about how organisations of different sizes might manage a FOSS desktop environment.

Dave Lane is a long-time FOSS exponent and developer. An ex-CRI research scientist he currently does software and business development and project management for FOSS development firm Catalyst IT. He volunteers with the NZ Open Source Society, currently in the role of president.

This article has been condensed from the original. The full-length article can be found here.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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