For corporate environments, how viable an alternative to Microsoft is Linux and other open source software? I’m not qualified to answer that question, but as the issues around Microsoft’s copy protection, licensing and software quality mount, it’s one that more and more people are asking. The answers they reach, however, seem to be split pretty evenly on both sides of my concern.
One long-time reader — by no means a Microsoft apologist — recently crystallised the issue this way in pondering Windows security concerns: “My staff and I talk about this a lot, because we are spending so much time updating and fighting the security battle. But I have to tell you, as a Linux user on the side myself, you could not make me move our users to Linux.
The applications are simply not there. And on the developer side, I am immersing myself in C#, Visual Studio, and SQL 2005 now into the [northern] summer, preparing to rewrite all my apps and move them in that direction from Visual FoxPro. There is nothing... in the Linux world that can match the rich GUI and feature interface of these tools, no matter what the downsides, of which there are plenty as well. But on balance, my decision has been made.”
Of course, there are others who have made quite the opposite decision and are happy with the results. “My response to Microsoft’s onerous licensing is that I’ve decided that my next computer is going to run Linux instead of any version of Windows,” wrote another IT manager. “I’ve already replaced Microsoft Office in my entire company with Open Office. Open Office also works better than Microsoft Office for us since Microsoft still has not fixed a bug in Master Documents that has been around since Office 97.”
Very few readers would dispute that Open Office and Firefox, etcetera at the very least provide viable alternatives to Microsoft’s basic productivity applications. And on the server side, open source software like Apache and MySQL already plays a critical role for many companies. On the other hand, there is also no question that the Linux platform provides far fewer application choices than Windows, even with the use of Windows emulation solutions like Mono and Wine. Maybe that’s not a permanent condition — we hear good things seemingly every day about Linux solutions springing up in some surprisingly narrow niches — but it’s certainly the case right now.
Those who aren’t yet quite ready to use free software say they find too many missing features. One discussion that has raged for months on my website concerns the purported lack of professional-grade colour calibration in Linux graphics.
“There are some very good open source software applications available,” wrote one graphics-oriented reader. “There are a lot of dogs — just like the commercial software arena. What has to be considered is the person’s needs and intended use. If one needs features unavailable via Linux and OSS, then no matter what else is said, those tools will not meet that user’s needs... Where people need to be 100% sure of the colours they are getting, they run profiled systems. If the OS cannot, either natively or through plug-ins, run colour profiles, then they will experience problems. Anyone doing graphics, even serious amateurs, recognises this. I too wish the Linux community well. It is the only hope we have of keeping Microsoft on its toes.”
Where Windows scares business customers is on the issue of security, and Microsoft’s continuing love affair with digital rights management isn’t helping in that regard. “Up until the Windows Genuine Advantage stuff, we could live with Windows,” wrote another IT manager. “That is what has prompted switching our development to Linux. All of our stuff is in Java and we just cannot afford the risk that Microsoft will shut us down. Plus, the idea that they upload from our computers every boot scares the hell out of our CFO. We can’t afford to have our development boxes down, infected or spied on.”
But many agree with another long-time reader that .Net’s libraries are just too attractive for hard-pressed corporate developers with projects that need to get done yesterday. “It’s not surprising to me that many developers have embraced .Net,” wrote another reader. “Microsoft has created a very powerful development environment in Visual Studio .Net that, as far as I know, has no Linux-based equivalent, or anything that comes close. It seems logical that professional developers would embrace Microsoft for their programming language support rather than the loosey-goosey Linux community. It’s well and good that users can employ Linux where they can, but it’s becoming clear to most developers that Microsoft’s managed code is the future.”
Still, the best code-managing development environment is not going to make up for not having good programmers. And if you’ve got to hire good programmers anyway, why not use Linux so that your company owns the result? “The corporate suits with no clue what development involves have been pursuing this holy grail of reusability for years,” says one Linux advocate. “They forever dream of ‘software manufacturing’ using an assembly line in which developers are more or less interchangeable. And for all those years, there have been carpet-baggers ready to take their money, promising to fulfil those dreams with drag-and-drop environments resembling children’s puzzles. Just because an enhanced clerk can whip out a quick prototype using a snazzy development environment doesn’t mean he or she can finish the job. Even with the most radically awesome RAD, automating the specifications requires competent programmers, so you’re still going to need to hire as many new, high-quality programmers as you would with open source.”
And Microsoft’s Fud (fear, uncertainty and doubt) campaign against Linux over software patents should only serve to remind customers of the long-term risk in depending on proprietary software. “I have thought from the beginning that .Net was a honey-pot of sorts,” says a software developer.
“While I don’t actually like it very much because of performance issues, I must admit that the wealth of reusable code provided by its framework libraries is exceptionally attractive to any developer with real-world time-and-cost-to-delivery criteria. That’s the sugar.
“The vinegar is that while C# may be proposed as an ECMA standard, the framework libraries are in fact proprietary, as is the API. They may or may not act on this, but I do think companies ought to think about the consequences of developing in a way that is almost certain to be a permanent sole-source vendor lock-in.”