Life after Win XP: another approach - Part 1

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 IT media is offering helpful advice on moving to the more recent MS operating system, Windows 7. Some even boldly suggest moving straight to Windows 8.1.

Perhaps some 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 XP users might even consider stepping off the upgrade treadmill altogether - platform migrations are costly, disruptive, and risky. This migration is being driven by Microsoft, not XP users' best interest.

The Strong Silent Type

Not having the marketing budgets of a Microsoft to promote itself, few people realise that FOSS is market leader in surprisingly many areas:

Every computer user uses FOSS every day, both on the web and on their own computers whether they know it or not.

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" - even providing instructions to help others download, install, change and even redistribute it. But... they do.

Some might question FOSS' "enterprise credentials", but most of IT's heavy hitters - Google, Facebook, Yahoo!, Amazon, Apple, Twitter, and many others - have built their entire businesses on or around FOSS technologies. FOSS is anything but non-commercial. These megacorps maintain only a relatively thin layer of proprietary software, perched on an otherwise FOSS "stack" of community-maintained software components.

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

Even long time proprietary exemplars Oracle and Microsoft are trying to gain FOSS credibility. It's just good business.

A Gradual Revolution

So, can a modern business, organisation, school, or government agency move from a Windows XP dominated IT landscape to one built on FOSS? Yes. And don't just take my word for it.

Recently, the Gendarmes of France announced that, with Win XP's impending demise, they were completing their migration to FOSS. Their savings have been substantial.

The world over, businesses, school systems, cities, regions and even nations are moving from Microsoft to FOSS with little media fanfare, the migration usually undertaken by local vendors lacking megacorp marketing budgets.

Legitimate business questions remain. Here are some obvious ones:

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 - that run in a web browser all work 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 (replacing 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.

How might the transition from Win XP to a FOSS environment work?

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 and we will assist you.

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:

  • Firefox and Thunderbird - import existing IE and Outlook settings, bookmarks, addressbooks, and email archives on XP,
  • The Gimp and Inkscape - read and write proprietary Adobe file formats, and
  • Libre Office - excellent compatibility with proprietary MS Office files.

Users familiar with these applications on their Win XP desktop will appreciate some familiar faces on their new FOSS desktop.

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.

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

The FOSS desktop isn't just a single design like Win XP - it's a diverse ecosystem that can be configured to suit any taste. Here is just one example: the Ubuntu Linux desktop.

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.

In Part 2 of this series 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.

An edited version of this article was published on ComputerWorld.

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