How to switch your small or home office to Linux

14th Apr 2010 | 11:30

How to switch your small or home office to Linux

Save time and money with free, open source software

Free office software

With Linux and free software making a name for itself in the world of big business, many people are testing the feasibility of switching small and home office software to their open source equivalents.

Regardless of how you feel about the Linux desktop, this is one area in which Linux can have a real impact, both financially and productively, and any small or home office has the potential to be transformed by just switching one application or two to their open source equivalents.

This is traditionally the domain of Microsoft, a costly and sometimes frustrating environment where you have to constantly keep on top of updates, patches and the latest versions to stay in the loop. Free software offers an escape from this cycle, and more importantly, an alternative.

Linux and free software can offer a breath of fresh air, and you don't even have to jump feet-first into a new operating system: cross-platform open source applications enable you try the alternatives before you make the big switch.

Most users are going to find that the free versions of the software they're used to are very similar in both design and functionality, and over the course of the following pages, we list the most important and try to highlight any gotchas and considerations along the way.

It's a sign of how successful free software has become that we could have filled these pages with various alternatives for many other common tasks and applications, but we wanted to go into enough depth that prospective users will feel confident enough to make the switch, or discuss the potential with the people who make the decisions.

How we learned to stop spending and love free software

The great thing about open source software is that, no matter what platform you're using, if an application is popular enough it will have been ported to your system.

Free software stalwarts like OpenOffice.org, Firefox and Gimp all work just as well on the Windows platform as they do on Linux. This means that even if jumping to Linux seems like an intimidating prospect to begin with, you can safely swap an application or two in your regular software suite to begin with, and see how things go over a period of weeks.

As your confidence builds, you could consider replacing another application, and perhaps another, until you realise that maybe Linux isn't the leap into the unknown that it used to be.

The world of the small office seems to be dominated by products from Microsoft and Adobe, neither of which have made a serious effort to port their heavyweight products to the Linux desktop. This is where open source developers have tried their hardest to catch up, building free alternatives to most of the commercial offerings from both companies.

Free software is full of alternatives, because developers like choice. And because the code that's used to create this software is open, once one application has invented a new kind of wheel, you often find its open source competitors catching up and providing many of the same features.

Many are also very receptive to feature requests and personal emails, which is something that would never happen with either Adobe or Microsoft. And of course, if you or your colleagues have the necessary coding skills, you can change things yourself and make a contribution to the community.

A point you'll find we make several times over the following pages is that while there may not always be total parity with the applications you're used to in the proprietary world, in the vast majority of cases this tiny shortfall won't make a difference. There are very few office users who touch these advanced features, and if you're one of the minority of users who use the full feature-set of of an application such as Microsoft Office, we've got a solution that will enable you to keep your old applications on Linux.

Running Windows apps on Linux

If you do switch your office to Linux, there are still two ways to run legitimate Windows software. The first is Wine, an application that lets you run Windows executables from your Linux desktop. It will let you run applications like Quicken and older versions of Office without difficulty, and newer versions can be made to work if you don't mind a little tinkering.

There's also a commercial Wine solution called CrossOver Office. This will run Microsoft's latest Office suite, and the money you pay for CrossOver will be rolled back into open source development. The best bit is that you won't need a licence for the operating system, only the software you use.

We're getting ahead of ouseselves a little here: while it's good to know that things will still work, you'll find that maintaining Windows compatibility becomes less of an issue as you get used to the new set of tools that Linux offers.

Free word processor software

The one app that above all others needs good interoperability

There is one issue that more than any other governs whether a business can switch to open source software and which software it should use. That issue is compatibility with Microsoft's venerable Office suite.

The file formats used by Microsoft have become standards, used by almost everyone for everything from quick memos and internal emails, to official letters, books and publishing. File extensions like DOC, DOCX and XLS have become synonymous with word processing and spreadsheets, PPA files for presentations and PST files for email archives.

Each one of these formats is owned and governed by Microsoft, and the most important aspect of finding an alternative is that the replacement format should work as transparently as possible without the user having to worry about compatibility.

Fortunately, for the vast majority of people and uses, there are open source alternatives that will be almost 100% compatible, and you should be able to migrate to these options without any problems.

There are several free Office replacements that can read from and write to Microsoft compatible formats, and this means the people you send files to never need know you've not paid a penny for the software you're using, or that they were developed by a community of hackers unless you want them to. These applications are also just as capable as their proprietary counterparts, and they should be able to accommodate even the most arcane and esoteric formatting needs.

But there is a caveat. We said 'almost 100%' for a reason, and if you're a Microsoft Office power user, you will notice differences, especially if you like playing with Visual Basic macros in the spreadsheet.

For most users, these small differences won't affect your experience or the way you share files with other people, but it's also better to have a realistic expectation of what to expect from free alternatives, and none are 100% compatible with Microsoft Office.

OpenOffice

The best choice for MS Office compatibility is a suite of applications that fall under the name of OpenOffice.org (OOo). This is a rather strange web-like name for a suite of office apps, but the name OpenOffice was already taken, so the .org was added to distinguish it from the other. It also means you're unlikely to forget the project's website.

OpenOffice.org

The initial project never meant to be free software. In the early part of 1999, it was a proprietary office suite just like Microsoft's. Later that year, one of Microsoft's competitors, Sun Microsystems, bought the the product and released the whole thing for free. The following year, the code that makes up the software was also freed, opening the package up for anyone to make changes.

Since then, OpenOffice.org has been in a rapid state of development and has been the principle weapon in the fight to provide a free Office alternative for Windows, OS X and Linux desktops. The current release of version 3 are more than capable of performing all your statutory office duties, and make an ideal replacement for its commercial competitors.

The most commonly used application in every office suite, and possibly the only application most of us use, is the word processor. OpenOffice.org's is prosaically dubbed Writer, and if you've used any one of these applications in the years since the genre climbed out of the DOS-bound primordial soup, you won't have any difficulty using this one. You type words on to the page, use tabs and markers to format things and send the results to a printer or an external file.

If you've had to get used to the newer generation of Microsoft's products, you may be relieved to see that Writer's user interface is much easier to understand, which could be a real advantage if you're also considering upgrading to Microsoft Office 2007.

Writer config

WRITER:There are many configuration options hidden in Writer's Tools

Loading MS Word documents is as easy as opening the file requester from within Writer and selecting the file. It can make sense of both DOC and the newer DOCX formats, and although you may get a warning that some formatting features may not be supported in the conversion to OpenOffice.org, most people won't notice any difference in layout. If your documents do look different, there's quite a lot you can do to improve compatibility.

1. Use standard fonts

When you're running OpenOffice.org on Linux and Word on Windows, the biggest difference between the two is going to be which fonts they use, as neither will use the same sets. But you can ensure that documents mostly look the same by keeping to the default Sans and Serif fonts used when you first launch the editor.

On Windows, this means using MS Sans and Serif, while Linux users might want to opt for 'Liberation' or 'Free' versions of both typefaces.

2. Keep documents simple

It might seem like common sense, but the fewer formatting objects there are on the page, the less likely there are to be problems. Lots of tables or complicated headers can mess up the layout, as can certain kinds of images and the use of esoteric fonts.

If something isn't absolutely necessary, such as a custom colour on a table background, you'll have better compatibility if they're not included. Consider a better tool If you're sharing a complex newsletter with someone, consider whether a word processor is really the best tool for the job.

You might get better cross-platform compatibility by jumping to a DTP tool like Scribus, or a vector graphics editor such as Inkscape, both of which have cross-platform versions that everyone can use freely.

3. Choose a better format

While DOC and DOCX are the best choices for most word processing documents, if the content of your document is entirely text, you may as well use something simpler, such as RTF or even raw text.

Writer alternatives

Writer is a great application and probably the best option for general use. But there are alternatives, and if you find Writer's user interface a little too heavy and overburdened with features, it's worth taking look at what else is available. You might be surprised to find that there are several applications that are almost as good at working with Microsoft formats.

The second most popular word processor is called AbiWord, and if it's not included by default, you can install it easily through your distribution's package manager.

AbiWord is faster to launch and quicker to operate than OOo. It doesn't have half as many dependencies, and doesn't consume as many system resources. You'll notice all these things as soon as you launch the application from the menu.

Everything you need for working with text is present in AbiWord, and you can start working quickly. Many more advanced features are included, such as a grammar checker, a tool for constructing formulae and links to online resources such as language translation.

Newer versions will also include a 'Collaborate' menu, from which you can create an account and work on documents with other people across your office or the internet in real time. It's a great addition, and something you can't quite so easily do in Microsoft Word.

Free office admin software

After the word processor, there's a quartet of applications every office needs

There's more to the work of the average office than typing letters, which is why most offices use a single bundle of applications as a catch-all suite for most office tasks.

Which of these applications are integral to your work is obviously dependent on what you do, but it's unlikely that you'll be able to completely avoid using a spreadsheet or an email client, or even avoid making the occasional presentation.

These are the workhorse applications that an office can't function without, and while they may not be the most exciting applications on the planet, they're essential whatever platform you happen to be working on.

Anyone who works with numbers has to use a spreadsheet at some point. As they are second only in importance to the word processor, there are quite a few to choose between.

The most obvious option, and the one with the best support, is the spreadsheet that's included as part of the OpenOffice.org suite. It's an application called Calc, and it's reasonably analogous to Microsoft's Excel. If you've used Excel, you shouldn't have any problems using Calc. But more importantly, you should also be able to load and save files you've been working on.

Calc

CALC:Most spreadsheet tasks can be accomplished with OpenOffice.org's Calc

But Excel spreadsheets can be complicated, and in particular, they can be augmented with what are known as VB scripts and macros. These are quick and informal chunks of programming logic that can be used to extend custom functionality to a spreadsheet when the default functions don't offer the facilities you're looking for. They're commonly used to trawl through large sets of data, or to input and output data to and from a specific source or worksheet.

The language itself is descended from Microsoft's Visual Basic, and when used with tools like Excel, it's referred to as Visual Basic for Applications, or VBA. Getting the same VBA compatibility with applications that aren't developed by Microsoft can be tough. It adds a new layer of complexity and a new target for developers to chase. This means that if your spreadsheet relies on VBA functionality to work, you may have a problems finding an open source alternative where your old spreadsheets are 100% functional.

VBA compatibility in OpenOffice.org, for example, should be considered a work in progress. The trouble is that when people develop VBA scripts for Excel, it's unlikely they consider whether their script is going to be used with a different application.

Go-oo

But all is not lost. VBA compatibility is working nicely for most and there's a specific project working on bringing improved compatibility to OpenOffice.org. Despite our warnings, you may find that your Excel spreadheets and macros just work, and even if they don't, there's still something else you can try, a different version of OpenOffice.org.

There's an alternative version that does boast better VBA macro support than the default version that most people download from OpenOffice. org, and that's called Go-oo.

Go-oo contains many different enhancements over the default version of OpenOffice.org. These enhancements have been unable to find a place in the main project which is why they're maintained under the Go-oo name. They include things like improved performance, SVG support, 3D transitions for the presentation application, a calculation solver for the spreadsheet and better interoperability with Excel, as well as the all-important VBA macro support.

If you're installing the Go-oo office suite from a Linux distribution, you'll find that most of these enhancements have already been rolled into the version that provided, but if you're trying free software on a Windows or OS X platform, you might want to grab the installer from http://go-oo.org rather than the official OpenOffice.org site.

Free presentation software

Presentation software has taken something of a hammering in recent years. There can't be many of us who haven't had to endure an hour or complete boredom as a co-worker clicks their way through page after page of dry statistics and slowly animating graphs.

The Microsoft application synonymous with this task, PowerPoint, has become a byword for this painful process. But that doesn't mean all presentation software, and all presentations, needed to be consigned to the trash. They still have an important role to play.

Impress

IMPRESS:We know presentations are boring, but at least with OOo Impress you won't have to pay to make them

The OpenOffice.org PowerPoint equivalent is called Impress, and it actually has some decent advantages over Microsoft's presentation software. The first is that, thanks to the community, there are now dozens of decent templates available that you can use freely to revitalise your own presentation style. Take a look at them here and click on Impress on the tag cloud on the left.

You'll find plenty to choose from, and they can all be loaded into the application from the startup wizard that appears as soon as it launches. There's also a good selection of export file types available from Impress.

You can create HTML websites and PDF documentation from the File > Export option, for instance. But perhaps the cleverest is the ability to export a Flash movie. This will preserve all your carefully crafted transitions and graphics, and enable you to place the file online for other people to watch automatically. You could even become a YouTube video star if your presentations are that good.

Impress is also broadly compatible with PowerPoint, loading and saving its PPA format without difficulty. The KOffice presentation manager, KPresenter, might be an good option, but it's relatively primitive in comparison to OpenOffice.org's offering, and its PowerPoint compatibility is relatively poor compared with Impress.

There are several projects working on presentation software, including MagicPoint and KeyJNote, but neither can compete with Impress for functions, and should only be considered if you really dislike the way both PowerPoint and Impress do things.

Open source email apps

In any Windows-based office, there's no getting away from the ubiquity of Outlook. It's what many people consider to be the only face of email, in the same way that Internet Explorer used to be the only accepted way of accessing the internet.

As with IE, there are some serious open source alternatives that you may find make a refreshing change to the multiple-sliding panels and do-all interface offered by Outlook and Outlook Express. But which you use is going to depend on how your email is delivered.

If you happen to be using Microsoft Exchange, things get a little more complicated. There are solutions, including costly 'exchange' bridges to local clients and enabling IMAP on the Exchange server, but these might be more trouble than their worth. It might be easier to ask any Linux converts to use the Exchange web interface until a better solution can be found.

But in a small or home office, it's likely you'll be grabbing your email from a third-party's internet service, either as part of their hosting package or perhaps through an online provider like Google or Yahoo. In those cases, you'll most likely be using the IMAP or POP3 protocols to connect to these remote servers, and these are widely compatible with most email clients, regardless of the platform.

In the cross-platform category, there's the recently released Thunderbird 3. Developed by the same people that made Firefox such a success, it's a mature and stable application that can be augmented by numerous addons and extensions, just like Firefox. It's also widely used and stable.

The latest release adds tabbed mail viewing and a dynamic search interface, and should offer a revolutionary experience as a replacement for Outlook.

Evolution

EVOLUTION:Manage your email, contacts, tasks and calendar from Evolution

If you really need to maintain as close an Outlook experience as possible, then the Evolution email client is the closest match for functionality and design. It's also the default email client for Gnome-based distributions, and includes the contacts and calendar additions as sliding panels for the complete personal information manager experience.

Free print and design software

There's nothing to stop you doing top-quality design work with free software

Whether you want to crop an image to drop into a document, create a website design or draw a diagram, there's a free software tool that's up to the job. There are more options for graphics design in the world of free software than there are for almost any other type of software. There are applications that cater for everyone from the photo enthusiast to the print shop and publisher.

OpenOffice.org even includes its own image editing and drawing tool. That said, in the world of the professional designer there's really only one application that's considered, and that's Adobe's Photoshop. It's a huge application that seems to have grown a new set of functions every year for the last decade, and as a result, it can be difficult to learn and difficult to migrate from.

If you're looking for a free software version, the truthful answer is that you're not going to find one. But if your editing requirements are more modest, there is an alternative, and it's called Gimp.

GIMP

GIMP:If someone sends you a PSD file from Photoshop, Gimp will let you open, edit and save it to the same format

Everyone seems to have heard of Gimp. This is thanks to its stupid name and its rather arcane user interface, which it seems to have inherited from one of those older versions of Photoshop. But get past these shortcomings – and the rather steep learning curve – and there's a powerful application lurking just beneath the surface. Just don't expect to be able to make any quick edits without a little pain.

Like Photoshop, Gimp uses layers to keep the various parts of an image independent of one another. Each layer can be filtered, modified, warped and transformed freely, and various layer modes can be used to change how one layer's colour affects another. If you've not used Photoshop, it can be difficult to get your head around, but it basically enables you to build up complex images from simple parts, apply effects and export the whole project as a single layer.

Photon paint

Gimp is also the best tool for importing Photoshop image files with the PSD extension as most of the layer information will be preserved, and you can edit the file and send back the results using the same file format. It's not a complete format conversion, but if you can get the contact who's sending you the PSD file to render their layer effects before sending you the image, there shouldn't be too many problems.

If you want to edit photographs, then Gimp has a good range of automatic selection tools where you can use a colour proximity threshold to automatically select parts of an image, as well as several other types of selection. You can perform the normal contrast and brightness adjustments, and make more complex tweaks using histogram graph or a menu full of various filters and effects.

The only real problem with Gimp is that it doesn't natively support the CMYK colour space that's the bread and butter of professionals. You can get around this limitation by installing a plugin that creates the separation manually, but it's a long way from integrated support that the end user doesn't even have to think about.

Gimp is a powerful solution, and can replace its expensive counterpart in many places. It also has the advantage of being available for Windows, which might help if you want to run it alongside Photoshop for a while, but we can't whole-heartedly recommend it as a Photoshop replacement until the long promised GUI overhaul materialises (this is planned for the next release, version 2.8) and it gets a lot easier to use.

Inkscape

If you're looking for a vector graphics editor rather than a bitmap editor, you'll have better luck. This is because there's an application called Inkscape that can do almost everything you need without being all that complex or difficult to understand.

Inkscape

INKSCAPE:Many of the icons and widgets used on the Linux desktop are provided as SVG images that can be edited and used freely from within Inkscape

You can use Inkscape to create scalable diagrams, illustrations, artwork and text effects, and export these creations using the industry standard SVG format as well as a PDF. It's broadly equivalent to Adobe's Illustrator application, and includes many of the same features.

Images are built out of a series of paths, which are usually either straight lines or smooth curves with junctions used to mark changes from one section to another. These shapes can then be filled and overlapped.

A layer palette, much like those used in Photoshop and Gimp, is used to keep each section of the overall image independent and you can process the layers. Inkscape even manages to be better than Illustrator at some things. SVG is its native format, for example, and this means it's generally much easier to load and save to the format from within Inkscape, and the resulting files should also be better formatted.

Several of the tools, such as the paint bucket, the gradient tool and the drawing tools can be easier to use, and there are keyboard shortcuts for for the vast majority of functions. It might not be able to compete in terms of industry acceptance, but Inkscape is still more than capable of creating stunning output.

It's also perfect for print, because the scalable nature of the images means that there's no limit on the output resolution, whether that's from home printer or a commercial duplicator, and it's used by most open source artists to create all those plastic-like icons that every software project seems to have nowadays.

You'll probably find Inkscape easier to use than OpenOffice.org's own image editor, and there are stable versions available for both OS X and Windows. Should you need to combine images and words with any degree of proficiency, desktop publishing applications are few and far between.

But in the world of open source, Scribus has grown to become the standard. It's an application designed to help you pull images and text into something that will look good on paper, whether that's a flyer for a Chinese restaurant, a brochure for a local store or even a periodic journal.

Like Gimp, it doesn't quite have the streamlined workflow and maturity of its commercial competitors, but it's catching up quickly and for the vast majority of people, it's going to offer more than enough features to accomplish most tasks.

Scribus

Thanks to the prohibitive cost of proprietary DTP packages, this is normally the type of product that's regarded as rather niche, leaving most people to create their bulletins and newsletters from a word processor. But if all you've used is a Word or Writer, Scribus can vastly improve the quality of your output.

Scribus

SCRIBUS:If you write a newsletter, try dumping your word processor and giving Scribus a try

And because it's free, you've got nothing to lose by giving it a go. There are several useful templates from which you can create a new project with Scribus, and you can use these for most standard situations.

You can find many more at www.scribus.net, including a massive list of label and CD cover templates, which broadens this application's use even further and should help keep you and your colleagues from the clutches of proprietary software.

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First published in Linux Format Issue 130

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