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November 17th, 2009:

How Necessary Is Windows? Part 3: Apps

I came down with a monster headcold the last couple of days, and whereas this entry was in the can since Sunday, the remaining entries may be a little slower in coming. Bear with me…

We don’t use Windows because it’s Windows. (Most of us use it because it came on the machine and, well, it’s paid for.) Windows is just an operating system, and an OS is a troll living under a bridge. Applications with specific missions lean over the railing and shout orders to the troll, who (mostly) does as they say while keeping order up on the bridge. An OS is 80% facilitator and 20% bodyguard. Our real work happens in the apps. If the apps we use can be run without Windows, then Windows isn’t necessary at all.

There are three ways to break free of an application’s dependence on Windows:

  1. Find a version of a Windows app that runs on your OS of choice;
  2. Switch to a similar app that runs on your OS of choice; or
  3. Coerce a Windows app to run somehow on the OS of your choice.

I’ve done all three, and for the sake of further discussion here, the OS of choice is Linux. Mac OS/X is another worthy option, and all three of these methods are available there too, but for several reasons I hesitate to give Apple my money. (We’ll talk of this at some point; people who know my deep history will understand.)

There is a lot of very good free software to be had for Linux, and it can be had very easily. The Ubuntu Software Center allows easy search for apps via category browsing or keyword search, and any selected apps are downloaded from trusted repositories and installed without further intervention. The Software Center can tell you what packages are already installed, and can uninstall packages you no longer want. This is so uncharacteristic of the ancient Unix culture of pain that I still giggle sometimes when I install something. (“This is easy. Too easy…”)

I was a little surprised at how many Windows apps have almost identical versions running under Linux. This is true of some commercial apps as well as free apps, but free apps are much more likely to have Linux versions. I use the following apps almost identically under both Windows and Linux:

This represents a good deal of what I do in front of the keyboard. (Maybe a third.) I’ve heard that Google Earth can be had in a Linux version but haven’t tested it yet. It’s not available through the Ubuntu Software Center.

Switching to a similar Linux app takes more doing, but for some sorts of work it isn’t difficult. I don’t use newsgroups very much anymore, but using Pan under Linux was relatively pain-free, even though it’s quite different from Forte Agent in many respects. There’s a very useful site called Open Source As Alternative that provides suggestions as to what free apps are reasonable alternatives to many commercial Windows apps. Definitely spend some time there if you haven’t already; the real trick in open source software is often just knowing that it exists, absent pervasive ad campaigns. For example, I’ve known about the Gimp for ten years, but never heard of GimpShop (Gimp reworked to have a menu structure more like Photoshop’s) until I read about it on OSAlt.

KOffice is probably the best of the open-source office suites, though not all the several apps are equally powerful or polished. OpenOffice is even better functionally, but it has some weirdnesses (font management first among them) that probably stem from its Java-centric design. It used to be the only one of the open source word processors I know of that will load a .docx file, but the latest Abiword will do that now. Note that OO will bog anything less muscular than a 2 GHz Pentium, so don’t install it on older machines, and max your memory before you install it on anything.

For generating raw text and editing old Word 2000 files, I now use Abiword routinely. I don’t do much spreadsheeting, but my fairly simple PlanetPlanner spreadsheet loads and runs on Gnumeric, and that’s good enough for me.

Alas, once you get away from the most simple and widespread categories of apps (like word processors and spreadsheets) the news is mostly bad. The real problem with similar-but-not-identical apps isn’t the work it takes to learn them. It’s a phenomenon called file format lock-in, and in some respects is the key issue in this discussion. More about that in the next installment, probably when my nose stops dripping into my keyboard.