Saturday, November 7, 2009

Why your small business should switch to Ubuntu.

Retaining that competitive edge is important to any business, but is of much higher priority to a small company than a multinational behemoth that can pad its losses. If you're a small business owner, you're always on the lookout for ways to cut costs, improve productivity, and increase profits, hopefully without much outlay in capital or manpower.

Ubuntu can help.

I work with small to medium businesses almost exclusively, and I see a few trends. Say you have twenty employees total. You probably have around twenty to thirty computers, and if you're typical, you bought them a few years ago and they're running Windows XP (or, god help you, Windows Vista), not because you have any particular interest in Windows, but because that's what came with the computers, it works well enough, and your employees know how to use it. You have a collection of software loaded on those computers too -- almost certain Microsoft Office, and some other things, and you use them on a daily basis because you need them to get your work done.

That's the thinking anyway, and at first glance, it all seems reasonable. But there are immense hidden costs associated with all of these assumptions. Real, actual dollars, all being needlessly wasted. Let's find out why.

"Windows came with the computers."
Well, it did, but you know the cost was rolled into the price of the computer. To geeks this is called "The Microsoft tax" -- almost every new computer you buy has Windows on it, and unless you want to build your own computers, there's no way to avoid it. (Or so it seems. More on that later.)

The cost of Windows -- which can retail as high as four hundred dollars -- is to some extent subsidised with the computer company in the form of the other pre-installed garbage that often comes with new computers. But make no mistake about it -- Windows is pricey, and you're paying for it with higher prices, or with endless amounts of junk slowing down your brand-new computers and creating annoyances and security risks.

This doesn't even take into consideration the cost of software. Microsoft Office can run a few hundred dollars, and unless you'd like a visit from the BSA, you'd better make sure your copies are legit. And for full compliancy you need someone to waste time (and money) keeping track of all those software licenses, just in case you get audited.

Ubuntu, on the other hand, is absolutely 100% free, as is the software you will ever run on it. When new versions come out, those will be free as well -- you won't have to worry about blowing another 200 dollars per computer to get the latest and greatest. When new versions of programs come out, those, too, will be free. No restrictions, no licenses, no gimmicks.

"My employees already know Windows."
This is also known as the "I'd have to re-train everyone" argument. It's heavily pushed by Microsoft to get people to avoid switching to anything else.

The thing is, your employees don't really "know" Windows, any more than they "know" cars just because they can drive. They know how to double-click icons to launch programs, and how to save whatever they're working on, but if they're anything like most non-geeks, that's about the extent of their Windows knowledge.

This is not criticism by any means. Unless the job is specifically in some IT-related field, your employees were not hired for their computer skills. They were hired to do a certain job and that job isn't to know about computers. You want them to focus on selling, or marketing, or keeping the books, or whatever -- not sit around tinkering with the innards of Windows.

It's okay that they don't really know Windows, or computers in general, other than the basic "click here to open the spreadsheet" type stuff. But that doesn't mean they know Windows, and you probably didn't have to "train" them in this beyond the five seconds it took to say "here's where we keep these spreadsheets."

Don't sweat it, and don't let Microsoft fool you. If your employees can run Word, they can run Open Office Writer. If they can use Excel, they can use Calc. If they can use Outlook, they can use Evolution. Most of them will probably never notice the difference -- except, perhaps, that things are running more smooth and not crashing so often.

"It works well enough."
This is a line oft-repeated. Switching to something else is a hassle. It's uncharted territory. Windows works okay.

But does it really? How many manhours have been lost when an employee's Windows machine suddenly dies and refuses to restart? How many sales could have been generated in the time it took to call the helpdesk and ask why Outlook keeps crashing? I know your employees could be doing something more productive than watching Windows defrag or waiting for virus scans to complete.

And let us not forget the endless chant of "My computer is so slow...", something someone in my position hears daily. The computer hardware is not slow, but Windows sure is. And it gets bogged down with so much junk, so quickly, that even that brand-new, ultrafast workstation you invested in can, and assuredly will be, slowed to a crawl.

Most small businesses don't have dedicated IT personnel, either, so they rely on third parties -- local IT shops and Geek Squads and such -- to fix this stuff. And that costs money too. If you do have your own tech staff, they could be using their time (and your money) on more important things as well.

Windows does not work well enough. Most businesses don't realise just how much time and money is wasted because of inane problems inherent in Windows or in the Windows software ecosystem.

Ubuntu is not perfect. I'm not going to say things will never go wrong with Ubuntu. But I can guarantee that it will virtually never crash, that the programs will virtually never crash, that you will not waste time with viruses and trojans wasting your time and stealing confidential data, and that it will not slowly grind to a halt as time wears on, because it won't get bogged down with useless garbage. And when problems are discovered, updates get pushed out fast -- no more waiting for months until Microsoft finally gets off its butt and releases a patch.

"But we need things like Microsoft Office."
Do you really? Your employees don't care. They want to write a letter to the client -- they don't care if they're using Word or Openoffice Writer. They want to send an email -- it makes no difference to them if they're doing it with Outlook or Evolution. You, and your employees, and your business, do not need Office as such; what you need is to perform certain tasks. And Ubuntu will let you do all of that and more -- and do it more quickly and more safely than Windows ever will.

I understand that some businesses have specialty software they require. There are ways around this. Applications such as Wine will run Windows-only programs right on your Ubuntu machine and will work for the overwhelmingly vast majority of any "Windows Only" programs you have. Setup is minimal, if you have to do any at all, and totally seamless.

"What about compatability?"
Some people are worried about this. They want their Word documents to open properly when they send it to the clients, and they want to be inter-operable with other clients and vendors and suppliers and so forth.

Let's get one thing out of the way: Microsoft is not compatible with Microsoft half the time. We've all opened Word documents in Word, and had weird formatting issues, or completely refuse to open at all, or even crash the program. Microsoft is only too happy to update its standards and formats every so often, rendering its previous versions incompatible, to force you to upgrade. You're not doing yourself any favors with compatability by sticking to Windows.

Besides, these days, most interaction is done using web-based tools and applications. You probably place and receive orders and requests and so on through some sort of website. This trend is erasing the vendor lock-in that Microsoft so desperately wants, because those will work on any web browser, regardless of whether you're using Windows, Linux, Mac, or anything else.

* * *

Think about what you and your employees are actually doing day to day, and ask yourself if any of it really requires Microsoft products. The answer is probably no, so why are you paying a premium for Windows licenses, Office licenses, all for the privilege of having buggy, crashing software that wastes your employees' time and your money, knowing that you'll have to shell out even more when the next version comes out and Microsoft stops caring if the old version works?

Ubuntu is now, and will always be, free. Tens of thousands of software applications are available for it, also absolutely free. Your computers will run more efficiently, your employees' workflow will be smoother, you'll stop paying additional fees for licenses and stop paying more for upgrades. You'll see far less downtime from balky computers freezing or taking forever to open simple programs.

If you're using Windows you are literally paying hundreds or thousands of dollars for a demonstrably inferior product. Switch to Ubuntu, stop paying, get a superior product. Your employees and your bottom line will thank you.

Some resources: - Download Ubuntu at zero cost. Try it for free.
Looking for new computers anyway? - Dell now ships with Ubuntu pre-installed for total convenience.
system76 also has a wide variety of desktops and laptops and notebooks with Ubuntu Linux already set up for you.

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