I have several friends who are using Windows XP and Vista but are interested in possibly transitioning to Linux as their next OS. When helping people make the jump to Linux I usually setup some basic open source packages on their Windows machine so that they can get used to them before actually dumping them in the deep water of a full Linux system.
Below I list four broad categories of applications that cover probably 90% of what most people do on a home PC. The four categories are web browser, e-mail, office, and photos. If you are happy with the open source applications in these categories there is a good chance you’ll be happy running Linux on at least one, if not all, of your computers.
If you switch to Linux you will have to give up the Internet Explorer web browser. Fortunately these days we have some really good browser options besides IE. My first choice is Firefox, but Google Chrome, and Opera are also superb choices. I have all of them installed on my Linux machines. That way if I have trouble viewing a website in Firefox I can quickly load an alternative browser to view the site (this doesn’t happen very often however!).
For those of you that love ebooks, Chrome can make use of the Amazon Kindle Cloud Reader which allows you read your Kindle books on Linux.
During installation, most of these programs will give you the option to import your bookmarks and so on from Internet Explorer so it’s easy to get up and running fast. Even if you don’t switch to Linux you may find these browser alternatives serve you better than Internet Explorer. Note that the Apple Safari browser is not now available on Linux.
If you’re not using web-based mail like Gmail or Yahoo then you’ll need an e-mail client. If you’re on Windows it’s likely you’re using Outlook, Outlook Express or WinMail. In Linux you’ll most likely use either Mozilla Thunderbird or Evolution. Of these, only Thunderbird is supported under Windows. Thunderbird is the natural choice as a gateway application to Linux.
This position is reaffirmed now that Ubuntu 11.10 Oneric Ocelot will be released in October 2011 with Thunderbird as the default mail client. This is the first time Ubuntu has shipped with the Thunderbird default instead of Evolution so it is becoming clear that folks at Canonical have finally recognized the need to make it easy to switch from Windows using the gateway app idea. This is not a vote against Evolution however. It is a fine program that is very much a drop in replacement for Outlook. For those that need something more than Thunderbird later you will find it’s easy to switch to Evolution since both programs use the same mbox format for storing e-mails. Note that there is an experimental build of Evolution for Windows, but I would not recommend using it as a way to test a move to Linux.
MS Office is Microsoft’s big cash cow, and one of the main reasons they dominate on the desktop. What many people still don’t know however is that there exists a very powerful and completely FREE office suite that can serve as a drop in replacement for MS Office for probably 99% of users. The suite is know under various names such as Open Office or LibreOffice and is available for FREE to run on a variety of operating systems including Windows and Linux. The programs in the suite are very compatible with Microsoft Office products. You can easily read and write Microsoft proprietary file formats for Excel spreadsheets, Word documents, and Power Point presentations. You are also able to take advantage of saving your files in an Open Document format as well to avoid software obsolescence in the years to come. The open office alternatives can run along side MS Office on your existing Windows machine so this is a definite download even if you’re not thinking of moving to Linux.
The rush to digital cameras has meant that more and more people are now editing and printing their own photos at home. On Windows you’re likely using a flavor of Photoshop or perhaps a dedicated photo editing program provided by your camera maker. In Linux you have several options but the most potent of them is known as Gimp (gnu Image Manipulation Program). It’s definitely not Photoshop but I believe you will find it is a very capable once you work your way up the learning curve.
In my experience, if a user can get used to the above four open source “gateway” apps while working within their familiar Windows OS they will have a fairly easy time transitioning to Linux. When I switched my wife’s computer to Linux after months of using the gateway apps she barely skipped a beat since the apps she had grown familiar with were the same in Linux as they were in Windows. This comfort factor encourages users and gives them confidence that they can learn the added things they will need to know to successfully work in a Linux environment.