How you can help Windows users quit
What’s wrong with using Windows? As with other addictions, informed recreational use has few drawbacks, but continual dependence on particular software is a different matter. If you simply can’t boot a computer without using Windows or can’t get anything meaningful done without it, then you’re an addict who needs to be weaned off this habit.
Most addicts will tell you that kicking a habit needs to be done in stages and that the support of friends and relatives is vital. This feature will look at a step-by-step process for giving up Windows and moving to an alternative that doesn’t involve being locked into using one vendor.
One day at a time
Most people want to use a computer to get stuff done. They don’t choose a PC because of the type of software on it, unless this affects what they can achieve with the machine. Windows comes preinstalled on the vast majority of computers for sale, so it gets chosen by default.
Apple fans will go for a Mac, but people who aren’t driven by brand names are likely to avoid the Apple route because it costs more than a PC. Once saddled with Windows you’ve got to be pretty fed up with it to want to change. You also need to know that alternatives exist and have enough technical knowledge to implement them.
Few computers are on sale with Linux preinstalled, so they’re effectively only available to people who know they exist. There aren’t many PC vendors that provide computers without an OS pre-installed – although Novatech (www.novatech.co.uk) is notable for providing the option to buy each of its systems without Windows. You can buy one and simply install a Linux distribution when you get it home.
Programs or OS?
However, in most cases, people have become accustomed to Windows and a range of programs running on it. The average PC user is unlikely to know the difference between Windows and some of its most popular programs. Anyone who isn’t an enthusiast might have difficulty knowing where Windows ends and Microsoft Office starts.
You can turn this to your advantage, as it’s easier to persuade someone to try out a new program than it is to fundamentally change the way their computer works. By gradually replacing the programs on the computer with Windows ports of common Linux applications, you can ease the transition to an open source environment without having to make a drastic change. Think of this as a similar step to cutting down the number of cigarettes smoked prior to giving up.
Swapping Internet Explorer for Mozilla Firefox is a logical first step. Firefox is probably the most popular open source program around and it provides enough similarity to earlier versions of Internet Explorer to provide a painless transition.
To install the Windows version of Firefox, browse to www.mozilla.com/firefox and download and install the program. On installation you can transfer Internet Explorer favourites and the default homepage. There are people who have difficulty telling Firefox apart from Internet Explorer 6, especially once the homepage is the same.
Assuming that the tentative steps with Firefox have gone OK, you can try pressing the advantage. Select some must-have Firefox add-ons that will improve your subject’s web browsing. You can find a list by choosing Tools > Add-ons > Get Extensions. Try adding Adblock Plus, English Dictionary to work with the inline spell checking, and NoScript. There are loads of others, but these are invaluable in cutting down web irritations and protecting the browser.
With an open source browser now running in Windows, you can turn your attention to email. If your addict currently has Outlook Express installed, try swapping it with Mozilla Thunderbird (www.mozilla.com/thunderbird). This has a Linux equivalent so when it comes to migrating, it will be easy to move downloaded mail files across.
As with Firefox, Thunderbird invites you to import messages and settings from Outlook or Outlook Express, so it’s another relatively painless move. Thunderbird provides equivalent functions to Outlook Express, even including a Usenet newsreader, although some of the controls are a little different. This may need a little more adjustment than the move from Internet Explorer to Firefox did, but there should be few problems.
If the addict that you’re helping uses web mail, your best option is to stick with it. As long as you have a web browser and the URL, username and password for their mail service, it doesn’t matter what operating system you use to access it.
The first step to beating an addiction is admitting that there’s a problem in the first place. This isn’t easy, but all addictions produce tell-tale effects:
- Fragmented data A computer running Windows is far more likely to suffer from data fragmentation due to the location and variable size of the swap file. The result is slower performance or needless time spent maintaining the drive. It’s no wonder Windows users suffer stress.
- Malware Adware and spyware are generally written with Windows users in mind. The user has to perform more maintenance to keep his system clean and there’s always the nagging doubt that someone else may have access to his data. Infections also cause slowdowns, making the addict irritable and impairing his concentration.
- Antivirus The need to run daily antivirus scans and updates is another source of irritation for the long-suffering Windows addict. Proof of concept viruses do exist for Linux and there are antivirus applications available, but there isn’t the urgency to scan, scan and scan some more to keep the system clean. Having to remember all this maintenance is likely to make the addict liable to forget other important events, like anniversaries.
- Corrupt registry It’s all too easy for an enthusiastic Windows user to make a registry edit that renders the computer unbootable. Knowledge of this Sword of Damocles can lead to him becoming nervous or paranoid about the functioning of his computer.
- Updates All operating systems need to be updated from time to time, but Windows is unhappy if it can’t phone home on a daily basis. The need to regularly return to the supplier for a fix of code is surely a sign of addiction.
- Terms of dependence Before long the hapless user will find himself talking in hushed tones of Activation and Validation. These terms mean that he has to return to his supplier for permission to continue using his computer. This is classic addictive behaviour and the only cure is to stop using Windows completely.
Do you need external validation? That may be a sign of addiction.
The next application to tackle is the office suite. This is where Microsoft owns many users, because they’re wedded to the version of Word or Excel that they use for work. It’s also a challenge for MS because natural inertia prevents people upgrading to the latest version. This may be one reason why the DOCX format was introduced in Office 2007.
It’s still possible for people using Office 2007 to save in a format that can be opened in earlier versions of Office, but this involves changing its default behaviour, which many users simply won’t do. The new standard may force users to upgrade. It also causes some similar problems for people looking for an open source office suite. OpenOffice.org (www.openoffice.org) provides a Windows version that will open files produced by earlier versions of Microsoft Office, but it has trouble opening DOCX files.
Thankfully, there’s a web-based DOCX converter that will do the job for anyone that needs to use a more open file format. Point your browser at http://docx-converter.com and click the Browse button to find and upload the DOCX file that you want to convert. You need to provide an email address, which will be contacted when the process is complete.
Make sure that you save OpenOffice.org files in a format that Microsoft Office users can read.
Switching to OpenOffice.org (OOo) won’t be too much of a headache in most cases. By far the most used office program is the word processor and once you’ve overcome the DOCX issue, you shouldn’t find major problems with using OOo’s word processor. The spreadsheet program is very similar to Excel prior to 2007 and Impress, the presentation program, opens PowerPoint presentations with few problems.
There are a few teething issues to deal with, though. Firstly, if you’re working with other people who use Microsoft Office, you’ll need to make sure that you save documents by default in a format that they’ll be able to open. You can manage this by editing the options from any OOo application. Choose Tools > Options > Microsoft Office and tick each of the boxes under [L] and [S] to ensure that each file type is converted to and from a compatible standard when you open and save them.
There are a few drawbacks to switching to OOo. It launches more slowly than its Microsoft equivalent. This is only really noticeable when you start one of the applications, but people of an impatient nature may find the few seconds more it takes to start rather irritating.
Documents with complex formatting sometimes don’t translate to OOo in exactly the same state as in Microsoft Office, although this is true of any different office suite. It’s difficult to embed flash animations into an Impress presentation, whereas this is a pretty easy job in Microsoft Office. However, these minor drawbacks are usually outweighed in the user’s mind by the fact that OpenOffice.org is free.
Don't forget to set up the same options in OpenOffice.org when you make the move to Linux.
Dual booting: does it work?
Dual booting is a common step in moving towards Linux. It provides the full experience of a distribution operating at full speed, but you’re left with the choice of restarting your computer and entering Windows at any time as a safety net.
Setting up a dual-boot is pretty easy. As long as you have a partition on your hard disk with Windows installed on it and some unpartitioned space available, most common distributions provide setting up a dual-boot as an installation option.
For example, in the case of Ubuntu, boot from the Ubuntu CD. This starts a live version of the distribution that runs directly from the CD. To install it to your hard drive, double-click the Install icon and follow the wizard. When you come to the section on partitioning, choose Guided – use the largest continuous free space if you have some unpartitioned space available.
Otherwise, choose Manual and select the partition you want to install Ubuntu on. Complete the installation. When your computer boots, the Grub boot loader takes control. Ubuntu is the default OS, but press Esc as you start up if you want to choose an alternate OS. Select the option you want from the list, and press Enter.
On the face of it, a dual -boot setup looks like an ideal solution for users trying to wean themselves off Windows, but it does have drawbacks. The most significant is that given the option to boot into Windows, most addicts will take the easy route and go for a fix of the Microsoft operating system. Excuses like “I’ll work in Linux tomorrow” or “this job is too important for me to be working in an unfamiliar environment” will help excuse the addict’s compulsive behaviour.
You’ll know that all is lost if the addict tries to make Windows the default boot option “for convenience”, as this is just one step away from removing the dual-boot and lapsing into an exclusively Windows-based machine. A dual-boot environment is rather like an ex-smoker carrying around a packet of cigarettes in his pocket for the sake of reassurance. If you make returning to a habit easy to do, you’re also making quitting for good a whole lot harder.
A dual-boot environment is easy to set up but may not be the best move for an addict.
Most Linux distros have a favoured media player and Windows users are probably familiar with the default Windows Media Player. However, the VLC Media Player (www.videolan.org/vlc) offers some advantages. It has a very simple interface but it supports a very wide range of file types and you can use it to stream video as well. Many Windows users choose it in preference to Microsoft’s offering and it’s truly cross-platform. Alongside Firefox, it’s one of the best ambassadors for open source programming.
Continue in this process of changing one application at a time to an open source Windows equivalent that’s also common under Linux. For instant messaging try Pidgin (www.pidgin.im), which handles all common messaging protocols, but doesn’t currently support video chats. Some repositories still list it under its former name of GAIM, but it’s essentially the same application.
The widely used graphics program Gimp does much the same job as Photoshop or Paint Shop Pro, but the interface takes some getting used to. This may be the most difficult adjustment an occasional user of such graphics programs will need to make. For other software, use the list of Linux equivalents to Windows software at http://wiki.linuxquestions.org/wiki/Linux_software_equivalent_to_Windows_software.
Take a trip to the homepage of the program in question and see if there’s a Windows port. By swapping each of your patient’s common applications in Windows you reduce the culture shock when it comes to moving to Linux.
Once your addict is used to the Windows versions of commonly used Linux programs, it’s time to try the big switch. Use a common, well-supported distribution such as Ubuntu, Fedora or OpenSUSE. Consider dual booting, but bear in mind the caveats discussed in ‘Dual booting: does it work?’ on the opposite page. It may be better to make a clean switch to reduce the chances of relapse. As with any addiction, relapse does happen. See ‘Relapse: part of recovery’, above, to find out how best to deal with it.
It is possible to kick the Windows habit and many have done so. It takes dedication and a lot of hard work, but with support, willpower and the right attitude it can be done. Don’t you owe it to a friend to help them ditch this pernicious addiction?
The VLC Media Player is multi-platform and it plays back the widest range of media formats, both closed and open source.
Heroin users are offered methadone to ease the transition into drug-free life. Smokers can call upon nicotine patches to take the edge off withdrawal symptoms. There is a similar lifeline extended to Windows users who have taken the brave step of installing Linux on their PCs. This is Wine, which stands for Wine Is Not an Emulator. It’s a compatibility layer that enables Linux users to run some programs that were written for Windows.
You can get it from www.winehq.com, although you’ll find packages in most distributions repositories, so you’ll probably find it easier to install via a package manager. Wine is designed to give Windows applications the data and resources that they need to run under Linux.
Not all programs run flawlessly under Wine, but you can find an application compatibility list at http://appdb.winehq.org. There’s also a wiki, forum and other support sites to help you get applications running. However, it’s best to treat Wine as a last resort. Running proprietary Windows software under Wine brings the same limitations of closed source software and dependence on a single supplier that using Windows itself does.
If you’ve followed the weaning-off process of moving towards open source alternatives under Windows before making the switch to Linux, you may not need the nicotine patch of Wine after all.
Install Wine to run some Windows programs under Linux.
Relapse: part of recovery
Relapse is part of addictive behaviour. Full of good intentions, the addict tries to stop his or her habit for good, only to weaken and lapse into old behaviour patterns.
This can lead to feelings of dejection and failure. It may lead the addict to think that there’s no point in trying to live without Windows. Life just seems too hard without it as a crutch. If you have friends who have fallen into this trap, they need your support more than ever.
The world won’t end if they have to continue working with Windows. Try to show understanding, but gently remind them of the benefits of free and open source software. Point out the progress they’ve made. Remind them of the free software they’ve been successfully using within Windows. Offer help and support the next time they want to try making the move to Linux. Point out that many people take several attempts to make this change, so this isn’t a failure – it simply means moving OS is a challenging process that may take a few tries. Most worthwhile activities aren’t completely easy.
Slipping back into Windows is disappointing, but it need not be final.
First published in Linux Format magazine