Xubuntu (and User Know-How) Closing The Office Gap

On Thursday, here in New York City, we got a pretty huge snowstorm. Huge enough that my workplace was closed.

That day, I had been scheduled to do some work on a project that involved examining work in various formats: word processed documents, PDFs, and PowerPoints. I had some downtime because of the storm, so I decided to work from home.

I was nervous that opening files would be an issue, but my Plan B was to download OpenOffice.org and my Plan C was to just postpone my work until Friday.

For some reason, I thought AbiWord can’t open .docx files, but I think Xubuntu just didn’t make an automatic association between AbiWord and the files, instead treating them as some kind of archive file. Once I made Xubuntu remember the association, everything opened and rendered like a champ (although to be fair, the files were very simple and I didn’t do a super thorough job looking at formatting, since I was just concerned with content).

PDFs, obviously, were very simple.

The PowerPoints weren’t simple and did require my downloading OpenOffice.org. I could have used a PowerPoint viewer, but I didn’t want to learn a new interface for a few hours of work. And OpenOffice was fine, although formatting is always a huge, annoying issue when you move between Microsoft Office and OpenOffice. Decks that look perfect on one look broken and odd on the other. But I was able to make do.

It was interesting how easy this was, though. I hear lots of stories from people using PCs without Office that they have tons of problems opening all but the most basic of files. And here I was in Linux, ripping through them.

Of course, a huge factor is that I understand file formats better than some users. I knew exactly which program would open a PowerPoint and I knew how to make an association between a file and a program. I’m not sure how universal those skills are among normal users. I recently tried telling a colleague about the free Microsoft PowerPoint viewer and the colleague said it was easier to just work from a different computer.

I see the same thing with .docx files, too, with users not realizing those files can only be opened with Word 2007 or later (or OpenOffice.org).

So for me, using Linux just worked with all of those files because I knew what needed to be done.

But for many Windows users, their non-Office PC doesn’t just work, because they don’t know the workarounds.

It seems like for lots of users, especially those that use their home computers for work, the usability of their machines hinges on if they have some kind of access to Office, which seems like it runs you a few hundred bucks.

Given that you can get a workable, refurbished netbook for $200 (assuming you can wait out a deal), it’s entirely possible to be using a machine where the software is worth more than the hardware.

I keep coming back to the idea that so much of Windows’ dominance is because of the dominance of Office. As Office files become less and less of an issue for Linux, and I think we’re in a pretty strong place right now in terms of that, Linux becomes a viable option for normal users. And if the user has a relatively strong sense of how Office file formats work, they’re probably already all set to switch, if they have the inclination.

Linux enthusiasts have always said Windows is what’s standing between Linux and mainstream success, but Office is really what keeps people in Windows. Well, Office, plus habit plus Microsoft’s strong hold on the corporate market plus Microsoft’s strong relationship with the hardware manufacturers.

I don’t labor under the idea Linux will one day be a mainstream operating system, nor do I want it to be. I’m very happy with the state of Linux right now, but I do think there’s a small pocket of Windows users who would find themselves a lot happier if they made the switch to Linux.

As a final note, I continue to be knocked out by AbiWord. It’s super simple but for basic word processing tasks and writing, ie, stuff without crazy images and tables, it’s great. To be honest, it reminds me of word processing circa 1997, but that’s not a bad thing.