Thunderbird, Firefox, and Transitional Applications
These last few months have been extremely exciting for the talented developers at the Mozilla project. Their Firefox browser has re-ignited the browser wars and done what no one thought possible -- taken a substantial market share away from the security-problem-plagued Internet Explorer. Last week, various news outlets were reporting that Penn State University had joined a growing chorus of warnings, issuing a statement to staff and students, advising them to dump Internet Explorer and use alternate browsers such as Firefox. When I visited their site, I discovered that this is not the first time they have issued this warning. A few months ago, even US-CERT and the Department of Homeland Security suggested that users might want to use a different browser to deal with these security issues.
Still, despite a seemingly endless parade of security issues, Microsoft's browser has managed to hold on to its position for an amazingly long time. Time, however, has a habit of chipping away at the sturdiest of empires. As I write this, over ten million copies of Firefox have already been downloaded since version 1.0 was released, just over a month ago. Meanwhile, version 1.0 of the Mozilla Thunderbird email package has just become available. It will certainly be fascinating to see how well it does in enticing people away from Microsoft's email package.
Firefox and Thunderbird represent that I call "transitional applications", Linux programs that run on other operating systems (eg: Windows) thereby offering an equivalent for users who haven't yet switched to Linux. Let's face it, change is difficult for people. As with any dangerous addiction, quitting cold turkey isn't easy which is why there are products like nicotine gum and the patch -- these are a smoker's transitional applications. So it is with moving from Windows desktops to Linux desktops. Quite honestly, a move to Linux isn't nearly as difficult as some would have you believe and most people will find themselves at home very quickly, but sometimes it helps to pave the way by introducing some Linux familiarity to the Windows desktop . . . and saving yourself a small fortune in the process.
If you can't see yourself switching immediately (or you have some reluctant friends, family members, or business associates), transitional applications can be a wonderful way to ease the transition when the time comes to move entirely to Linux. Furthermore, applications like Firefox and Thunderbird can do wonders to help those users cut down on the security issues they have to deal with every time they turn their machines on. It's not as good or complete a solution as running Linux, but it is most definitely a good start.
The very first application to consider is Mozilla Firefox, the inspiration for this column. Firefox is free for the download and since it is available for Windows, it is the perfect transitional application. Another alternative worth considering is Firefox's big brother, the original Mozilla browser -- Mozilla comes with an email package, IRC client, and an HTML editor. With tabbed browsing and a pop-up ad blocker, Mozilla, or the leaner, faster, Firefox, should already be part of every desktop, Linux or otherwise. Head over to www.mozilla.org for your copy. While you are there, do your e-mail inbox a favor and download Mozilla Thunderbird. With advanced security features and built in spam filtering, there's no reason not to. You can easily import your old mail messages and be back to work in no time at all.
The next transitional application you should consider loading up is the OpenOffice.org office suite, an excellent and powerful replacement for Microsoft Office. It provides a word processor that can read and write Word documents, an Excel compatible spreadsheet package, and a PowerPoint compatible presentation graphics package. OpenOffice.org is free for the price of a download. Simply using OpenOffice.org can save a medium-sized office thousands of dollars.
I'll give you one last package to consider. An increasingly common tool in the modern office is the instant messaging (IM) client. IM is no longer strictly the playground of teenagers or friends and family looking to keep in touch across the networked world. It is rapidly becoming a serious tool for business as well. Nothing beats being in constant touch with employees and team members, even if those people are scattered in offices around the globe. GAIM is a powerful, multi-protocol, IM client that makes it unnecessary to run a package for every service you use. It supports Yahoo!, MSN, Jabber, ICQ, AOL, and others. GAIM, a free, open-source application is also available for Windows.
By using these transitional applications or suggesting them to your friends who are still running Windows, they can begin to get at least some of the benefits that people running Linux take for granted. Firefox and Thunderbird will decrease the number of viruses and spyware programs their systems are exposed to. OpenOffice.org will save them money. GAIM will save them from running six programs to do one job.
Before you walk away thinking I've lost my Linux-loving marbles, I'd like to reiterate that running these transitional applications on Windows still isn't as good as running Linux. Nevertheless, it is a huge improvement over what has become the status quo on most desktops. It's also a good start on the road to kicking a bad habit. Besides, I'm betting that once people get used to the idea that they can live without Microsoft for a handful of core applications, the Linux desktop is not far away.