Copywriter, technical writer, translator (FR>EN, ES>EN, IT>EN), journalist

Does your business still need Microsoft?

originally published in Lawyers Weekly

Sam Glover started down his “nonconformist” path by installing Ubuntu, one of many distributions of the Linux operating system, on an aging IBM ThinkPad he wanted to rejuvenate.

Jennifer Gabriel works for a 22-person Ottawa law firm that went from typewriters to word processors straight to Apple Macintosh computers.

Today, Microsoft products play only a minor role in their law offices. Given the proliferation of choice in the world of computing, plus the negative PR swirling around the industry’s 800-pound gorilla, might the Microsoft-free law office be just around the corner?

Probably not, even though increasing numbers of people realize they can do without Microsoft products. “I’ve become platform agnostic,” Glover says of his Minnesota-based consumer rights practice. “If my law clerk or paralegal wants to use a Mac, or wants to use Windows, they can.”

Currently, the Windows versions of Fujitsu Scansnap software and Adobe Acrobat tie Glover to Windows. “I could get by without Windows for both things, but I try to find the best solution for specific tasks,” he explains. “It wouldn’t be the most convenient office (without Windows).”

Microsoft Windows continues to enjoy major advantages over competing operating systems. In particular, most people can simply walk into an office and start to work on a Windows-based computer.

Gabriel, who performs internal IT support for Ottawa’s Williams, McEnery Barristers & Solicitors, notes that few temps know the Mac.

“I usually introduce new staff to our computers in less than a day,” Gabriel says, “including an introduction to the Mac if they have never used one, as well as the programs we use.”

Followup consists largely of “how do I do this?” questions and “five-minute fixes.” “Since the temps aren’t here every day, they need the occasional refresher,” she says.

Glover, a self-avowed “geek,” puts Linux in the same camp as the Mac, going so far as to call it “surprisingly easy,” but he admits, “I don’t think Linux is for everybody. It’s different. For example, there’s no C: drive.”

“It freaks people out when they can’t do things in the same way.”

Hardware and software compatibility can prove troublesome outside the world of Windows. Two lawyers at Williams, McEnery use Blackberries, which the firm has supported for years, even though integration with the Mac isn’t straightforward.

But Gabriel makes it work. “There are workarounds,” she says, “they’re just not pretty workarounds.” Local syncing is the main issue, due to a lack of a native Mac desktop for the Blackberry. (Note: Research in Motion is reportedly releasing that Mac desktop later this year.)

Glover mentions rare problems with peripherals. “Not all hardware manufacturers design for Linux,” he explains. (Author’s note: I check product specifications for Mac compatibility before I buy products to use with my Mac.)

Another Microsoft advantage: office productivity documents must usually conform to Microsoft file formats, particularly when shared among different people. “The .doc, .xls and .ppt formats are de facto standards in North America,” Glover explains.

That doesn’t mean lawyers must use Microsoft Office. Glover has used the free “nearly exclusively” for more than three years. “Now, tracked changes works properly,” he says, adding “the only people who have compatibility problems are those who use really advanced features.”

Microsoft Office lives on all Williams, McEnery Macs. Gabriel tested Apple’s competing product, iWork, and found it lacking. “Lawyers would lose too many features that they use on a day-to-day basis,” she says.

During their last hardware upgrade three years ago, the firm abandoned Microsoft Entourage (an approximate Mac equivalent to Outlook) and replaced it with Apple Mail, Address Book and a third-party calendar and task manager called Meeting Maker.

Outside of common software categories like word processing and calendars, options for non-Microsoft systems can be limited. Citing examples like QuickBooks, “You have to find other things that do the trick,” Glover says.

Or run Windows to use the software. The e-registry system Terraview, for instance, ties the real estate portion of Williams, McEnery to Windows.

Although both Mac and Linux can run Windows as though it were another piece of software (and, by extension, Windows software as well), software developers don’t always support their products if customers run them using such “virtual” setups. “Our firm doesn’t want to be the guinea pig to see if the software works on a Mac or not,” Gabriel says.

Finding support options for Windows is also far easier than for other operating systems. “You can’t just call up the Geek Squad to fix your Linux computers,” Glover says.

Glover, ever self-sufficient, buys a four-year onsite service plan when he buys a computer. In his view, “if you do the basics, you shouldn’t need support.”

While Linux support has not yet gone mainstream, companies like Dell sell computers loaded with Linux, and private companies offer Ubuntu support. But Glover is more likely to simply google “Ubuntu” and the problem he’s having. “The answers just pop up,” he claims.

Gabriel’s firm uses an external Apple-authorized consulting outfit to maintain servers and handle questions that Gabriel can’t. “They also provide support if I’m away from the office,” she adds.

On the flip side of the support coin, both Gabriel and Glover sing the praises of their operating systems, in particular their freedom from virus worries.

“Our machines have proven reliable,” Gabriel says. “We don’t have problems that result in having to reinstall software. We usually find fairly easy solutions.”

“It never crashes,” says Glover of Linux. “I have far fewer problems with Linux. Linux updates everything on the computer – it’s more tightly integrated with the software.”

“In some ways, Linux is ideal for the less knowledgeable computer user.”

Mac, Linux and Windows all face competition from the Internet. Glover, for one, finds web-based applications compelling. Google Apps handles his calendar and makes it accessible from his website. meets Glover’s timekeeping and billing needs.

“When I went on vacation in Europe,” Glover says, “I didn’t bring my laptop with me. I can access all my documents from any computer – the Internet is platform agnostic.”

For a PDF of this article, click MS-Free_Law_Office.