(This is dealing specifically with Ubuntu/Derivatives (such as Mint))
Linux users instantly know what a broad question that can be. Most windows users think that switching to a different operating system is like running “windows that looks different”. Such is not the case, by any means.
As it is such a broad question, I’ll try to narrow it down somewhat. Regarding applications, it is important to note that you cannot simply install your windows programs on Linux. Yes, Linux does have a program called WINE that (saving myself from a lengthy description) pretends to be windows so that you can install your windows program on linux and still use it. That said, whether your windows programs will play nicely with WINE is another story entirely. Generally the answer is yes, but not always.
However, another thing to consider when talking about applications in linux is that Linux Ubuntu/Mint has what is called the “Software Center”, which houses thousands upon thousands of free apps that can be installed at the click of a button. Many of which are a more than suitable replacement for the programs you used in windows.
Of course, the main application mentioned will be Microsoft Office (specifically, Word). Linux has many office suites available for it. Two of the main ones are LibreOffice and OpenOffice (my favorite). Both are excellent replacements for Word and are arguably far better than Word. But there is yet one more thing to consider, and that is the fact that if your organization is set up with Google Apps (as it should be), there is no need for any office software at all as you have it all available via Google Apps, which is by far the best choice out of all of them.
One of the great benefits of “being in the cloud” is the fact that apps that you use often (such as google docs) can be accessed from virtually anywhere with a web browser and an internet connection (yes, there is offline google docs), meaning that the Operating System at that level is entirely irrelevant.
Linux has a myriad of advantages over Windows systems, but it does not come without it’s own issues (most of which you will never see, but accidents happen). One potentially large problem is that if anything goes wrong on one of the linux systems, you won’t immediately know how to fix it (however, most of your office workers wouldn’t know how to fix their windows machine either, so this point becomes moot to some degree). You will need to have IT staff familiar with Linux on hand. The good news is that issues in Linux can generally be fixed very quickly and with less pain and suffering than a windows machine. Moreover, Linux systems are, to some extent, easier to recover than windows systems.
Deciding whether Linux is suitable for your business will likely come down to the issue of using applications that are not available on Linux. A perfect example would be Photoshop. It is worth noting that Linux boasts it’s own advanced graphics program known as “Gimp”, however, transitioning from Photoshop to Gimp can be especially jarring. For graphic design artists using very advanced photoshop techniques, Gimp will most likely not be able to meet their needs. Gimp is, however, a very capable application and should not be dismissed without proper examination.
Transitioning to using Linux full-time does require a slight shift in thinking. Windows has trained users to be complacent. What I mean by that is, (completely disconnected example, but serves the purpose) if I say the words “Hard Drive” to a linux user, they immediately know what it is (generally). If you say those same words to a windows user, that user will likely respond with “Oh you mean the box that is beside the desk?”.
The reason I make this example is because in linux, if you know your way around your computer, you can accomplish tasks much more quickly than you could on windows. That said, you will spend the first few days learning more and more about your computer and the terminology associated with it (progressively) simply as a result of using it.
As you have seen, much of the primary deciding factors rely directly on applications. We could go into hardware issues, but as a general rule, Linux rarely has hardware issues with desktop machines. With laptops, the most common hardware issue is with Broadcom wireless network adapters (but that can be overcome pretty easily).
Do I recommend that you switch?
In short, if you can, yes. It will prove to be a boon in the long run. It is important to understand that switching operating systems will never be a perfectly smooth transition. Switching offices from the archaic Windows XP to Windows 7 is more jarring than switching from Windows XP to Linux, but it is a significant change.
As a test, I would recommend taking one machine and switching it. Then, set it up how it would need to be for one of your office workers to use it. Can they perform the same tasks (the cases that this is not a yes will be fairly rare)? If so, then success!
As a business owner, it may be very frightening, however, in the long run it will yield huge benefits. Not the least of which is the fact that Linux and much of it’s supporting software is entirely free and open source!
Which distribution do you recommend?
Without a doubt, my favorite distribution of Linux comes in the form of “Mint”. Mint is the most popular distribution and comes with pretty much everything you need pre-installed. This means that after installing, you can “Hit the ground running” and immediately go to work instead of having to spent hours getting it set up with everything that you need just to perform basic tasks.
Check it out!
There is a LOT that I didn’t cover, and granted, it would require writing a book to cover everything, but I tried to stick with things that are most important to small business owners.
What about you? Do you have any questions or concerns about switching to Linux or do you have anything on the subject that you would like me to address?