Open software, open data
Open data formats are an important consideration. Not only for the typically low price of the open source/data solutions ($0), but also for the longevity of data and the avoidance of vendor lock-in. Proprietary software that uses proprietary data formats is a great benefit for the vendor: Customers have a high cost of switching to competing solutions, thus they are more inclined to stick with the vendor.
Open software with open data formats, on the other hand, benefits the user: The data is 'portable', and thus the user typically retains the choice of which software packages to run. The vendor cannot compete via data lock-in and instead is forced to compete with superior service and features. Vendors of open solutions (free or not) cannot rest on their laurels, but continually have to work to retain the customer. This again benefits the user.
You don't have to leave Windows
One commonly held misconception is that running open source software also requires a change to the Linux (or other open source) operating system. However, this is not so. In fact, the most painless route to open software for the average Windows user is to see if individual applications can be replaced with a suitable open source alternative, but otherwise stay with Windows as their day-to-day platform.
In fact, this is also where it will end for many people. There are some applications, which regrettably are simply not properly supported under Linux. Many games, for example. If you occasionally like to play games on your PC, then Linux is not the best OS for you. While technically, nothing would prevent great games from being able to run on Linux as well, most game vendors simply do not produce Linux versions of their software. Some games can be run with Wine (a Windows emulator) under Linux, but not all.
On the other hand, if there are open source equivalents for some of your proprietary software then I would suggest you should take a look at those and see if they can work for you. Even if not all of your data is completely open, some is better than none. The less dependent one is on a particular vendor the better. You will be able to choose the software, which provides you with the right mix of openness and features. And if you can find low-cost or no-cost replacements for your current proprietary software along the way then this is a nice benefit as well.
Lists of good stuff
There are plenty of lists out on the Internet, which showcase good open source replacements for the most common proprietary software packages. You can find some of them here, here and here. A good site is also OSAlt.com, even though some of the suggested replacements there are for Linux only, and are not available for Windows. The New Zealand Open Source Society also has a pretty decent introduction, even though they only cover some of the most basic applications (browser, e-mail, office) in their list. Another very good site, which is organised in handy categories, is here.
Importing what you currently have
Many open source software packages have reverse engineered various proprietary data formats. This allows them to deal with the proprietary data usually reasonably well. It also allows them to import your settings. For example, Firefox will be able to import your IE bookmarks. The Thunderbird e-mail client will be able to import your Outlook e-mail and contacts, and so on.
Such imports often work very well, but it's not always perfect. Your mileage may vary. The best is to give it a try and see what happens. Trying is fortunately very easy: The dowload for something like Thunderbird, for example, is relatively small. It comes with a wizard to guide you through the import process.
I'm aware that the Outlook replacement for many is the most critical aspect here. People rely on their e-mail, the integrated calendaring and address books. Personally, I am actually using the open source Evolution mail client, since it provides all aspects of this integration, even more so than Thunderbird, which otherwise is very good. A Windows version of Evolution is available here. I only run the Linux version, so I don't know how well the Windows version works. Supposedly, it does so quite well.
The best advise is to download and run the software and see which one works best for you.
Other related posts:
PC World: Move your business to Linux, not Vista
And you thought your computer would do what YOU wanted...
The great 'Windows collapse' of 2011?
Comment by tonyhughes, on 19-Sep-2007 13:57
last time I tried Windows port of Evolution was about 6 months ago, and it was a truly awful looking app, with less functionality than the Linux package.
Evolution on Linux is a *very* good suite...
Comment by chakkaradeep, on 19-Sep-2007 16:05
The problem with the open source applications are - they are never built in keeping the Business side of the mind. Try to make a Business Firm to use these alternatives and they will be struggling a lot. Even in my previous company, users were given Evolution and Managers were using Outlook Express becoz of several reasons and they were reluctant to use Evolution. I have never seen a open source product comply with business so well as Microsoft products do (Microsoft's Key Strength). Taken the other hand, for personal use, all the open source applications are good and they are a good alternative too. And dont forget about Windows Live Mail which is getting improved day by day. Have you tried the Outlook 2007 as well Windows Live Mail ? If not , do try. Windows Live Mail is really good and ITS FREE.
This article might interest you a lot
Comment by chakkaradeep, on 19-Sep-2007 16:33
If in Linux, Gnome and Evolution rocks ! For KDE, I have never seen an integration as seen in Gnome and Evolution
Gnome has lots of goodies than KDE and especially Linux Mint and Ubuntu distros have lots of things !
Comment by paradoxsm, on 19-Sep-2007 18:32
GREAT article and thanks for assisting a linux Newbie like myself in getting started, Time to WIPE that vista partition!
Chakradeep, Outlook sucks.. majorly. I cannot think of one good thing to say about it having worked as a user and admin for a number of years.. horrible unreliable application.
Openoffice and other simple application s like RTF editors are awesome, Excel is the only one I can think which is hard to replace.
I run Knoppix currently as a "training ground" which i paid 25c for at DSE and while it's awesome and runs off a CD, it's also very old.