The Switch: Mac and Linux for Attorneys

BY Ryan Conley



Windows is the most widely used computer operating system (OS) in the world. But many users would argue that status is despite shortcomings in performance and ease of use. What is an attorney or other business professional to do if they, like many, find Windows to be troublesome and unpleasant to use? Until recently, the answer was simply, “Deal with it.”

Professionals today are more able than ever before to switch to a Mac or Linux computer. If you have ever thought of switching, but assumed that a lack of application support or compatibility rendered the idea a pipe dream, read on to learn why alternative operating systems are worth another look.

Throughout this article, “Mac OS” refers to the operating system on Apple's laptop and desktop products. The computers themselves are referred to as “Macs.”

Viability of Alternative Operating Systems

The primary obstacle to the viability of alternative operating systems has always been application support. Simply put, the overwhelming domination of Windows in market share means that many more applications are available for Windows. That is changing, however. These days, any type of software considered a necessity for businesses in multiple industries is available for both Mac OS and Linux. For instance, LibreOffice is a 100 percent free, full-featured office software suite for all three major operating systems. It includes a word processor, spreadsheet and slideshow application, just like Microsoft Office, and it reads, edits and saves files in Office formats seamlessly. PDF creators, web browsers and media players are all available for Mac OS and Linux in several feature-packed and completely free versions.

However, virtually all software created specifically for attorneys runs on Windows. How, then, can alternative operating systems possibly be viable for attorneys? Two reasons. First, several solutions are available to run Windows software on Mac OS or Linux. These are detailed below. The second reason is cloud software.

Cloud software works in any web browser and is not installed on your computer at all. Examples include practice management software such as Rocket Matter and Clio, as well as widely used web-based email services such as Gmail. Users of cloud software never need to install updates because the software resides on the vendor's servers, as does user data. This makes data loss or theft very unlikely because industry standards for security and backup are very robust.

It is possible to conduct an entire law practice using only cloud software, in which case your choice of operating system would be a trivial matter. You could use any of a number of web-based email services and practice management software like those mentioned above, and an online word processor and office suite such as Google Docs or Microsoft Office Online.

Of course, most professionals use some combination of traditional and cloud-based software, and highly specialized software is unlikely to have a cloud-based version at this point. But as internet bandwidth, web browser standards and computer processing power increase and mature, the popularity and utility of cloud software is only going to increase. Therefore, when deciding what operating system to use, you can be confident that the trend is toward cloud software, which is OS-agnostic. Your OS must of course meet your needs today, but you need not worry that tomorrow the industry will consolidate around Windows, and all alternatives will fade into history.

Mac OS is a clear second place in market share of desktop and laptop computers. It is far behind Windows, but far ahead of Linux. Switching from Windows to Mac OS means buying a Mac. Most new Macs, laptop or desktop, will run well over $1000, because all new Macs are highly capable machines. Unlike Windows PCs, the only option for smaller budgets is to buy used. The purchase of a new computer for each person at a business wishing to switch to Macs is probably the single biggest obstacle.

Ease of Use

Probably the most common reason for choosing a Mac is the perception that it “just works” — that is, the software is easy to use, it behaves as expected, and produces fewer errors than Windows. In the early 2000s, the gap between the two operating systems was significant, and it only widened over that decade. Since the release of Windows 7 in 2009, the difference is not quite as significant. All Windows versions since then have been fairly well-regarded and capable products. Part of the perception that Macs “just work” better than Windows computers is a holdover from years past, but Macs do still hold an advantage.

For instance, a Mac application consists of a single icon, not a directory of folders and subfolders with cryptically-named files as on Windows. Uninstalling the application consists of moving it to the trash, which removes virtually all traces of it from the computer. On Windows, some parts of an uninstalled program may remain, decreasing usable disk space and contributing to the familiar and inevitable slowdown that eventually plagues any installation of the OS.

Security and Privacy

Another common reason many cite for wanting to switch away from Windows is security. Threats to security come in many forms. Most unnerving are the many viruses and “malware” applications that are common on Windows. These threaten to hijack your computer, steal your data and even spy on you through your webcam. Imagine what a disaster it would be for a criminal to gain access to all of your client files. Fortunately, Mac OS is subject to far fewer of these threats. The basic architecture of the OS is less amenable to malicious software, and the much smaller user base of Macs compared with Windows makes the OS a less attractive target.

Another significant threat to privacy and security unfortunately comes directly from the creators of today's operating systems. Vendors have an incentive to obtain information about what users do with their software. They can use it both to improve their software and to effectively market new features and products, whether to the user base in aggregate or to the individual. Vendors can even sell user data to marketers, or turn it over to government investigators. Windows 10 has received significant negative attention due to its habit of sharing data with Microsoft, and recent updates for Windows 7 and 8 implement the same data-sharing processes. Some data-sharing features on recent versions of Mac OS likewise have brought Apple under scrutiny.

There are valid reasons to find this trend problematic, as well as valid reasons not to worry. These data-sharing components can be turned off, but it is troubling that they tend to be opt-out rather than opt-in. The data are generally anonymized, but anonymization schemes have been compromised in the past. It is unlikely that the security of Microsoft's or Apple's databases could be compromised by a third party, but many would consider sharing user data with Microsoft or Apple a privacy breach in and of itself.

The most important thing to remember is that any system, including Windows, can be made quite secure by a user who follows good security practices. Run anti-virus software, keep your OS updated and be careful to download and install only well-respected software.

Running Windows Software on Macs

Even the most satisfied OS switchers can sometimes find themselves wanting to run a particular Windows application for which they cannot find a satisfactory Mac-native replacement. There are three distinct solutions for when you simply must run a Windows program on a Mac. Two of them require the user to be able to install a licensed copy of Windows. This is sometimes easier said than done because users tend to misplace seldom-used DVDs or product verification keys.

First up is the solution that does not require an actual copy of Windows, and that is “compatibility layer” software. The premier product available is “CrossOver” by Codeweavers, available for both Mac OS and Linux. CrossOver will not run every Windows application; some will run flawlessly, some with the occasional bug and some will not run at all. Search for the “CrossOver compatibility center” where you can find out whether your indispensable Windows applications are supported. CrossOver costs $60, which includes one year of email support and upgrades. Windows viruses and malware are less likely to be able to harm a computer when running within compatibility layer software. Because of its low cost and freedom from the hassle of installing Windows, CrossOver is the recommended solution as long as it can run the applications that are necessary for your practice.

The second option for running Windows programs on Macs is “virtualization” software. This software creates a “virtual machine” running a full installation of Windows within Mac OS. Like CrossOver, this allows you to run Windows and Mac programs side-by-side. The leading virtualization applications are Parallels Desktop and VMWare Fusion, each of which costs about $80. Both require a licensed, installable copy of Windows, which is not included and will therefore drive up the cost for some users. They will run the vast majority of Windows applications without problems. The only exceptions are those that have advanced 3D graphics, such as games and 3D modeling programs.

Another minor disadvantage: Because the virtualization process is CPU-intensive, Windows applications will suffer a performance penalty. However, the applications most often used by attorneys will likely run at acceptable speeds. Virtualization software is the best option for users who want extensive software compatibility and have an installable copy of Windows, or are willing to purchase one.

The last option is to create a dual-boot configuration. This means that when you restart your Mac, you will have the option of booting into Mac OS or Windows. You must reboot the computer in order to switch operating systems, and you cannot run Windows and Mac applications side-by-side. The advantage is that the native Windows installation means no compromise whatsoever in compatibility and speed, allowing the user to run any Windows applications, including those with 3D graphics, without worry or hassle. Apple makes an official utility for setting up a dual-boot configuration called Boot Camp, and again, a full, installable copy of Windows is required.

Linux is another alternative operating system that is popular among tech-savvy users. Linux used to be accessible only to experts, but that is no longer the case. Many versions of Linux today look and operate much like Windows and Mac OS in most respects.

Several different distributions, or “distros,” of Linux are available online. Most are completely free. A given distro might aim to serve a general user base or might target users with specific needs, such as a focus on security or a lightweight OS that will run well on an old computer. The most popular is Ubuntu, and this has been true for quite some time. It is modern and advanced, and it has a well-funded development effort behind it. But a competitor called Mint (not to be confused with the personal finance software) is rapidly gaining in popularity due to its more familiar, Windows-like interface and its somewhat faster operation. As detailed below, you can try one or both before switching, and you need not buy a new computer.

Security and Privacy

Whether Mac OS or Linux is the most secure operating system is up for debate. Both have smaller user bases than Windows and thus are less attractive to hackers, but this is changing, especially for Macs. Solid anti-virus software is generally regarded as an utter necessity on Windows, optional but recommended on Macs and harmless but mostly unnecessary on Linux.

The raw code that makes up Linux is open source, meaning that anyone can view it and look for security holes. This is both a negative and a positive, because those holes are easier to find in open source code, but most people searching for them have good intentions and publicly report them so that they can be patched.

Each Linux distribution has its own software repository where thousands of 100 percent compatible and tested applications are available for free (more on that later). This means that when you install software from the repository, you can be sure that application does not represent a security threat. The same cannot be said for software downloaded from the web, as with Mac OS and Windows. However, most Linux users will sometimes wish to install software that does not come from the official repository, such as extensions for their web browsers. Care must still be taken when choosing which of these to install.

Linux excels at privacy. Because there are so many different versions, and most are free, users would quickly abandon any distro that did not respect user privacy. Of course, you need to remain wary of any software you install, especially that which does not come from the official repository. While a fully malicious spying program would never make it into a repository, limited sharing of usage data with the vendor is not wholly unacceptable to most users, and is therefore widespread.

Running Windows Software on Linux

Just as with Macs, there are three primary solutions for running Windows applications in Linux: compatibility layer, virtualization and dual-boot. CrossOver is the best compatibility layer product for Linux just as on Mac. Virtualization options include VMWare Workstation Player, a user-friendly option that costs $150, and Oracle VirtualBox, a free product that requires slightly more technical knowledge to set up. The same recommendations above for Macs apply to Linux. Go with CrossOver if it supports your favorite Windows software. Choose virtualization if you need general-purpose compatibility and can install Windows. And set up a dual-boot configuration for complete compatibility including advanced graphics.

Unlike switching from Windows to a Mac, switching from Windows to Linux does not require the purchase of a new computer. Linux will run just fine on most any Windows PC. (It can even be made to work on a Mac, though that sometimes requires trial and error.) In fact, you can even install Linux alongside your existing Windows installation if you opt for the dual-boot option. This leaves your Windows applications and data intact and spares you the need to reinstall the OS.

Ease of Use

Linux is not for those attorneys who view computers as a necessary evil. You do not have to be a “hacker” to get what you need out of Linux, but you should be someone who enjoys learning new things about computer software. Linux is much like Windows and Mac, but has some fundamental differences. An example of such a difference may be instructive as to whether you might want to consider Linux for your law firm.

Say you want to install the web browser Firefox. On a Windows or Mac computer, you would access the Firefox web site, download the program and install it. On Linux, you would simply type the following into a command prompt: “sudo apt-get install firefox.” The software resides in a repository maintained by the creators of your particular version of Linux. Downloading from the repository and installation on your computer are completely automated.

Consider the advantages Linux presents in this example. First, the application is vetted for inclusion in the repository, so you can be confident it does not represent a significant threat to privacy or security. Second, the process is clearly faster and simpler with Linux. It is completely automated. Third, it does not result in an executable installer sitting in your Downloads folder that you have to remember to throw away. The advantages of the process do not end with installation. Software removal is also accomplished by a single text command. Best of all, you can execute a command to update each and every application on your computer at once. This way of handling software allows Linux to remain fast and responsive even years after installation, unlike Windows.

This software management system is frequently cited by Linux users as a favorite feature. But it is so completely different from its Windows and Mac counterparts that it can scare away new users. Your own sense of whether you might enjoy learning a new and arguably superior process for a basic computer task can give you a sense of whether you should try Linux.

Finally, Linux has a major advantage in the ease with which a user can try out the operating system without making permanent changes to the computer. Linux may be installed to and run from a USB flash drive. Your computer can boot Linux on the flash drive just as it boots Windows on its internal drive. You can check hardware compatibility, install software, create documents and other files and get a feel for how Linux works without affecting your existing Windows installation in any way. Software to create so-called “Live USBs” is available free of charge, the most popular being “LinuxLive USB Creator.” The OS and applications will not run quite as fast from the flash drive as they will from the internal drive. If you like what you see, you can fully install Linux from the same drive.

The advantages of Mac OS and Linux over Windows cannot be ignored. They objectively offer greater security and privacy, and many find both alternatives to be easier to use. Application support remains the biggest obstacle, but the maturity of compatibility solutions and the rapid adoption of cloud-based software erode this obstacle more each day. Linux may even be tested without any purchase of software or alterations to the computer. If your Windows experience is less than satisfactory and you want to see what Mac OS or Linux is all about, there has never been a better time.

Ryan Conley

Ryan Conley is a staff contributor to Bigger Law Firm Magazine and a legal content strategist for U.S. based law firms.


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