I came across an InformationWeek article that got me thinking about PCs from the perspective of operating system and the related applications. The article makes some pretty valid points though since it is essentially in support of a brighter future for Linux on the desktop, some of the claims it makes require some objectivity.
Let me get this out of the way: I am a Linux user (I prefer Ubuntu on the desktop at the moment) and a Windows Vista user as well. I wouldn’t be quick to dismiss Vista because I think with Vista Microsoft seems to be getting some common sense and as such their effort to improve security frankly still feels like a version 1.0 product at this point and thus will improve with time. Some of the UI decisions in Vista are down right stupid: too many mouse clicks where Windows XP requires virtually none (I don’t need to click a button after the operating system informs me that my flash disk has been unplugged successfully). However, it is my sincere hope that Microsoft is listening to its customers/early adopters and planning appropriate changes to Vista. Just as I am hopeful that each new version of Ubuntu will bring improvement to the maturity of the distro as time passes.
A pragmatic approach to looking at desktop computers is preferable since it is only through this pragmatism that the best choices will be made when deciding about desktop operating systems and the associated applications. Windows has market dominance and regardless of how it got to that point the reality of the situation is that it is on most computers than any other OS. At the same time, this dominance does not suggest that it is a perfect system and perhaps because of its shortcomings there are opportunities for alternative operating systems and their respective environments. Security on Windows is one of the points that is regularly mentioned against the OS and with good reason as well but it would also be appropriate to look at the number of security breaches that affect Windows XP Service Pack 2 (and higher systems – SP 3 in the works) as well as the security vulnerabilities that affect Vista (granted the adoption rates of Vista are not that high at the moment)? Microsoft has poured resources into improving the security (for emphasis: THEY ARE TRYING TO ADDRESS THE SITUATION) and beating on Windows because of security may not hold for long.
The other gripe that goes around about Windows is the fact that it is bloated but a realistic view of the situation might also help put some perspective on it: support for hardware on Windows has been excellent to say the least and the backward compatibility record with Windows has been good as well. So my question is simply this: how do you expect new versions of Windows to support the multitude of hardware that previous versions have supported and at the same time ensure that software that used to run on earlier versions of Windows continue to run on these new releases? The most obvious answer to that question explains the bloat on new releases of Windows, that is if you can stop yourself from considering the evil intentions that Microsoft may have towards its install base. Looking at it from the perspective that Microsoft would like to bring business to its hardware partners, it may also hold as an explanation that presumes an evil intention on Microsoft’s part: bloated software means you need sturdier hardware specs and thus almost always results to buying a new computer and as such Microsoft and the OEM scratch each other’s proverbial backs. Of course there is also a more interesting angle to look at: how long is Microsoft going to stick to this policy of maintaining this large number of hardware as well as backward compatibility? Do they know how many of these old hardware devices they are supporting out of the box are still in active use and as such material to a large portion of their install base? It will definitely be interesting to see what happens in the future with subsequent releases of Windows. However, here is to hoping that Microsoft will see the wisdom of breaking with hardware support and backward compatibility. If you look at it, there is bound to be a point where hardware and backward compatibility is more expensive to the user than it needs to be, if we are not there already.
As the InformationWeek article points out, increased costs on Windows will force people to look for other alternatives though I think those who will seek these alternatives will most likely have little to no interest in having support for a wide array of hardware and/or maintaining backward compatibility. These are the characteristics of those who are getting their first PCs or whose business do not entirely depend on an already existing enterprise application that was built with Windows in mind exclusively. The aforementioned characteristics are not far off from the description of a developing world’s or emerging economies’ users and/or enterprise. A simple example: in most developing countries, cybercafes are a reality of life and with recent Microsoft efforts towards reducing the number of pirated copies of Windows, some of these enterprises that find themselves on the wrong side of Microsoft’s war on piracy will and have considered alternatives and a free price tag surely does look attractive. The problem of support personnel will initially exist but the entrepreneur in question is cornered and as such must address the personnel issue as time goes on. Simple economics logic would suggest that anyone would provide support for Linux in a cybercafe would most likely get a higher pay (based on the shortage of his/her skills) compared to his Windows comrades. This has the effect of more people showing interest in gaining Linux support skills and thus overtime increase the number of Linux support personnel. It has got to start at some point.
While Linux presents a good alternative for use in a cybercafe business, the professionals who will recommend it also needs to have respect for the operating system as far as representing it truthfully. I have heard so many times the term “open source” being used as an advantage of Linux. “Open source” is a loaded phrase that can possibly mean so many things to so many people; it does mean that you can get the software for free (as in free as beer) but at the same time its total cost of ownership may not be free more so in the light of a shortage of support personnel. Yes, the Internet is there and most people who are interested or have skills with open source software tend to be willing to assist where they can but the support that is available on the internet presupposes a person who knows what he/she is looking for in the first place. You can get some local assistance from your budding local Linux gurus but they also have day jobs to which they must attend and thus may not be available to provide their expertise. Depending on who you are talking to and their previous experience with open source, you may good a negative or positive reaction in return for suggesting Linux’s open source pedigree as an advantage. Keep in mind that you can just as easily have open source on Windows; open source does not automatically mean a wholly Linux powered environment.