OPINION

Windows for Linux

Windows of opportunity, that is. No one can predict history, but when we look back to today, we may see through these windows more clearly. These are windows of opportunity for Linux — windows, ironically, at Microsoft’s expense.

Economy, customer satisfaction, and technical excellence all present windows that, coyly played by the Linux “collective,” could be the turning point for Linux and Microsoft that changes what today some call “balance” (I don’t!) forever.

The Economy

Two uncertain years have taken their toll on people’s and business’ willingness and ability to budget for new PCs or even upgrade existing Operating Systems. This is golden for Linux since it is free. Not so golden for Microsoft.

Fewer sales of Microsoft’s OS means more opportunity for Linux. Vista, Microsoft’s replacement for XP, was panned by critics as clunky and expensive. Clunky normally wouldn’t stop the Microsoft upgrade cycle, but bad reviews and a soft economy contributed to soft sales. Yes, they were good, but mostly from sales of new PCs with Vista pre-installed. Even with that, the economy took some air out of the normal huge revenues Microsoft may have expected. The needle measuring Microsoft’s momentum has been nudged.

Linux also has a great opportunity in the government sector as the economy plays heavily there. Schools are laying off teachers and slashing budgets. New computers aren’t even on their radar, and a Vista or “7” update is hardly chump change (disregarding for the moment that old hardware hardly qualifies to sustain Windows 7).

Schools could completely “upgrade” a computer lab for free by replacing Windows with Linux. Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) factors in too — and I’m not going to pretend a Linux conversion is free — but when real green dollars are at stake, Linux gets the edge.

Linux offers even greater value factoring in the wealth of free software available. OpenOffice is almost completely Office-compatible, and costs ZERO compared to the US$200-$600 price for Microsoft’s Office suite. When money is tight, this basic right of computing (office suite) for free works to Linux’s advantage. Or users can use other cloud-computing versions of office suites for free too — with Linux! Microsoft’s stranglehold loosens.

It’s possible this window of economic opportunity will remain for the forseeable future. There are articles ([1], [2], [3], et al.) opining the face of the economy may be changed forever. People are more discerning. It no longer holds that to use a computer one must have Windows and Office. A changed economy changes Microsoft’s foothold. Window for Linux.

Customer Satisfaction

Consumers are more technically savvy as each new generation grows up surrounded by technology. They see technology as an extension of their lifestyle and demand more from technology than ever. They’ve seen markets where the norm is choice, (e.g., cellphones, cable, landlines) and expect the same from computers.

Yes, Windows is still the de facto norm, but users are more willing to try alternatives. Linux is emerging as an alternative to Windows for those who can live without some of the mainstream applications not available on Linux (e.g., Photoshop, Exchange).

Users who look may find that Linux will fulfill their computing needs completely and with much more transparency (fewer intrusions by the OS, fewer reboots) and with much more modest processing power requirements. After a few months of “reboot free” Linux, they may not only use Linux, but also spread the Linux word. Window for Linux.

Technical Excellence

All bias aside, I claim Microsoft, Apple, and Linux all offer excellent technology. However, Linux (in my opinion) gets the edge, because it is based on multi-user technology from the ground up (Unix).

Even if an evil payload is delivered to a Linux user, the default environment prevents OS mayhem. Because of Linux’s architectural underpinnings, default access is restricted. A user may gum up his allocated universe, but other users (remember, it’s designed to be multi-user!) remain safe, as does the operating system itself.

This provides more than safety for users and system — an uncompromised system gives the best chance at recovering the compromised user. A compromised Windows user usually means a compromised system.

Linux runs well on modest hardware. Linux allows for configurable graphical interfaces, but those are components on top of the core. Because it’s modular, Linux is infinitely configurable. Linux is fleet-footed technology ready to perform any job.

Technical excellence and superiority is a nuanced discussion beyond the scope of this commentary. Still, Linux easily competes at the big-boy level. You can argue for any of the big players as most excellent, but it doesn’t matter. Linux competes. Window for Linux.

No Time Like Now

Windows are open! (How ironic is that statement?) Whether it’s Linux’s perfect storm of opportunity or simply evolution, Linux’s openings make it unstoppable now more than ever. Consumers mete out dollars more carefully and with more consideration than ever before. When money is tight, people think twice (okay, maybe 1.5 times, but hey! no flow!) about how they spend, or even whether they need to. Linux at no retail cost is an attractive alternative — users are primed to take that second look.

After a couple summers of discontent that was Vista, people look for something better. Vista clunked, Linux shines (my opinion) and users who try Linux may be pleasantly surprised. Part of that surprise is Linux’s technical excellence. It’s seamless, reliable, and a computing workhorse for no-nonsense users.

Open windows may bring a fresh breeze to the Linux world. Open windows may gain purchase for Linux market share. Open windows may tip the balance in ways unknown. It seems like Linux has been at a crossroads forever. Maybe now Linux emerges. It is time.


Elbert Hannah lives in the Chicago area and does production and scheduling support for a large financial firm. He wrote the most recent edition of O’Reilly’s Learning the vi and Vim Editors. He has used Linux and worked actively in the open source community for over 10 years. In and around the house, he has more than 10 instances of Linux and as many versions and distros. He doesn’t like technical religious wars and prefers things to be sorted out by merit. He loves the Beatles and thinks the greatest album recorded is Abbey Road.

2 Comments

  • I grant you every point except one… although the current generation is vastly more tech savvy than previous generations, they don’t want to waste any time "making it work". It has to work right away, and keep on working. How many of the current generation will try to fix a cellphone? Many times they’ll throw it away when the battery dies and just get a new one.

    I love Linux. I tolerate Microsoft. I abhor Apple.

    But until a "standard" (better word than "normal") user can walk into Best Buy and come out with a name brand PC that has Linux pre-installed, and be positive (not even the tiniest bit uncertain) that everything he can buy to plug into it (printer, webcam, flash drive, music system, and whatever software he/she wants) will work out of the box (like every Windows PC and Mac does), this article is no more than wishful thinking.

    • I agree for "off the shelf" it has to be tight. (Though, I’d argue it ain’t so tight for Windows — especially the whole Vista debacle — how many people lost access to their printers, network, etc., with the advent of Vista?)

      Also, "standard" in Linux is either an oxymoron or a non sequitur which may be its blessing or its curse. Ubuntu nicely lays groundwork for something akin to a commercial "standard", though I’d like to see them somehow make it seem more real by charging for it (there’s an interesting book that talks about how, by nature, people are far less interested in "free/cheap" than "expensive" when considering buying in areas for which they have no expertise — they have no other benchmark than price. This is a perfect example of that and I think one of the reasons Linux goes un-noticed).

      As for wishful thinking, I think that’s one of the standard characteristics of Linux advocates. But at least now I think there is a confluence of circumstances that Linux could better leverage.

      I appreciate the thoughtful comments.

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