An alternative to Windows?

Well after an interesting post on Forbes view on Linux and Microsoft and Karan’s lash back on the same I am back with more. Do I think is there an alternative to Windows? Absolutely! Is it for everyone? Well, if you believe the article in MIT’s Technology Review then probably yes.

Microsoft still commands 94 percent of the market for PC operating systems. But Linux is gaining fast. In Toronto, customers can walk into the world’s first retail Linux store, Sub500.com, and walk out with a Linspire workstation for as little as $222. Over the last three years, the fraction of home and office PCs powered by Linux has roughly doubled, to almost 3 percent, and it’s set to double again before the end of 2005, according to market research firm IDC. Linux’s market share has already surpassed Apple’s!

But whatever Microsoft does, the for home or office users, open source offers a range of free, often innovative desktop applications that aren’t available for Windows.

Exactly how many of the people junking their old Windows machines will actually switch to Linux boxes? That depends on which group you’re talking about.

  • First there are the casual home users: those who use their computers mainly to surf the Web and exchange e-mail and the occasional digital photo with friends and relatives. “They are going to look for the lowest-cost machine available to them,” says Dan Kusnetzky, vice president of systems software research at IDC. Several existing Linux-based programs, such as OpenOffice, “would be more than sufficient in that category,” he says.
  • Another group ripe for migration to the Linux desktop is corporate employees who use their office computers for just one or two tasks throughout the day. “Help desks, call centers, IT departments, receptionists, shipping and receiving—jobs where all somebody needs is a browser and Web-based e-mail—that one-third of your people could go to Linux today,” says Stuart Cohen, CEO of the Open Source Development Labs. And that’s a substantial one-third: U.S. call centers alone employ 2.9 million agents.

So what does it mean for Windows and Microsoft? Well not much in the sense that all the arguments above make perfect sense but there is another side to it that one needs to consider. In public statements, Microsoft officials still downplay the open-source threat to Windows and Office. The company’s actions, however, bespeak a much higher level of concern: it has begun slashing prices and even mimicking the open-source movement’s own tactics, opening up portions of its closely guarded code to outside inspection.

In Thailand, for example, where Linux PCs from Thai firm Laser Computer are the top-selling brand, Microsoft last year created stripped-down, Thai-language versions of Windows XP Home Edition and Office XP and offered them as a bundle for about $37—about one-sixteenth of their combined U.S. retail price. The company is trying similar markdowns in Malaysia, another Linux stronghold, and is considering offering cut-rate software packages in other developing countries.

While there’s no talk of Thai-style price reductions for Windows software in the United States, WalMart.com does offer a PC with Windows XP Home Edition for $298, and Microsoft has launched a major publicity campaign asserting that the cost of retraining and support means switching to Linux and open-source applications is actually more expensive than sticking with Windows, especially for large organisations. Microsoft’s recent moves add up to an acknowledgement that the company must now compete—and perhaps even coexist—with the open-source movement. “There is no one correct way to create software,” acknowledges Jason Matusow, who directs Microsoft’s Shared Source Initiative, a two-year-old program under which more than a million software developers and corporate customers can view—but not copy or redistribute—the code behind Windows and 16 other programs.

Open-Source Détente? While the anti-Microsoft belligerence is widely shared in the open-source community, others in the movement foresee an eventual accommodation between the two sides, especially as Linux wins major customers in government, education, and developing countries. Microsoft is “too well run, too smart a company,” says Cohen of the Open Source Development Labs. “They will look at the market-share data, and at some point the needle will hit a number where they’ll say, ‘This is big enough that we are not going to fight it; we are going to participate.’ Exactly how, I think they are still trying to figure out.”

Might Microsoft produce versions of Office that run on Linux, as it did for Apple’s Macintosh OS X? Will it suddenly open-source the code for major portions of its operating system and office applications and fall back on income from its server software, its home entertainment products, its online services, and the network-based services in which it has been investing heavily? The company says it has no such plans, and outcomes like these are hard to imagine, given Microsoft’s heavy financial dependence on Windows and Office. But the company’s current course—staking much of its future on the next version of Windows, when some of the improvements being discussed are already part of free open-source programs such as Dashboard—has its own risks.

So, what do the real users say and feel? Here are some quotes on the discussion (from the same person):

  • Linux attempts to be easier, but in real life stuff goes wrong, especially with regard to hardware compatibility. The Linux world has to conform to a Windows hardware world, which means they are always playing catchup with regard to writing drivers and supporting devices. For example, printing on Linux is crazy and every program you’ve got will handle it with a different interface and through a different mechanism.
  • Count the number of files in /etc and /var and see how that number compares to the number of GUI configuration tools there are. The GUIs are just slapped on top of the ancient UNIX architecture. We have to pray nothing goes wrong and all our problems can be handled with pretty GNOME tools. Eventually you need to get in the guts of UNIX. Windows has the advantage of having been developed more recently and all administration can be done from a smaller, more central and consistent, set of tools.
  • If Linux ever pulls past Windows and becomes a source of really significant innovation, I’ll eat my words. But I really doubt it will happen. (The fact that people took Torvald’s gift to the world of a free modern kernel and the best thing they could think to do with it was run GNU on top doesn’t suggest much desire to blaze any truly new trails.) Most importantly, there’s human nature: Whenever somebody comes up with a truly novel, paradigm changing idea, they seem to suddenly become capitalists. Everybody in computer science is a hippie until they get a patentable idea.
  • I am somehow never amazed at the attitudes and purported beliefs of Linux advocates. I would personally love to see a real, viable competitive threat to Windows. After all, I’m a firm believer that competition brings about the most innovation at the best price for the consumer. However, to tout Wal-Mart Linux boxes as viable options to Microsoft Windows/Office equipped PCs is to admit that you do nothing valuable with your PC.

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Amit Bahree

This blog is my personal blog and while it does reflect my experiences in my professional life, this is just my thoughts. Most of the entries are technical though sometimes they can vary from the wacky to even political – however that is quite rare. Quite often, I have been asked what’s up with the “gibberish” and the funny title of the blog? Some people even going the extra step to say that, this is a virus that infected their system (ahem) well. [:D] It actually is quite simple, and if you have still not figured out then check out this link – whats in a name?

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