As a bit of a follow-up to my recent editorial about the different operating systems battling it out, a few readers made comments about Ubuntu and Windows and, essentially, that I was giving Windows a little too much credit. So, I thought I would write another one here specifically to address the issue of Linux actually replacing Windows. Can it?

In short – not yet. And here’s why.

Microsoft Made The Rules

Back in 2001, Microsoft came out with Windows XP. At the time, it was essentially the only desktop operating system worth anybody’s time. At the time, Microsoft Office had won the war of the office suite. Internet Explorer had pushed Netscape out of the market by riding the coattails of Windows’s success and essentially forcing users to Internet Explorer. A legal battle ensued against Microsoft on that one, leading to the eventual loosening of the grip on the internet by Internet Explorer (although some would argue they still have a tight grip). All the time, Linux was quite popular as a server (mainly because Windows is too unstable), but as far as the desktop goes, it was mainly for geeks.

Today, open source has made a bit of a comeback. OpenOffice has become a worthy competitor to Microsoft Office, so much so that it made Microsoft re-think their office suite and now Office 2007 uses more open document standards. Firefox was borne out of Netscape’s grave and is now quite popular. And we have Linux itself having grown into the desktop arena with popular desktop options Gnome and KDE, both of which give Vista a run for it’s money.

So, things have changed. But, enough for Linux to take over? No, and that is because Microsoft’s initial success has basically meant that it made most of the rules. People have gotten used to the way Microsoft’s software works. We’ve gotten used to the way they do things. Microsoft, too, isn’t exactly an open book on how they have done things, so it leaves others to get as close as they can, but not quite there.

The popularity of Windows also means that most vendors dedicate most of their energy to making their wares work in Windows. And therein lies the reference to the capitalist market I made in the prior article. The market has chosen Windows and now we are dealing with that choice. Vendor support for Linux and other platforms ends up being more of an afterthought. Wine is an open source implementation of the Windows API that is available for Linux, allowing you to run Windows software on a Linux system. But, Wine isn’t perfect. It can run some software, but the support is spotty. Another option would include virtual machines inside of Linux to run Windows software, but that doesn’t appear to be very workable at this point either.

The best option for Linux is to use software natively written for Linux, but that supports the Microsoft standards. Now that Microsoft seems to be opening up some of it’s file standards, perhaps this can be done a little better by the Linux world. For example, OpenOffice offers document support for Office files. But, it only goes so far. Some of the fancier features of Office can’t be saved properly in OpenOffice, and that is because the exact format of the DOC files was only known by Microsoft. Now that Office 2007 is using an open XML standard, maybe this can be alleviated.

People Want an Alternative

Microsoft has made the rules here and that is because Linux took too long to go consumer on us. Yes, we are now seeing a comeback for open source, but the progress is slowed in the operating system arena because of the incredible prominence of Microsoft Windows. But, markets tend to give and take, and my sense is that Microsoft is now on an ebb. Windows XP was pretty good, and still is. I am now using Vista, which puts me in a position to recommend to others that they continue to run XP for now. Vista just isn’t ready. Which leads me to my point…

Microsoft’s handling of Vista seems to be a sign to me that the company is indeed losing it’s grip on the OS market. It took them six years to come up with Vista, and I’m left scratching my head on exactly what all the fuss was about. And after Vista’s release, the hardware support in Vista is a bit lackluster. Some hardware vendors are playing hell providing Vista support for their stuff due to the huge changes Microsoft made inside Windows. At the same time, Vista is an absolute beast of an operating system. While it really requires about 2 gigs of memory to run respectably, Ubuntu Linux can do so with only 512 MB.

So, while the success of Firefox shows that people wanted an alternative to Internet Explorer, I really do think Vista is the tipping point for a desire for an alternative in the OS arena. People are tired of Microsoft. They are tired of the barrage of security concerns, of the blue screens, the lock-ups. I, for one, would LOVE to have a viable desktop operating system that is really a drop-in replacement for Windows. But, Linux just isn’t there yet for the reasons above.

What would need to happen for Linux to become more of a replacement?

  • Linux needs to operate more and more like Windows. It is getting there. But, Linux needs to get such that you don’t need a command line hardly at all. Installing programs should be as easy as double-clicking a file (not tracking down package dependencies). Again, Linux is going to have to play by the rules set by Windows in order to take Windows down a notch.
  • Open standards need to become more the norm than the exceptions. Companies should make a special point to use open standards. For example, using OpenOffice rather than Microsoft Office will make your documents more open and more cross platform.
  • Vendors need to flow more effort into supporting Linux. It’s a bit of the chicken and the egg problem, though. They will put more effort into it if Linux gets popular enough to warrant their time. On the other side, Linux isn’t really going to get that popular if these vendors don’t do it.

Moving to the Web

The trend of late is that a lot of desktop software is being replaced by web-based counterparts. In fact, just a couple weeks ago I have officially dropped Outlook as my email client in favor of Google’s Gmail service. I spend most of my day inside my web browser, and it wouldn’t matter what computer or what operating system I am using, Gmail would still work the same way. And Firefox is available for both Windows and Linux.

It doesn’t stop with Gmail, though. There are now web-based apps that cover everything from finance, graphic design, time management, office suites – you name it. All of it is dependent only on the web and the server it sits on. As these types of things get more popular, it just won’t matter what operating system one is using.

With the move toward web-based software, and the valiant efforts of projects like OpenOffice and Firefox, I think the scene is shifting toward open source and away from the days of Microsoft as the dominant force. This will open up more opportunities for the likes of Ubuntu and others, but it is up to the developers of those systems to seize the chance. They can’t re-invent the way the world works, and the computer world is still very much revolved around the way Windows does things. So, open source developers need not be snobbish about being anti-Windows. No, on the contrary, get in there and do what Windows does the way Windows does it, then show people that they’re doing it without any Microsoft labels all over it.

Then you’re getting somewhere.