Linux Desktop's Missed Opportunities

Monday Nov 18th 2013 by Matt Hartley

If Windows users consider migrating, does the Linux desktop offer a clear and easy choice?

I've always said that the two biggest benefits of running a Linux distribution over a proprietary operating system are: freedom of choice and the Linux community. Despite these advantages, Linux on the desktop needs work in one key area: seizing great opportunities.

Two huge opportunities for the Linux desktop right now are the end of Windows XP support and the less than amazing reception of Windows 8 by casual users. In this article, I'll explore why I believe Windows XP and Windows 8 are fantastic opportunities for an increase in Linux adoption.

Old peripheral and software challenges

When the Windows 8 system requirements were first announced, they didn't seem too unreasonable. Even select XP-based PCs could potentially handle the new release.

However, the real challenge takes place with the existing peripherals. The problem is that many peripherals from the Windows XP era aren't going to provide compatible drivers for Windows 8. I began running into this with Windows 7 PCs, when I tried locating drivers for older printers and scanners. Which means the likelihood of compatible drivers with Windows 8 is even less.

Granted, one could go out and buy a new all-in-one printer for under a hundred dollars. Bundling the cost of the printer with the expense of a copy of Windows 8 makes the idea of trying to keep the old PC seem rather silly. At that point, you might as well buy a new Dell or other big vendor PC.

On the flip side, if you simply install Xubuntu or Lubuntu onto the old Windows XP computer, you'll save a bundle of cash. In addition to keeping your money in your wallet, you'll also find that desktop Linux has tremendous support for older peripherals based on my tests.

The next challenge is in dealing with the software from the Windows XP era. It’s usually closed source, and often requires activation keys that have long since been lost. Migrating over to Windows 8 will mean locating alternatives and jumping from one web site to another. By opting for Xubuntu or Lubuntu instead, you'll find that you will have access to an office suite right after installing the OS.

Plus, any other application alternatives (for free) can be found via the Ubuntu Software Center. This is especially helpful when you're looking to install a number of replacement programs at once, in contrast to one at a time on Windows. As an added benefit, Xubuntu or Lubuntu will run faster than Windows XP. So the entire experience will feel like a PC upgrade that costs you nothing.

Security woes

Windows, historically and to this day, remains a terribly insecure OS regardless of what metric you rely on. And while Windows has allegedly "become more secure" according to some in the media, Windows XP remains the worst offender security-wise in 2013. This is another painfully strong argument for not relying on Windows XP, especially once its support ends in April.

What makes this more challenging is that XP users won't even realize this support cycle has ended. Most people on the street don't even know that operating systems have a shelf-life from a support perspective, much less know what to do with this change as it develops. Yet despite this terrible news, many people will continue to use XP after support ends.

OS support takes on a whole new meaning when you're on the International Space Station. NASA decided to upgrade from Windows XP to Debian Linux, since it provided an OS that is capable of being patched or tweaked, in-house. It’s no wonder that NASA is taking this approach. Do you really want to discover that you've been infected with malware while you're floating around in space? Thankfully, running Debian Linux prevents this from even being an issue.

Avoiding vendor lock-in

As companies and end users wrestle with the idea of migrating away from Windows, another opportunity that shouldn't be discounted is avoiding further vendor lock-in. Entirely too often, we see Windows-centric contractors coming into the enterprise space promising to be there to support proprietary software platforms. From customer relationship management to accounting systems, the areas where companies find themselves locked into a single software company's way of doing things is staggering.

Now imagine this same software company suddenly increases their rates to a degree that is no longer affordable. Worse, they go out of business and your company is left out in the cold, without a means of obtaining new security updates. It's a scary place to be and its one of the reasons why more companies are exploring enterprise solutions using open source standards. Should the supporting company disappear, you're then able to locate another source for updates and support without being tied down to any proprietary code.

One minor example I recently found, with a small non-profit, was dealing with Microsoft Publisher documents. When this group decided to switch from Windows XP to Linux, they expressed concerns over how they'd migrate their Publisher files over to the new operating system. In the short-term, they're using Publisher under a virtual machine. Thankfully Scribus is working on Microsoft Publisher support. Once a few bugs are worked out, it's likely that Scribus could become a final migration tool for those looking to dump Microsoft Publisher for something supported by the open source community.

Average Users vs. the Technorati

Making the switch from one platform to another, is a monumental task for most people. As geeks, I've found that all too often we take this for granted. The fact is, most people simply want to find a comfortable means of using their computers and then to switch without a lot of additional work or a huge time investment. And while young people are dumping PCs in favor of tablets and smartphones, enterprise users are still relying on those crazy machines with a keyboard and mouse.

It’s been argued that no one outside of geeks will ever use Linux on the desktop. And yet each time I show someone what can be done on distributions such as Ubuntu and others, I'm asked how they can get this "Linux-thing" on their computer at home.

The real missed opportunities I see with the Linux desktop is due to a poor job marketing the many things Linux can do for the average user. Once installed, I've actually had a reduction in late night service calls. It's too bad that most PC users today won't ever have the opportunity to try a Linux desktop themselves. That, my friends, is what I call the biggest missed opportunity of all.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

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