Why Microsoft's Metro Push Is Good for Linux

Tuesday Jun 12th 2012 by Matt Hartley
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The Windows 8 interface may prompt a certain group of users to adopt the Linux desktop.

Over the past few months, there's been a lot of talk about Microsoft's push towards Metro with the upcoming release of Windows 8. While there's still going to be plenty of legacy love for non-Metro applications on Windows 8, the most significant change for end users will be the introduction of a whole new UI.

Some pundits in the Windows space have been quick to point out that there is nothing to fear from the changes to Windows, in that Windows 8 will come with a classic mode that feels like past Windows releases. So this should keep people on the platform, right?

I'm not totally convinced of this. I think that this could open up people to the idea of trying new opportunities, more specifically _ believe it or not _ creating an interest in the desktop environments offered by today's Linux distributions.

Desktop and software is changing

In the past, one of the hurdles I've found with potential Linux converts was the idea of leaving behind legacy software with their Windows installations. But now with Microsoft’s embrace of the new Metro UI, and the software development that is expected to follow from there, the idea of trying a new desktop environment with unknown software on Linux doesn't seem so far-fetched.

The fact is that as time passes, the Windows OS everyone has come to know is changing. And you're either free to adapt with it or begin exploring alternatives.

As of this writing, I have already begun to see a number of people adopting the mindset that alternative desktop options may be viable. Bundle this idea with the fact that we're seeing more Windows users trying and relying on Linux every day. I don't have any hard numbers to support this, however I've seen much greater activity on forums and news sites than I have years past. Certain Linux specific podcasts seeing growth, also support this theory.

With more software finding itself in a state of cross platform compatibility, and new dependencies on Web-based applications, the problem of legacy software is slowly becoming less of an issue. Some of the areas where I'm seeing the most growth is with small businesses and home users, making the switch to Linux distributions such as Ubuntu.

With Ubuntu presenting its new Unity desktop to newcomers, I have been surprised to see how quickly many people are adapting to it. Like Windows 8's Metro desktop, Unityalso presents something new to the end user.

The difference being, of course, that Unity is a choice desktop users can rely on, as there are other desktop environments available. IN contrast, with the Metro user interface for Windows 8, there will be Metro and Windows Classic desktop options only. Some users will find this limiting. Granted, since Windows 8 isn't out yet, that much of this is my own speculation.

It's not a touch screen

The fact that Microsoft is bent on treating their next operating system release like it's going to be installed exclusively on tablets is really foolish. As I mentioned before, the classic desktop is still available. But rather than encouraging desktop application development for the classic desktop, Microsoft is pushing everything into Metro.

Are developers supposed to throw caution to the wind and develop for the Metro UI exclusively? What about users who will likely hold on to older releases of Windows, such as Windows 7? Now more than ever, cross platform software and web-based software choices are likely to pick up.

Linux users benefit from this growth in non-Metro software development as it means software developers are beginning to look beyond the Windows world. Right now, this has mostly been with Android, but I also see this growing into the desktop Linux space as well.

With governments, military, the financial industry, and others looking to gain greater control over the desktop experience, I think that the Metro software approach is going to bomb hard. The very idea of Explorer going from a shell to a Metro application isn't going to win any fans.

Microsoft's Metro UI is best suited for tablets. And Microsoft is amazingly late to the game in the tablet space, as in the non-stylus-based tablets. If you need a preview of how badly Windows 8 is going to bomb because of the blunder that is Metro, you need only look at the mess that is Windows Phone 7. It's a neat idea, but late to market and poorly executed.

Metro is too late and it's not really appropriate for devices relying on a mouse and keyboard. Most people will have little to no reason to upgrade from Windows 7.

Peripheral support rocks on Linux

One of the most comical things I've seen over the years is the idea that somehow Windows has superior peripheral support. This is completely false. Out of the box, Windows driver support is weak at best and useless at worst.

Windows fools people into thinking they offer better support by relying on driver disks from manufacturers. However, this only allows newer devices to work well on the Windows desktop.

The little fact that many folks tend to forget _ older hardware support sucks on Windows 7. How great do you think it's going to be with Windows 8?

My own mother, for example, had an older computer that she was running Ubuntu on. Being completely indifferent to which OS she uses, she decided to upgrade her hardware from the Ubuntu box (which came with XP) to one running Windows 7. Immediately, the list of peripherals that wouldn't work began to add up.

Both her older printer and scanner were a no-go. Driver support wasn't available from the manufacturer based on the ages of the devices. Then her bluetooth dongle also failed to be recognized.

I managed to get it working using an XP driver, oddly enough. The peripherals that did work, such as a USB headset and external DVD writer, always took a bit to "activate" anytime they were unplugged. In the end, all this headache in switching back to Windows was done simply to run her old Microsoft Publisher program. Not because she enjoyed the software, rather because she had files that were in Publisher format.

In hindsight, we opted to look into running Publisher with WINE and dumped Windows completely. The only thing Windows 7 had going for itself with her was the familiar interface, although she adapted to Unity sometime ago. How is Windows 8 going to convert her again?

Back on the Ubuntu desktop, every single peripheral worked out of the box. Even her wireless radio built into her little desktop was detected and running. Will this experience be possible with Windows 8? Does Microsoft honestly believe that anyone outside of die-hard Windows users and developers give a rip about "tiles" and relearning the entire experience?

My guess is that many people will roll their eyes, revert to the classic desktop and avoid the Metro UI like the plague.

Windows XP to Vista/7 to 8

There is no question in my mind that this article will face readers who totally disagree with me. Clearly, gamers and enterprise users will continue to view Windows as relevant. But what they fail to realize and that Apple and Google have realized is that Microsoft is a dollar short and a day late to the mobile space. Worse, now they're destroying the one area where they reigned supreme _ the desktop.

It's been said that Vista's worst competition was the fact that XP users had no reason to upgrade. Unless it came on a new computer, there wasn't a compelling reason to bother moving forward with the new OS.

The only reason why Windows 7 has done so well is the fact that the XP machines were getting old and users needed to upgrade. Bundle this with the fact that a new OS was long overdue, and Windows 7 provided a decent experience.

Perhaps most important, despite its incompatibilities with varied older peripherals, Windows 7 didn't feel that much different than Windows XP. Short of the removal of the start button, it felt familiar.

Linux distributions such as Ubuntu paid a heavy price in user blow-back when they introduced the Unity desktop. While much of this blow-back has subsided, the fact remains that users have since discovered that they are not limited to Unity.

There are a wide variety of Linux distributions out there, offering the same software as Ubuntu. Can Windows 8 say the same? Will the classic desktop be enough to encourage users to jump to the new Windows release? I don't think so...at least not until they need a new computer.

The biggest advantage I see for the Linux desktop prompted by Windows 8 is that experienced Windows users will be seeking alternatives. Unlike the casual Windows user, experienced users are more likely to upgrade their hardware. This means instead of buying a whole new system, they might simply increase their RAM, add a new video card and expand their hard drive.

In some instances, they may have built a brand new system, but aren't too keen on the idea of trying to get past the Windows licensing headaches. Lost your Windows 7 key? Good luck getting past that issue without opening your wallet.

No, I think even if it's just out of curiosity, some users will dip their toes into desktop Linux distributions. And many of those who try it might find themselves sticking around.

Obviously, gamers will happily pay the Windows tax and get a new license key, since their gaming depends on the OS. But for non-gamers, there is some real potential to gain a few additional Linux converts. And I for one, welcome them. The Linux community welcomes you.

And for those wondering about secure boot, those of us who build our own PCs will likely be able to overcome the issue.

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