Desktop Linux or Windows 7?

Tuesday Jul 21st 2009 by Matt Hartley

Issues like pre-installed availability and vendor promotion continue to challenge the Linux desktop.

With the recession in full swing, I have found a growing number of people questioning the value of moving onto Windows 7 upon its release. Not because there is anything wrong with upgrading to Windows 7, but rather a concern that the prices for Windows 7 is thought to be a bit high for the software offered.

Some individuals have pointed out that for those not already upgrading their PC hardware, there is very little clear benefit to bothering to spend the funds for the new operating system. Then, as if on queue, the one thing Microsoft had going for it was changed.

Windows 7 is no longer available at promotional pricing. So a full version of this operating system is going to set you back about $200 – this is not even for the ultimate edition, either. Sad.

Looking to alternatives

Regardless as to how well or poorly Windows 7 ends up doing, one thing is for sure. Having alternative operating systems on standby only works to empower competition in a very big way.

The problem is, like with any operating system, most people will choose to either have it pre-installed or, at the very least, installed for them by a professional who is familiar with such things.

If you stop to think about it, this is why we see PC repair techs, Apple Geniuses and folks from Best Buy's Geek Squad staying so busy despite this recession. Most people just want their PCs to work, upgrades or otherwise.

And because of this desire by most people, there is an opportunity for alternative operating systems such as popular Linux distributions. But the challenge is making sure the end user not the one stuck with trying to install these alternatives themselves.

Linux depot installation

For those in the industry, the term "depot install" is well known. Many businesses rely on depot installations to get their PCs up and running with new OS upgrades.

So I think it stands to reason that we could see the same sort of thing taking place in the Desktop Linux realm as well. After all, it's hardly a new concept. Some Linux OEMs have been providing this service for a few years now. The singular stumbling block seems to be that most people are not aware of such an alternative.

A company offering either depot installs on older PCs or pre-installation of Linux on PCs is in a position to give Windows 7 a run for its money. The software savings alone is enough to make the average person do a double take.

Price vs familiarity

We have established that switching existing single PCs over to Windows 7 is a costly proposition. And as I pointed out above, offering Linux on PCs pre-installed would eliminate any hassles trying to determine what will or won't work with whichever hardware configurations.

But despite any given advantages here, there is still some concern as to familiarity for the end user. The most user-friendly Linux distro in the world is still likely to present some learning curve for many Windows users. While not insurmountable, they still need to be addressed.

The price (free) sounds fantastic on paper, but we need to realize that we are pitching a free operating system to a society that is happy to purchase water from their local convenience store. Clearly, there is room for selling something worthwhile even if the operating system is indeed, given away from nothing.

Perhaps video tutorials on how to get started with the most basic tasks bundled with the free operating system is what's missing here? Explain which bundled applications will take the place of the proprietary options previously used with Windows and suddenly the switch to the new, cheaper OS does not seem so intimidating.

Unfortunately it might not be this simple. Even with the cost advantages and if we begun seeing more preinstalled solutions made available, there are still some hurdles in place that leave Windows 7 in the position of maintaining a significant advantage.

Linux lacks what is needed

If you were to set the CEO of some random big box store down in front of you and ask why they choose not to take a more active roll in selling Linux as an alternative to Windows, the answer might surprise you: These individuals don't see any money in it.

Think about it. It would not really be all that insurmountable to locate people to provide support for Linux machines. And we certainly know that once configured and managed, Linux can provide a very stable experience for the end user. Yet outside of a netbook or two on these big box store’s websites, you will never see any mention of Linux whatsoever – why?

Remember the money aspect? For software and PC repair, Windows security is big business. There remains a question as to what will fill this vacuum should a portion of the Windows users buying new PCs or asking for depot installations opt for the open source alternative instead.

Are they paying for malware removal or re-uping their anti-virus software subscriptions? No, they most certainly are not.

Now understand that I am not getting into the argument of which platform is more secure. Rather, I’m pointing out which platform is a moving target for exploits and which one will allow the end user a much less frustrating experience, properly configured.

Big box stores will, as expected, stick to the platforms that make them the most money. And sadly, this is simply not going to be Linux as it lacks value-added services such as application stores, security suites and other software purchases available for a making quick buck.

Clearly adoption is not going to happen there. It must happen with us and through word of mouth. You know, sort of like we have seen take place with Google and its search engine. But even with all of us doing our part to point out this Windows 7 alternative, are most people willing to step far enough out of their comfort zones to give Linux a real shot?

Motivation enough to change

It's interesting when I find myself presented with an opportunity to show off what my own Linux powered notebook can do. Even those who are quite happy with their Windows or OS X solutions are quick to point out that they know people personally that would love this "Linux thing."

The applications most people need are preinstalled. Hassles with security software and junk attachments coming through email are not a problem for the end user on this platform. Clearly, we have a winner here.

Yet during the same conversation, I ask these people if they are interested in making the switch to Linux, only to find out that they feel that they "need" to wait for Windows 7 to be released instead of changing to a new platform.

Why? Because despite what I have shown them, they feel "safer" using a Windows OS from a software availability standpoint.

This is a fair point. So to provide a stronger counter-argument, I then showed the individual that I was speaking with my own minimized iTunes application running in the background providing a USB connected backup of my iPhone.

When asked how, I simply pointed out that I was running XP in VirtualBox in seamless mode. Once they picked their jaw up off the ground, they simply stated that maybe they need to look into this a bit closer. Needless to say, the excuses to wait for Windows 7 were becoming thinner by the minute.

Lessons learned

During my experiences learning what drives people to use one platform over another, I discovered the following.

  • Windows wins on availability. It's impossible to miss.
  • Support is everywhere. Again, there is no way you will hear someone exclaim that they are unable to find someone for hire to help them with their Windows PC.
  • Brick and mortar PC retail businesses see little reason to change what is working for their bottom line.
  • Change is scary and for those not frightened, they are simply disinterested in change.

As you can plainly see, the motivation to opt for the more expensive Windows 7 is a self-inflicted ailment as far as I am concerned. Call it people falling victim to happenstance or simply refusing to accept that there are more cost effective alternatives out there. One thing is very clear – we need a single event using desktop Linux to point to in which some of the support/familiarity concerns will be addressed.

Does this mean that we should be looking to Google's Chrome OS for the answers? Perhaps, but I still see little evidence of anything being done that demonstrates real "boots on the ground" support. The type of support that Joe Average is going to find assistance like they would if they just stuck with Windows.

In 2007, I outlined step by step how a company might put s Linux solution to this problem in place.

Sadly, I have seen zero evidence that Google or any other company looking to take on Microsoft directly actually "gets it." Someone out there needs to remind folks that there is much more to the success of the Linux desktop than pushing everything into cloud computing.

Because it quickly becomes meaningless when the end user is suddenly faced with being unable to connect to the Internet in the first place.

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