Saturday, March 29, 2008

Yes, it is still about Microsoft

One of the more disconcerting comments I saw during 2007 was echoed recently in an IM conversation I had. The essence of the comment or statement is that Linux is no longer about being anti-Microsoft. With the retail success of Dell's Ubuntu line-up which has seen an ever-growing number of additional systems added to the line-up, the massive retail success of Asus's EeePC, and the relative success of OLPC, there appears to be empirical evidence that Linux is getting away from the reputation of simply being the alternative to Microsoft products. More and more people are looking at Linux for it's own merits as an Operating System Platform, rather than simply being a way out of Microsoft's hands.

I'm not so sure that I agree that Linux is no longer about being anti-Microsoft, or being the alternative to Microsoft. From my point of view Microsoft makes a pretty good baseline for what not to do, and how not to do it. From a business perspective a lot of analysts predict that Microsoft's business model is in trouble citing various factors from the EU and marketplace events. A couple sources have indicated that Linux on the mobile platform has taken over 40% or more of the shipping market from various online and brick-and-mortar retailers. Since Microsoft's base business model for Microsoft Windows is to attach a tax to every computer that is sold., that's a heavy blow to the standard business model Microsoft has used for years.

From a software perspective, I've compared Microsoft's software to an open cesspool. Whether or not anyone likes it, Microsoft products aren't exactly known for being svelte or slim. Instead, most Microsoft products have reputations for being loads of bloatware. Okay, from a technical viewpoint, Vista's heavy system requirements and large footprint are easily explained by trying to maintain NT5 compatibility, but what about everything else?

I've indicated before that I lack a certain respect for Open Office. For years Microsoft Office was considered the baseline on how not to make an Office Suite. In face to face comparisons Microsoft Office was the clear inferior to the likes of WordPerfect. Even in the most recent versions of Microsoft Office, on a feature set front, it's still behind WordPerfect 9, was released almost 10 years ago, in 1999. Open Office isn't much better on the feature front. The only version of Open Office I've seen with tabbed documents has been IBM's Lotus Symphony remix. It's my opinion that Sun Microsystems and the Open Office developers would have been better served targeting the feature set and functionality of Open Office after WordPerfect, which set a much higher standard.

From my point of view many of the people trying out Linux today are only doing so because there is a legitimate option to Microsoft. Consumers are slowly waking up to the fact that they don't have to put up with Microsoft's shenanigans anymore. The argument against Microsoft has moved from a technical viewpoint to a consumer viewpoint.

Over the past several years one of the big reasons to move to Linux or Unix was stability. During the late 1990's and into the earlier 2000's, Microsoft Windows had a reputation for being a stability nightmare. Starting with Windows 2000 that reputation changed. As an Operating System, the NT5 kernel Windows were not that bad on the stability front. With Vista Microsoft has again upped the ante. Yes, I can crash the Vista that came on my Asus F3K, but I generally have to use a 3rd party product. The OS itself doesn't cave in on itself.

Another reason to move from Windows to Linux or Unix was security. Microsoft is known to have the rock bottom reputation in terms of security. There is no other vendor with a track record as lousy as Microsoft's when it comes to reporting problems, and issuing fixes for problems. Sorry, that point is not up for argument or debate, it is established fact. However, that fact is mitigated by several factors. The first is that many of the most dangerous virus's that have been spread around have socially engineered virus's, that played on a normal person's trust of electronic communication or a persons lack of knowledge about computer systems.

Security is only as good as the end-user can make it, and Microsoft has a large problem in that a vast majority of their user-base simply does not care about security. The security problem is compounded by many users buying security products like Norton and McAfee that simply do not work. I know from my own personal tests that McAfee and Norton have the lowest hit rate of any anti-virus I have tested not just once, but in 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, and last year 2007. I'm not really holding hopes up that 2008 will have either anti-virus product achieving a successful detection rate of over 50%.

From a pure security standpoint, an expert user can lock down any Microsoft product like they can lock down a Linux or Unix product. Traditionally in the past Linux and Unix have been more secure by default, but to somebody who knows what they are doing, the phrase if it's reachable, it's breachable holds true.

Then there is the performance argument. I was once telling a coalition member in City of Heroes that I no longer booted into Windows to play the game, I only used Linux and Cedega. The coalie member was extremely interested in switching because it was widely known that Linux was faster than Windows on the same platform, so the game would of course run faster. Umm... no. Not really. I wound up going into a fractured discourse about how whether or not W.I.N.E. liked it, they were actually an emulator. Call it a wrapper, call it whatever they want, at some point there is a conversion from Windows systems calls to Linux System calls, and that's an emulation technique. With the commands having to get converted at some point, NT5 compatible games running under W.I.N.E. or Cedega would probably never be able to outpace themselves running directly through NT5 on the same hardware . Running on NT6... it might actually be faster. Basically, you could expect parity in performance, but you were not going to magically gain an extra 20 frames per second with the same detail level on the same hardware.

In terms of performance, yes, Vista is again, rock bottom. I made a comment before about how Vista set records making records about how badly it performed in terms of Instructions per Clock cycle. However, performance is relative. Yes, the Linux kernel can run on an i386 25mhz Intel Processor. Would I want to try running the KDE 3.x desktop on that processor? No. In my own testing I've found that the performance breakpoint for KDE 3.x is somewhere around 500mhz on an Intel Pentium III processor. As an overall desktop, KDE4 tends to be heavier than KDE 3.x.

While Linux has a reputation for being able to rescue older hardware, there is a price to be paid for that operation. Some of the best user-friendly applications for Linux today such as Amarok, K3B, and KDE4... simply won't run on older hardware. That doesn't mean that you can't run Linux on older hardware, you'll just have to use different products, which may or may not have user-friendly interfaces.
Ergo, if you want to have a desktop Linux experience that is as good or better than Microsoft Windows Xp, you'll need pretty much the same hardware that you'd need with Microsoft Windows Xp.

From a technical standpoint then, the normal reasons given to consumers to run away from Microsoft are not as effective as they once were. With such factors losing their importance, it is important to continue to make Linux Distributions different from Microsoft Windows. Not just different in terms of how they look, but different in being more secure out of the box, having visibly better performance on the same hardware, and having obviously superior feature sets.

So yes, Microsoft is still very much a factor in the development of Linux. Microsoft is the benchmark of what not to do, where not to go, and what to be better than. Microsoft is still a very large factor in where Linux is going today, and tomorrow.

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