I have come to the conclusion that picking a desktop operating system is a lot like picking a religion. No matter what choice is made, for many it will be made on faith alone -- and with the absolute certainty that their choice is the only true choice! Once that choice is made, no discussion of the relative merits of alternative choices will be entertained.
What is it that makes Linux can successfully compete with Windows for the desktop market. some people zealots about which desktop OS to use? And why would one blogger insist on verbally pummeling another for making a different choice -- as if they were infidels? I've seen it over and over again and I just don't get it.
Of the major players in the desktop OS market today, UNIX is the oldest -- dating back to 1969. Its minicomputer origins made its transition to high-performance workstations straightforward. And its remarkable scalability made it just as suitable for the machine room. Today, it makes its home primarily in that machine room -- or on the desktop of the scientist, the engineer, or the filmmaker.
MacOS first appeared on the scene in 1984, a year before Windows first shipped (1985). As with all modern desktop operating systems, its graphical roots are at Xerox PARC. With the introduction of Mac OS X (in 2000), Apple joined the UNIX ranks (well sort of) by building their newest desktop OS on top of FreeBSD. Like the traditional UNIX vendors, Apple continues to focus on proprietary hardware for its bread and butter. And like those traditional UNIX vendors, it has had to face a shrinking market share as a result.
1985 also ushered in the beginning of the 'free software movement', the Free Software Foundation, and the GNU Manifesto. (An acronym, GNU's Not UNIX). Linus Torvalds conceived of Linux in 1991 but it would be 1994 before Linux 1.0 shipped. When combined with a wealth of GNU libraries and utilities, Linux quickly became a viable UNIX 'clone' -- one free from AT&T's licensing fees.
Without a doubt, Linux has changed the face of the UNIX marketplace -- much to the chagrin of many a UNIX vendor. It has done so largely by putting UNIX capabilities on commodity hardware -- and thus forcing first-tier UNIX hardware vendors to begrudgingly embrace the open-source software movement.
Then there is Microsoft Windows. Like the Linux community, Microsoft has built its empire on software sales on commodity hardware. And like the Linux community, Microsoft wishes to displace UNIX in the machine room, where the stakes are high and the profit margins are lucrative.
So, how is it that Microsoft so completely dominates the desktop market today while Linux struggles for a place in a market which is characterized by commodity hardware and small profit margins?
A lot of Microsoft detractors would say they dominate through unethical business practices -- and to be fair, the courts seem to agree, but I'm not so sure that it's all that cut and dried. Governments and robust users (that's us, folks) are quick to complain that Microsoft doesn't give us (or their OEMs) much of a choice about the default tools provided with Windows. But what about the consumer? After all, they are the ones buying PCs at Wal-Mart and [insert your favorite electronics retailer here.] By and large, the typical consumer wants three things:
Value. Consumers definitely want to feel like they are paying a fair price. Even if a baseline Macintosh computer sells for about the same price as a comparably-configured Dell running Windows (as some of my colleagues claim), if Dell can get you in the door with a 'lame' loss leader and then step you up, it's those aggressive entry-level prices that got the consumer to shop (and which Apple cannot match!)
Ease of use. In my mind, this is a requirement but is not necessarily sufficient. If it were sufficient, I would expect that most consumers would be buying Macintosh computers for their unrivaled ease of use. They are not.
Choice. This one is a little tricky. As experienced IT people, we have choice. No matter which OS (religion) we choose, we can make that choice work to our satisfaction -- because we know what we want/need before we buy. The consumer is often clueless about which choice to make, and why. Too many choices and the consumer will throw up their hands and walk away frustrated. Too few choices and the consumer will question the value of those choices. In either event, they won't buy. If Windows offers nothing else, it offers a lot of choices of hardware vendor but once the vendor (and the price-point) is chosen, only a small number of buying choices are required to make a successful purchase.
There is one more thing though that gives Windows the edge:
One-stop shopping. No matter how little you know about computers, if you are a first-time buyer, or an experienced user, buying a personal computer running Windows is a one-stop shopping trip. Your hardware vendor can sell you everything you need -- Windows + Office pre-installed takes care of 95% of all consumers' needs. A copy of Quicken and/or TurboTax and that jumps to 99% of consumers' needs. Most everything else can be purchased on-line (or downloaded for free) and installed by the typical user -- no muss, no fuss.
What's that you say? Linux can provide that same one-stop shopping experience? Sure. Today, the user can buy an entry-level Linspire PC made by Microtel, from Wal-Mart, or a Linspire PC made by Mirus, from Sears or K-Mart. But, if you know nothing about computers, do these hardware manufacturers give you confidence that they will be in business in six months when you try to call them for support?
In the end, Linux can successfully compete with Windows for the desktop market -- but they cannot do it alone. Rather than seeking out only the lucrative machine room market, Linux vendors must work closely with first-tier OEMs to establish consumer-conscious bundles for desktops and for laptops. They must be price-competitive and offer a wide enough range of capabilities to make them attractive to the first-time computer buyer who doesn't know beans about computers.