2012 has already seen a major update of what's arguably the most important Linux desktop: Ubuntu 12.04 and we're also seeing the most radical update of Windows with Windows 8 Metro coming since Windows 95 replaced Windows 3.1. So, which will end up the better for its change?
1. Desktop interface
Ubuntu replaced the popular GNOME 2.x interface with Unity when their developers decided the GNOME 3.x shell wasn't for them. Some people, like the developers behind Linux Mint, decided to recreate the GNOME 2.x desktop with Cinnamon, but Ubuntu took its own path with Unity.
In Unity's desktop geography, your most used applications are kept in the left Unity Launcher bar on the left. If you need a particular application or file, you use Unity's built-in Dash application. Dash is a dual purpose desktop search engine and file and program manager that lives on the top of the Unity menu Launcher.
Its drawback, for Ubuntu power-users, is that it makes it harder to adjust Ubuntu's settings manually. On the other hand, most users, especially ones who are new to Ubuntu, find it very easy to use. Canonical, the company behind Ubuntu, has made it clear that regardless of whether you use Ubuntu on a desktop, tablet or smartphone the Unity interface is going to be there and it's going to look the same.
Windows 8 Metro is, if anything, even more of a departure from its predecessor than Unity. At least with Unity, you're still working with a windows, icons, menus, and pointers (WIMP). Metro has replaced icons with tiles. In addition, by default, you can only work with applications in tiles or in full-screen format. Even such familiar friends as the Start button are missing.
I've been working with Metro for months now. After all that time, I still think Windows 8 with Metro will be dead on arrival. Even people who really like Metro say things like "the default presentation is ugly and impersonal." You can make Metro a lot more usable, but that's a lot of work to make an interface that's already ugly prettier and, when you're done, you're still left with an interface that doesn't look or work the way you've been using Windows for years.
True, there's also the Windows 8 Desktop, which still doesn't have a Start button, but otherwise looks and works like the Windows 7 Aero interface, but it's a sop to users who don't want Metro. Sooner rather than later, Microsoft wants everyone on Metro. Of course on some platforms, such as Windows RT, the version of Windows 8 for ARM tablets, Metro is the only choice.
For ages one of the bogus raps against desktop Linux has been that there hasn't been enough applications for it. That was never true. What Linux didn't have was the same applications as Windows. To an extent, that's still true. You can't still get say Quicken, Outlook, or Photoshop natively on Linux. Of course, with the use of WINE and its commercial big brother Codeweaver's Crossover, you can run these, and other Windows programs, on top of Linux.
On the other hand, I find some Linux programs, such as Evolution for e-mail, an optional program in Ubuntu, to be far better than their Windows equivalents. In addition, if like more and more people these days the program you really use all the time is a Web browser for everything then Windows has no advantage what-so-ever. Chrome, as my testing has shown time and again, is the best Web browser around runs equally well on Ubuntu and Windows. On both, however, you'll need to download it. Ubuntu defaults to using Firefox and Windows 8, of course, uses Internet Explorer.
What I find really interesting though is that Microsoft is actually removing functionality from Windows 8. If you want to play DVDs on Windows 8 or use it as a media center, you'll need to pay extra. DVD-players and the power to stream media remain free options in Ubuntu and most other Linux distributions.
There has been a lot of talk lately about malware on Macs and it's true. Macs are vulnerable to security breeches. So, for that matter, are Linux systems. But never, ever forget that for every single Mac virus or worm, there have been thousands of Windows attackers. And, that while Linux can be attacked as well, in practice, it' more secure than either Mac OS X or Windows and there has never been a significant Linux desktop security worm.
Could it happen? Sure. But, get real, I do run Linux with virus protection, ClamAV, but I'm paranoid, and even so I've never seen a single attacker, much less suffered a successful attack, in almost twenty years of using Linux desktops. I wish I could say the same of my Windows systems.
4. Total Cost of Ownership (TCO)
Thanks for Active Directory (AD), it's long been easy to manage Windows desktops, but then thanks to Lightweight Directory Access Protocol (LDAP) and tools like Landscape, it's no problem in Ubuntu Linux either. Indeed, since you won't be able to use AD to manage Windows RT systems, Ubuntu Linux actually provides a more unified management system.
Also, remember what I said about security? You can't forget anti-virus software or patching Windows for a minute. Linux? Yes, you should use anti-virus programs and patch regularly, but relax, you're not asking for zero-day doom all the time the way you are with Windows. Besides, the upfront cost of Linux? Zero. Windows 8? We don't know yet, but we do know that Windows 8 PCs will be more expensive than their Windows 7 brothers.
If you're really serious about cutting your desktop costs, Linux is the way to go.
5. Ease of use
One of the perpetual myths about Linux is how hard it is to use. Oh really? Don't tell my 80-year old Ubuntu-using mother-in-law or Jason Perlow's Linux user mom-in-law. They're both using Ubuntu 12.04 and loving it. Why? Because it's so easy to use.
Metro, on the other hand... well you know I don't like it, but I think it's telling that a Bing search-not Google, Bing-showed 3.32-million results for "Windows 8 Metro sucks." Many users, including our own Scott Raymond, would like it if Microsoft gave users the option to turn Metro off. That's not going to happen.
Another plus for Ubuntu is, say you really can't stand Unity. No problem, you can switch to GNOME 3.x, Cinnamon, KDE, whatever. With Ubuntu while they want you to use Unity, you can choose to use another Linux desktop interface. With Windows 8, you're stuck with half-Metro and half-desktop.
Put it all together and what do you get? Well, I don't see Ubuntu overcoming Windows on the desktop. There are just too many Windows users out there. The Linux desktop will never catch up with it.
My question though wasn't who was going to end up the most popular desktop. It was "which will end up the better for its change?" To that question, there's only one answer: Ubuntu is the winner. I foresee Windows XP and 7 users sticking to their operating systems and giving Windows 8 the same cold shoulder they gave Vista and Millennium Edition.
That will end up being a real problem for Windows. Back in the day, their iron-grip on the desktop meant they could have flops and still not lose much. Today, though, we're moving away from the desktop to a world where we do much of our work on the cloud and for that we can use tablets and smartphones as well. And, on tablets and smartphones, Microsoft has yet to show that Windows can play a role. Thanks to Android, we already know Linux is a major player on those, and Ubuntu is already making a desktop/Android smartphone partnership play.
All-in-all, Ubuntu is going to be far more successful for its changes than Microsoft will be with its operating system transformations.