Ubuntu, Windows 7, OS X, or thin computing (whatever that means)

Ubuntu, Windows 7, OS X, or thin computing (whatever that means)

Summary: It's no longer a matter of whose OS is better. It's a matter of finally having several viable choices as we look to expand and improve educational computing.

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A little over a month ago, I declared that there was never a better time to switch to Ubuntu. I still stand by that statement and if I were stuck on a desert island with only one operating system at my disposal, I'd pick Ubuntu 10.04.  The real point of my article was not to fan the age-old my-OS-is-better-than-your-OS flame wars, but rather to point out that, if you're thinking upgrades this summer, Ubuntu better be on your short list.

Ubuntu is hardly the only excellent choice for academic computing, but given the large community of users and developers; mature server, desktop, and netbook products; massive repositories of free software (much of which has educational value); and great performance on a variety of new and old hardware, it certainly can't be ignored any longer as a fringe OS.  Management of Linux systems, particularly Ubuntu, no longer requires a degree in computer science either, and in many settings, there are real cost savings to be had by avoiding software licensing costs.

Of course, Microsoft will tell you that the ROI on their stack of server, cloud, and desktop products is such that you will actually save money versus open source.  While that isn't as true as it used to be (most mature Linux distributions are quite easy to use and administer and cloud applications look and feel the same, regardless of the underlying OS), there are many settings where the near ubiquity of support staff knowledgeable in Microsoft products, combined with powerful administration and productivity tools, will result in at least cost parity with open source solutions.

Even if cost savings from FOSS deployments are clearcut, there may be cultural issues that make those cost savings far less important. No matter how much I like Ubuntu or how much I can save by upgrading to Ubuntu 10.04 instead of Windows 7, if it's going to be grieved as a change in working conditions, you can bet I'll recommend a Windows 7 upgrade. If a move campus-wide to open source software will mean that fewer students will choose my university, guess who's going to fork over license fees?

Licensing costs aside, Server 2008, SharePoint 2010, Office 2010, Live@Edu, and Office Web Apps all talk nicely to each other and represent really competitive, easy-to-use products.  It gets harder every day for me to hold a grudge against Microsoft when schools of any size can leverage a variety of platforms that are generally familiar, well-supported, and powerful.

Next: Let's not forget about Apple »

I'm not suggesting that Microsoft has the educational space all tied up.  Rather, for the first time they not only have serious competition, but are seriously competitive. While Ubuntu in particular, and open source in general, are keeping Microsoft on its toes, more serious competition is actually coming from Apple. Apple, as well, has one heck of an ecosystem that can be applied in education relatively cost-effectively. There is no faster way to deploy a media lab than by rolling out iMacs and MacBooks and Mac Minis aren't priced that far beyond their non-Apple brethren.

Better yet, iPods, iPhones, and iPads can all be used to provide 1:1 access to the Internet and instructional resources without investing in full-blown laptops. Even Apple's XServe server products are competitive on price and highly competitive on features, particularly in environments where IT staff is limited and a graphical approach to everything from serving content to authentication can pay dividends.

And then there's thin computing. Thin computing is barely adequate to describe the wide range of choices available in the server-centric world that encompasses everything from vanilla thin clients running RDP sessions on Windows Terminal servers to full-blown desktop virtualization. Regardless of its exact incarnation, schools are increasingly looking at the simplified management, low cost of entry, and energy savings associated with cheap access devices hitting a converged server of some sort.

NComputing, for example, just keeps cranking out new products that are easy to use, deploy, and scale. Wyse is hot on its heels with it's so-called zero clients, and Microsoft's Multipoint Server provides yet another compelling classroom platform. Choices of application virtualization vs. desktop virtualization abound, some of which are open source, while others are proprietary but extremely mature.

Next: No sacred cows »

Phew...So the real problem here is not so much figuring out which OS and/or ecosystem is better. Rather, it's determining the best solution for your organization. Although this has always been the case (you know the drill: Identify a problem, evaluate and test solutions, implement, test, communicate, re-evaluate), there has never been a time when so many really great solutions were available to educational markets.

This is why God created consultants (shameless plug for a business model that I hope will support my family). It's also why all of the old operating system holy wars and biases need to be set aside. Had trouble with performance on thin clients before? It's time to look again. Hated managing Mac clients in the past? Time to look at Snow Leopard. Don't want kids using iPods in class? Why not, if you've provided them with compelling content? Hate Windows? Try a relatively modern PC running Windows 7 and Office 2010 with Live@Edu and SharePoint on the backend and see if you still hate it. Just plain out of money but still need to eliminate malware-infested XP desktops? Ubuntu 10.04 and Google Apps make a powerful combination. For that matter, you can access Live@Edu and Office Web Apps from a Linux box.

Despite an economy that is just beginning to recover and if your job still exists, it's a great time to be in Ed Tech. Suddenly, there are innovative, cost-effective ways to get students collaborating and interacting. Whether you are looking at 1:1 solutions, simply need to get kids online in a lab, or are developing a college campus for the 21st century, we are way beyond buying a bunch of Dells and giving people logins. We're designing systems that enhance and support learning and student achievement and we're doing it for a fraction of the cost of less capable systems even 3 years ago.

Topics: Hardware, Apple, Microsoft, Open Source, Operating Systems, Software, Windows

Christopher Dawson

About Christopher Dawson

Chris Dawson is a freelance writer, consultant, and policy advocate with 20 years of experience in education, technology, and the intersection of the two.

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  • RE: Ubuntu, Windows 7, OS X, or thin computing (whatever that means)

    Yes, this is similar to http://www.zdnet.co.uk/blogs/in-the-real-world-10014309/openoffice-complaints-from-danish-students-10014804/
    MatthiasHeil
  • I hate to say it, but with Windows you will have fewest issues

    I love linux, and I wish I could use only Linux, but I can't. My computer uses Linux, but my wife's computer has windows 7. Why?

    First, i am unable to use remote desktop from linux onto my XP computer in the office. I tried and I simply can't do it.

    And second, for some stupid reason I bought my wife Zune for Christmas couple of years ago. (I must have been suffering from brain damage at that time) When my wife's computer dies, she is getting Linux, and I will run windows in WM if I still need to.

    Use Linux to have maximum freedom, flexibility and (more importantly) to prevent Apples and Microsofts from taking over the universe.. But if you do decide to use Windows, then use open source apps on windows. This way you preserve option to move to Linux (Or even OS X) at a later time if you want to.

    As for OS X, simply say NO to fads, hype and proprietary lock in. Apple is way more evil than Microsoft and there is no excuse for buying any Apple product.
    hamobu-22333136139518773481685514128812
    • Uhhhh, no.

      @hamobu,<br><br><i>"Use Linux to have maximum freedom, flexibility and (more importantly) to prevent Apples and Microsofts from taking over the universe.. But if you do decide to use Windows, then use open source apps on windows. This way you preserve option to move to Linux (Or even OS X) at a later time if you want to."</i><br><br>I have tried. It doesn't work. Open source apps on Windows fail miserably. They're just a pain to use, and quite ugly to stare at. What happened to GUI guidelines? Using a Linux like layout on Windows doesn't work.<br>DIA (Visio alt.) - No way. Open Office (Office alt.) - Nope. GIMP (Photoshop alt.) - Works, but the lack of Windows integration is irritating to all hell. The only OSS program I can recommend is Wireshark. Anything else is just miserable to use. I agree with your statement that Windows gives you less hassles. It does as long as you are using the right software. <br><br>There just is no comparison between crappy home made software and proprietary/Freeware software built with Windows in mind.
      The one and only, Cylon Centurion
      • RE: Ubuntu, Windows 7, OS X, or thin computing (whatever that means)

        @NStalnecker I use OOo, Gimp, Firefox, Inkscape, Blender, Audacity, Scribus, and many other extraordinary FOSS programs. They work beautifully both separately and together on Windows. They're wonderfully un-bloated, and easy to install and keep up-to-date on as many computers as you desire. If you learned Photoshop then you may find Gimp difficult at first. On the other hand, if you learned Gimp you would find Photoshop infuriating. Same with Inkscape vs Illustrator. Don't confuse your own ingrained preference for the programs you learned on, to actual technical superiority.
        Moreover, add up the cost of the industry standard apps I just mentioned: Photoshop is $600. If you want illustrator you will shell out another $600. MS Office: $2-300. Then 2-3 years upgrade every all of these packages. Now add in audio, video, 3D creation packages if you need those. The fact is you will now be spending at least twice as much for software as you are on computer hardware, or suffering through with 5 year old proprietary software you don't want to spend the money to upgrade. Now even I have some odd proprietary program I just need for some feature it has (though not very many at all any more.) But just piling all FOSS into the 'fail' category is just wrongheaded and ignorant at best and a giant waste of money at worst.
        ArtInvent
      • RE: Ubuntu, Windows 7, OS X, or thin computing (whatever that means)

        @NStalnecker - even Frodo was warned by Gollum not to follow the lights; but, it seems that computer users want to see them (and yes, fall into the trap of paying money for, the unnecessary, so-called eye candy). Eye use the classic shell/theme for Windblow$ & it's like Windows 2000: what it should be..:) P.S. tk421.net/lotr/film/ttt/08.html
        nimd4
      • RE: Ubuntu, Windows 7, OS X, or thin computing (whatever that means)

        @NStalnecker, I use Open Office on my work PC in preference to Office 2007. <br><br>Why? The Office 2007 user interface is darn near undecipherable.<br><br>I hear Office 2010 is worse, if anything.<br><br>Open Office does nearly everything I ever used Office for, so why bother learning a UI written in heiroglyphics?<br><br>I also use the GIMP on Windows 'cause I don't have a budget to buy Photoshop, and it does everything I need in a graphics program.

        "Microsoft delenda est!"
        CodeCurmudgeon
      • RE: Ubuntu, Windows 7, OS X, or thin computing (whatever that means)

        @CodeCurmudgeon

        [i]"Why? The Office 2007 user interface is darn near undecipherable.

        I hear Office 2010 is worse, if anything."[/i]

        That is a matter of opinion, I find the Ribbon far more easier to use than drop down menus. To each their own.
        The one and only, Cylon Centurion
      • RE: Ubuntu, Windows 7, OS X, or thin computing (whatever that means)

        @NStalnecker

        I agree to a point
        MLHACK
    • I use Gimp, OOo, Firefox on windows...

      ... and it works great. For gimp it might take some time to learn gtk+ type interface on Gimp (like 5 minutes), <br><br>But that's actually a benefit. These programs are not uglier or more difficult, but just different. Why would you give up on interoperability just to have more windows-like interface? The whole point is to not tie yourself to any one platform or vendor.

      EDIT: Also I would like to add that the reason many open source apps do not integrate well into Windows or OS X look and feel is because they work on many different platforms. The trade off is portability vs. closer custom integration with OS.
      hamobu-22333136139518773481685514128812
      • RE: Ubuntu, Windows 7, OS X, or thin computing (whatever that means)

        @hamobu The lack of integration is a real problem. Telling people "just learn it" is not good UI design.

        GTK does not support features like Windows 7's libraries, which makes it far more difficult to use.

        "Why would you give up on interoperability just to have more windows-like interface?"

        You don't need to, actually. A good, modular design would allow you to use native controls while maintaining cross-platform support.

        Firefox, for example, uses native dialog boxes.

        And it's cross-platform.

        So don't give me that bull that cross-platform apps can't use native dialog boxes.
        CobraA1
      • It's more important for Gimp version to look more like each other ...

        @CobraA1

        ...then like the OS that they are running on.

        <i>The lack of integration is a real problem. Telling people "just learn it" is not good UI design.</i>

        Well that's a matter of opinion. GTK+ Library has good features that are different than choices made for Windows and OS X. At some point other benefits justify unfamiliar interface. The whole point of GTK+ is to make it easier to run software on multiple platforms.

        <i>GTK does not support features like Windows 7's libraries, which makes it far more difficult to use.</i>

        Not sure why would you say that? Libraries are a new feature, so most people are yet to become familiar with it. Plus no libraries on OS X and Linux so even though Gimp is runing on multiple OSs, you still end up being locked in.

        <i>You don't need to, actually. A good, modular design would allow you to use native controls while maintaining cross-platform support. Firefox, for example, uses native dialog boxes.</i>

        But then you end up with different versions of code for different OSs. Yes, due to modular design there will be a lot of re-usability but important differences will persist. Firefox for windows running on Linux under wine, for example, runs better than firefox for linux. Not only that, but differences between different OS versions could diverge enough to make it harder to move from one OS to the other. (Why are preferences in Firefox under edit menu on Linux and under tools menu on windows)

        You could maintain three version of code and cater to three different OSs, or you could use a widget toolkit like GTK+ or QT. Plus you get the benefit of more consistent look and experience across platforms.
        hamobu-22333136139518773481685514128812
      • RE: Ubuntu, Windows 7, OS X, or thin computing (whatever that means)

        @hamobu

        [i]"I use Gimp, OOo, Firefox on windows...
        ... and it works great. For gimp it might take some time to learn gtk+ type interface on Gimp (like 5 minutes),

        But that's actually a benefit. These programs are not uglier or more difficult, but just different. Why would you give up on interoperability just to have more windows-like interface? The whole point is to not tie yourself to any one platform or vendor.

        EDIT: Also I would like to add that the reason many open source apps do not integrate well into Windows or OS X look and feel is because they work on many different platforms. The trade off is portability vs. closer custom integration with OS. "[/i]

        Firefox works great, and it is finally getting the integration it deserves with Windows. But to me, experience is everything. Yes, I enjoy the "eye candy". Programs can be sexy to look at, and easy to use at the same time. Personally, I think looks outweigh functionality development wise, it [i]should[/i] be designed to be easy on user's eyes.
        The one and only, Cylon Centurion
      • RE: Ubuntu, Windows 7, OS X, or thin computing (whatever that means)

        @hamobu

        "Well that's a matter of opinion."

        Opinions based on research, actually. At least in the case of Microsoft and Apple, they usually perform a lot of research before implementing UI designs. Microsoft has a few blogs on why they do things the way they do.

        Most UI researchers do agree that using an existing, familiar UI is far better than forcing a user to learn a new UI. A Linux-like Save/Load dialog box on a Windows system requires a learning curve. A learning that is totally unnecessary.

        "Not sure why would you say that?"

        Because I use libraries every day. And yes, it's a pain when I can't use them.

        "Libraries are a new feature, so most people are yet to become familiar with it."

        Libraries are used by most people running Windows 7, whether they realize it or not. The default "Documents," "Music," "Pictures," and "Videos" are available by default.

        Whether or not people know the technical details of libraries, it becomes an obvious issue when they can't find their documents!

        "But then you end up with different versions of code for different OSs."

        Yeah, but if designed right the differences can be kept in a small section of the program.

        In addition, I'd say that the extra code is certainly well worth it. Users hate it when small things like dialog boxes have learning curves.

        "Plus you get the benefit of more consistent look and experience across platforms."

        Which is only a benefit for people who regularly use multiple platforms and are familiar with the toolkits. Frankly, that's a niche case, and does not describe most users.
        CobraA1
    • RE: Ubuntu, Windows 7, OS X, or thin computing (whatever that means)

      @hamobu

      Hmmm, I use Remote desktop all the time from my OpenSuSE Linux at home and work to a Windows XP box at work. Use KRDC, works fine. You might not have XP set up to be remote connected to. The firewall you are using for Windows may also not allow the connection and if you are behind a router you may not have port forwarding enabled.

      I use Linux every single day at work... if I need Windows (which is rare) I either will remote into a desktop or run it in VMWare. I have been 100% Linux at home for years now. And until recently, I used Linux exclusively to watch my DVD's (contrary to what one of the local trolls states) and as a multi-media station.
      Linux User 147560
      • RE: Ubuntu, Windows 7, OS X, or thin computing (whatever that means)

        @Linux User 147560

        i can remote desktop from my wife's windows 7 but not from Ubuntu Koala. I tried both the default remote deskto viewer as well as Gnome-RDP. I spent maybe an hour trying different things. I am probably missing something simple.
        hamobu-22333136139518773481685514128812
    • RE: Ubuntu, Windows 7, OS X, or thin computing (whatever that means)

      @hamobu:

      " i am unable to use remote desktop from linux onto my XP computer in the office. "

      rdesktop. I use it on an Ubuntu netbook with nary a problem.

      " I bought my wife Zune for Christmas couple of years ago."

      Man - sorry to hear that. Google shows some promise on how to get around that particular mess, but a not-so-locked-in solution would be a better future consideration (even the iPods can run off of Linux w/ gtk-pod or Amarok).
      Random_Walk
  • RE: Ubuntu, Windows 7, OS X, or thin computing (whatever that means)

    Some are free, some are not. Pay teachers or buy Windows licenses. Hmmmm....
    tburzio
    • Liscences vs. Salaries is a false choice

      Compared to salaries and employee benefit costs, Desktop software costs are negligible. Medical insurance alone can be $400 a month (probably more now) per employee.
      hamobu-22333136139518773481685514128812
      • RE: Ubuntu, Windows 7, OS X, or thin computing (whatever that means)

        @hamobu Nicely said.
        ItsTheBottomLine
    • RE: Ubuntu, Windows 7, OS X, or thin computing (whatever that means)

      @tburzio

      Ummm... depends on the quality of the teachers. I know in my district there are quite a few that are lazy/worthless and like to stand behind there union brother/sister hood. SO buy windows licenses
      MLHACK