Enterprise IT managers, frustrated for the last three years by Windows Vista, have recently begun to move Linux from its traditional home in the datacentre out to user desktops. However, it's still very much a minority option and Linux's progress could be halted in its tracks by the release of Windows 7, which is widely seen as the logical upgrade for those still running XP.
Whether or not Windows 7 will actually put paid to Linux on the desktop remains to be seen. But to give you flavour of how the two platforms measure up, we've compiled a brief illustrated guide, comparing key business features as implemented in Windows 7 and the latest version of the world's favourite Linux distro — Ubuntu 9.10, otherwise known as Karmic Koala.
Ubuntu Linux is free and can be trialled from CD without installing anything to hard disk.
Although there's no direct upgrade from XP to Windows 7, it's easier than moving to Ubuntu.
Hardware support is much the same, and both Windows 7 and Ubuntu 9.10 come in 32-bit and 64-bit versions. However, Windows 7 licenses have to be paid for, while Ubuntu is open-source and free. Vista users can upgrade in place, while there are tools to help you migrate XP desktops. However, if you're switching from Windows to Ubuntu you'll have to start, more or less, from scratch.
Windows 7 will be available preinstalled on new PCs, but Ubuntu can be trialled from CD without being installed onto the hard disk at all. Tools to help with large-scale rollouts are available for both operating systems.
On the desktop
The default GNOME desktop in Ubuntu 9.10 is simple and usable, with fancy graphical effects available, if required.
The new taskbar grabs attention in Windows 7, but business users may be more impressed by the OS's other features.
Support for multi-touch displays and a new taskbar are key features of Windows 7, but business buyers may not see them as important as the various reliability and security enhancements. The more basic GNOME desktop implemented in Ubuntu 9.10 is simpler, although fancy graphical effects are available if you go looking for them. The latest Ubuntu release also features a so-called 're-mix', aimed at netbooks with smaller displays and less processing power.
Enterprises looking to upgrade will find that, whether moving to a Windows 7 or Ubuntu 9.10 desktop, XP users will need time to learn where everything is located and how it all works.
Keeping up to date
The update manager in Ubuntu can be set to automatically download and apply OS and application patches.
Automatic updates in Windows 7 are limited to the OS and selected Microsoft applications such as Office.
Automatic updates are a feature of both the Microsoft and Ubuntu platforms, with bundled tools to retrieve and apply patches as they're released. With Windows, however, the updates all come from Microsoft and only apply to the OS and specific applications such as MS Office. Ubuntu, on the other hand, can install patches for other applications as well.
The update workload can be large on both platforms, and network managers often prefer to test and deploy patches themselves rather than use the vendor's automatic update sources. Free tools to facilitate this are available for both platforms, along with commercial patching programs to cope with common Windows and Linux applications.
An optional firewall is available in Ubuntu, but you'll need to hunt around for other security tools.
A firewall and anti-spyware tools are included in Windows 7, and there's a lot more available besides.
Windows, as the dominant desktop operating system, is a prime target for hackers, and so there are numerous security enhancements in Windows 7. A desktop firewall and anti-spyware tool (Windows Defender) are included as standard, while a free antivirus tool (Microsoft Security Essentials) is now also available, along with a myriad third-party security applications.
Linux is seen as inherently more secure than Windows, but it still has vulnerabilities. Ubuntu therefore includes an optional firewall (Firestarter) plus anti-spyware and phishing protection in the bundled Firefox browser. Antivirus and other security tools are also available, although the choice here is limited. On the plus side, much of the security that a business network needs can be delivered at the gateway regardless of the desktop OS.
Although it uses different native protocols, an Ubuntu desktop can join a Windows domain and access Windows shares.
It goes without saying that Windows 7 is fully compatible with Windows file-sharing in all its forms.
In terms of underlying networking support there's not much to choose between Windows 7 and Ubuntu 9.10. The same wired and wireless adapters can be used to connect to the LAN, with similar TCP/IP support — including IPv6 — available on both platforms.
Different native protocols are employed when it comes to file sharing, which can sometimes cause problems. However, an Ubuntu desktop can be configured as a member of a Windows NT or Active Directory domain, while Ubuntu users will find they can seamlessly browse Windows networks and access the files in Windows shares using the same SMB/CIFS protocols as those running Windows.
Configuring a printer is as easy in Ubuntu 9.10 as it is Windows 7, although suitable drivers may not always be available.
Windows 7 comes with extensive support for all kinds of printers.
In theory it should be no harder to print from an Ubuntu desktop than Windows 7, as drivers for use with a variety of local and network devices are included in each operating system. In practice, however, printer vendors concentrate on drivers for the Microsoft OS. As a result, Linux support tends to be more generic and Ubuntu users may find it harder to take advantage of all the functionality and features offered by a specific printer. Support for multifunction devices, in particular, may be limited to printing only, while Windows 7 users will get access to scanning, document management and other tools.
The OpenOffice.org suite of productivity tools is bundled as part of Ubuntu 9.10.
Windows 7 users have to pay to add Microsoft Office.
As with other Linux distros, the OpenOffice.org suite is bundled with Ubuntu 9.10, equipping users with a word processor, spreadsheet, presentation graphics and database. It's free, includes most of the core features found in Microsoft Office and supports the same language and document formats, making it possible for Ubuntu users to co-exist and share information with those using MS Office.
Unfortunately, Microsoft Office isn't included in Windows 7 and could be an expensive add-on — particularly for small businesses. The free OpenOffice.org suite is also available for Windows, but the majority of businesses still opt for the Microsoft suite as it's what users are most familiar with and also includes the Outlook email/collaboration client.
The Evolution email/calendaring client in Ubuntu can be configured to work with Exchange, but it's not a seamless Outlook replacement.
The de facto client for Exchange Server, Outlook is the reason a lot of business users will stick with Windows.
Email is one of the killer applications as far as business users are concerned, and support for Outlook one of the main reasons why buyers tend to stick with the Windows platform. A key advantage with Outlook is that it works seamlessly with Microsoft's Exchange Server to not just send and receive email, but also share contacts and calendars, and collaborate with other users. The Evolution email client in Ubuntu offers a similar basic feature set, plus Exchange integration, but it doesn't work with all versions of the Microsoft mail server or do everything that's possible using Outlook.
Web-based access to Exchange is possible from both platforms, but Microsoft's Internet Explorer is required to best duplicate what Outlook users get.
Ubuntu users get Mozilla Firefox as their default browser.
Internet Explorer 8 is the preferred browser in Windows 7.
Regardless of the outcome of EC and US anti-trust legislation, Microsoft would like Windows 7 users to run Internet Explorer 8 as their browser, while the browser of choice for Ubuntu is Mozilla Firefox. The Mozilla browser is also available for Windows, but IE can't be ported to Linux.
Other browsers are available for both platforms, and for many users what they use is a matter of personal preference. However, with an ever-growing number of applications delivered via the web, browser choice for business users is often based on compatibility — some applications, for example, are only able to run inside IE or work with reduced functionality in other browsers.
Lots of free add-on applications are bundled with the Ubuntu desktop and more can be downloaded for free.
Apart from a few bundled utilities, other applications must be sourced separately for the Windows 7 platform.
A prime benefit of a Linux distro like Ubuntu is that, in addition to the OS you get lots of useful add-on applications, including development and testing tools, SQL databases and many others. With Windows 7, by contrast, all you get are a few fairly simple utilities to play music, edit photos and so on. Everything else costs extra.
In its favour, Windows 7 includes virtualisation technology to enable it to run older XP software, and Windows is very much the platform of choice for most business apps. Linux alternatives are available, but tracking them down is not always as easy as some would have you believe.