Can open source OSes ever compete against Windows desktops?

Though Linux desktops get better and better, convincing a Windows shop to switch remains wishful thinking.

The recent release of Canonical's open source-based software once again kicked up discussion of whether or not a Linux desktop could compete against Windows 7 -- and possibly even unseat that operating system -- in the enterprise.

But regardless of whether Ubuntu 9.10 Desktop Edition is good enough to compete directly against Windows 7, the question is, can any operating system really gain share in the Microsoft dominated desktop market?

The new version is an answer to the minor complaints Ubuntu users had about previous versions and includes a number of user-focused enhancements. The company said it is close to reaching the goal of a 10-second startup time, which would make it more competitive against Windows. A long startup time is a major complaint about Windows operating systems.

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"[Windows 7] is an excellent release that addresses the shortcomings of the past, but it is a proprietary and relatively expensive OS," said Mark Shuttleworth, Canonical's CEO. "The Linux desktop gets better and better as the Windows desktops get more and more expensive. I think we can compete."

Ubuntu is certainly making inroads in the netbook market and could become a fallback OS for dissatisfied Windows users, said Roger Prata, a systems administrator at a Rhode Island-based jewelry manufacturer, which uses Windows on desktops and Linux on servers.

Michael Montecillo, a Boulder, Colo.-based Enterprise Management Associates analyst and Ubuntu user, said Ubuntu developers' focus on creating a better user experience will, "without a doubt, eventually bring more Windows users over to Ubuntu."

Montecillo said the continued availability of cloud-delivered applications will also help Ubuntu gain ground. As applications become more available for a multitude of operating systems, the competitive landscape will change. "The competitive differentiators will not be the applications that the OS runs but how well the OS runs those applications," he said.

An IT professional at a large hospital in Providence, R.I., noted that the growth of Web-based applications or software services could play a big part in this battle. "The closer we get to all of our important things running on remote Web servers, the less it matters what operating system is on our PC -- as long as vendors make their applications to work with different Web browsers," he said. "That particular concept is exactly why Google launched Chrome."

Linux desktops still at a disadvantage
While trends could change the way people view operating systems, Windows shops have good reasons to keep their Windows desktops. For example, third-party developers have maintained their strong allegiance to Windows, which dominates over 90% of the desktop market. If you need a certain product from a vendor, "chances are quite good that they'll at least have an option to run on Windows, and a good portion of the time, that's the only option," said the hospital IT pro, who declined to be identified.

For that reason, many vendors won't bother developing different version of their software. In addition, many organizations are tied to Microsoft Office, so trying to migrate to an Office alternative, such as OpenOffice, and dealing with document-compatibility issues is undesirable.

IT shops know that moving off Windows and onto a free and open source OSes probably won't lower costs, according to Jim Achuff, a senior technical consultant at Plymouth Meeting, Pa.-based technology consultancy firm Interphase Systems.

"What an organization might save in Microsoft licensing costs could easily be eaten up by costs of training users and support staff, loss of productivity while learning a new operating system, and the costs of having to change nearly every last bit of software that runs on the old OS to a version that runs on the new OS," Achuff said.

Also, more IT pros and end users know Windows than Linux, particularly when it comes to large-scale corporate implementations. "Most corporate end users have been using Windows and MS Office in some form for years -- it is what they know, and it is comfortable for them," Achuff said.

So why should any IT department take a risk by changing out its desktop operating system?

"If I am the decision-maker in the organization, am I willing to risk my job and possibly my career on a switch to an alternate OS that will likely not save my organization very much money at first, and if the switch fails, will cost more money to switch back to Windows?" Achuff asked.

Let us know what you think about the story; email Bridget Botelho, News Writer.

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