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Microsoft isn't exactly the most-loved company in the world, and part of that arguably has to do with its dominant position in the OS market. Its flagship product, Windows, has improved recently, but frustrations caused by its checkered past are, for some, hard to forget.

For years, many computer industry professionals have hoped that strong Windows alternatives would emerge. Much of this hope was based on the idea that highly-polished GUIs for Linux-based operating systems could offer consumers Windows-like experiences and give Microsoft a run for its money.

The most popular Linux-based desktop OS is Ubuntu. A fork of Debian Linux, Ubuntu's footprint has been grown thanks in large part to the financial support of South African internet entrepreneur Mark Shuttleworth, who made his fortune when he sold his company Thawte to VeriSign in 1999.

Shuttleworth runs a company that provides commercial support for Ubuntu, and started a foundation that has provided more than $10m in funding for the project's development.

Yet despite the arguably impressive progress made with Ubuntu over the years, and its respectable usage numbers, Ubuntu is still little more than a grain of sand on a beach in the consumer OS market. But will that always be the case?

Last week, Ubuntu 11.04 was released. Its most notable characteristic: a beautiful new interface, dubbed 'Unity', which "mimics the clutter-free look of many mobile operating systems."

That's an important point. While Window's isn't going to be dethroned anytime soon, if ever at all, OSes like Ubuntu may have an opportunity to expand beyond micro-niche markets thanks to the proliferation of an app-centric world.

With more and more consumers using simple applications through their mobiles, and more sophisticated applications through their web browsers, OSes like Ubuntu, if positioned correctly, could appeal to a growing number of consumers who aren't really concerned with the fact that they can't use applications like Microsoft Office and Photoshop.

For business users, such applications are a necessity, but for mainstream consumers, Ubuntu not only offers the basics (Firefox, Acrobat Reader, etc.), but a growing number of popular applications, such as Skype, and homegrown alternatives that are polished enough for prime time.

Obviously, none of this alone will 'cut it'; Windows simply has too much inertia. But that doesn't mean that the Ubuntus of the world won't become more prominent. They will, because even if their penetration in the consumer OS market doesn't skyrocket, they, along with a resurgent Mac, will help keep Microsoft honest. And that's good for everybody.

Patricio Robles

Published 3 May, 2011 by Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles is a tech reporter at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

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Leon

I think the fear factor of not having Office installed has largely subsided recently, which is obviously good for Linux distributions.

Linux's main problem has been its _relative_ difficulty of use. Ubunutu has overcome this over the years; my family uses Ubuntu with no problems at all.

Ironically, I think Unity may prove a barrier to adoption. Whereas Gnome 3 is intuitive and smart, Unity is a pig's ear; a usability nightmare.

The old Ubuntu desktop was reassuringly familiar to Windows users; now, it's more based (somewhat loosely) on the OSX dock.

over 5 years ago

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Paul Squires

I run a business to which one of our founding principles (if you will) is openness, and as such we use Ubuntu desktop. As one would expect, there are some great points, and some not-so-great points.

- It's completely customisable, so if you want it to look like MacOS (using the Mac4Lin package), you can. Every staff member can then customise their entire interface as they wish, if desired.

- The Ubuntu One cloud service is excellent, if occasionally flaky.

- If you're seeking an OS that is faster than Windows, then it's not as fast as you think. Slower computers can really struggle. And, forget Ubuntu Netbook Remix; it's a waste of time.

- Some popular devices won't work, and some software, even when built for Linux, isn't great (Skype for Linux in particular is absolutely appalling). But, those are relatively minor points in the overall context of a free OS.

- The update path is equally cursed and blessed. The Update Manager automatically updates you to the next version, or new patches (much slicker than Windows), but some of those updates can be chunky.

- Ubuntu Software Centre is very good. Find some software, click "Install" and it's on your computer in seconds.

Overall, Windows and Ubuntu are probably for different people. Many will have commercial dependencies on Windows, but others will want the flexibility that Ubuntu offers. We've had ups and downs but the ups are definitely in the majority.

over 5 years ago

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1roxtar

"Unity is a pig's ear; a usability nightmare" - Leon

Geez. Enough with this garbage. Unity is, by far, much more usable than Gnome 3 Shell. My kids just looked at Gnome 3 deer-to-headlights stare, while I left my Ubuntu 11.04 with Unity laptop on and a 7-yr old jumped on it, clicked on Firefox and was playing a game online. This was without anyone showing him how to navigate to it. I have 11.04 running on THREE machines, glitch-free. Get your head out of your proverbial arse and give Unity it's due.

over 5 years ago

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Steve Nice

Thee biggest value in moving to a Linux based desktop has to be the lack of malware. Windows (and its applications) are targeted because of zero-day vulnerabilities and poor update regimes. Therefore hackers take advantage of this. Due to Linux security policies it makes it more difficult for malware to infect. However, if Linux was the more widely used OS I am sure there would be a plethora of malware for it.

over 5 years ago

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Ed McLaughlin

Short answer:

Yes, Ubuntu can give Windows a run for its money, but the same is not true for open source Office and Outlook alternatives, and that's the deciding factor.

Long, thoughtful answer:

I have been using Ubuntu as the primary OS on my laptop for about 6 months now, evaluating how it could work as the desktop OS across our organization.

Ubuntu is, in my opinion, fundamentally sound and usable and full featured. As an interface, it is and has been ready for prime time. Hell, businesses survived and thrived with Windows in all its manifestations over almost two decades; certainly an interface as good as Ubuntu's won't be an impediment to progress.

But I think the challenge with adoption is not the OS. With Microsoft's form of hegemony, everyone (+/- some small percentage) in business is a Microsoft user because of Office, Outlook and Entourage. If there isn't a set of usable, full-featured, "works just like Office" alternative apps, Ubuntu won't fly for business.

There are good, solid, open source Office alternatives, though. With my staff, I have been evaluating Open Office and Lotus Symphony 3, IBM's free offering based on Open Office, and, so far, reports are that it is up to the task for everything we need to do for word processing, spreadsheets and presentations. A refined interface really helps - Symphony's is much better than Open Office, IMO. But while the other Open Office flavors don't have the refinements of Lotus Symphony, they do incorporate more "office professional" apps, like drawing/diagramming (Visio alternative) and desktop database apps (Access alternative).

But here's where our wheels have gotten stuck in the mud: finding an open source alternative for Outlook connecting to Exchange. On Windows, we use Outlook to connect to a hosted Exchange 2007 service, an increasingly common scenario and, so far, an alternative is no go in Ubuntu land.

Unless someone can surprise me here today in response to this comment, to my knowledge there is no functional replacement for Outlook with hosted Exchange 2007, yet. (Please, someone surprise me.)

Evolution Mail looks like it could be a suitable Outlook replacement, but it won't work with Exchange 2007 in my hosted environment, which is with Rackspace, by the way. It's nothing that Rackspace or Evolution is doing wrong, it's just, well, Microsoft, again, retooling how it's software communicates over networks. Evolution works with Exchange 2003, but not 2007. Maybe a fix is in the works.

Yes, I could run Outlook (and many other native windows apps) in Ubuntu through a Windows emulator, like Wine. But I wouldn't push that as a solution to a general user population.

So, there are obstacles; resolvable, but still obstacles. But, even after those Office/Outlook obstacles are cleared, there is still the questions that will likely come from users: "Is this change really necessary? What's in it for me?"

What's in it for the business is pretty simple: big savings. But what *is* in it for the end user? What will compell them to be excited about the change and to embrace it? A change to Ubuntu would be disrutpive, even for small organizations. Will the savings outweigh the cost of the disruption? Will the change trigger revolt? Will you have rogue Windows users operating like rogue Ubuntu users operate now?

over 5 years ago

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frodowiz

"Can Ubuntu finally give Windows a run for its money?"

it already has with every user who switched not only to ubuntu, but any linux flavor. windows does not exist in my world and never will.. i wouldnt even put that piece of junk on an enemys computer.

over 5 years ago

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