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.