Someone posting on the Ubuntu Forums asked if there was an article around that honestly compared Windows with Linux in a way that’s not anti-Microsoft. Honestly, I couldn’t find one. And, as someone who has no loyalty to any operating system (truly… in our household, we have one computer that dual-boots Windows XP and Ubuntu Linux, and we have a Powerbook with OS X), I thought that article should be written, so here it is. I’m dividing up my audience into two groups—business users and home users—and hoping to not get caught up in stupid impractical debates about what’s “better” or not “better.” My hope is that I can help you find what’s most appropriate for you and/or your business.
Now, “business” here can mean anything from a mom-and-pop store to a small corporation. It could be a school, a non-profit organization—anything that’s considered “work,” even if it’s fun work. And I’m specifically addressing desktop use, not server use. I know nothing about servers. There are two serious considerations in business when it comes to making computer choices.
First, you have to consider cost. There are a lot of studies out there (with conflicting results, believe it or not) about what the “total cost of ownership” is for the various operating systems out there. Of course, one of the flaws inherent in any of these studies (apart from possible bias because of who’s funding the study) is an assumption about resources. For example, Linux, by itself, is cheap as a set of operating systems. However, it’s usually the support you pay for—either written, phone, or in person (or all three).
If you’re a small business, and you have one person on staff who is fully proficient in Linux (and you know she can be easily replaced should she leave), then it probably makes a lot of sense in terms of cost to go with Linux. I’m not sure the extent to which this is true for Red Hat and Novell, but Ubuntu is free and has no licensing fees. You can get as many copies of Ubuntu as you want free, and you don’t have to pay for the number of computers you install it on. However, if you want Ubuntu’s official support (as opposed to your own in-house support), you have to pay for it. You can pay per year per desktop, or you can pay per incident. The cost savings of Linux go beyond the actual operating system, though. You’ll probably use OpenOffice instead of Microsoft Office. And, for OpenOffice and most Linux software, you don’t have to pay a licensing fee. Of course, you can also use OpenOffice on Windows, but keep in mind that you are not paying for the Windows licensing fees, either.
I’m not blanket-recommending Linux for business users, necessarily. What I’m saying is that you have to weigh what kind of support you have/want for Linux (and for which you’re going to have to pay) against the cost of the software and licenses. I’d say if you have strong technical support or meager needs (basic word processing, basic spreadsheets, email, and internet), Linux will save you a lot of money in the long run. If you have weak technical support and a lot of software needs (Windows-only software or office features that are available in only Microsoft Office), it’s probably worth paying for all those licenses to be able to stick with Windows. By the way, I’m not saying Linux is so deficient as an OS that it needs more support, but since it’s not as well-known even to some techies, more support might be needed even just to answer simple questions at first.
In addition to cost, businesses need to consider which operating system saves time. Honestly, I can’t say that in general either operating system is more efficient in and of itself than the other. In my experience, efficiency comes with training, whether you are using Linux, Mac, or Windows. For example, recently I was taught a function in Excel (it’s in OpenOffice, too—don’t worry) called VLookup. It compares a value in one column to an entire column in another sheet. If it finds a matching value, it returns whatever’s next to the comparing column to the function cell. Okay. You read that and thought, “Huh?” The point is that VLookup has saved me literally hundreds of hours of work. Also, learning keyboard shortcuts has saved me all the mouse time I would have used otherwise. While the actual keyboard shortcuts vary from OS to OS, the use of keyboard shortcuts in general saves time. It takes me a lot less time to alt-tab or cmd-tab between applications than to move my mouse back and forth and keep clicking on each one. This is OS-independent. So if you’re truly worried about efficiency, the number one thing you have to do, regardless of whether you use Windows or Linux, is train your employees to be efficient computer users.
That said, sometimes Linux does make better use of people’s time. For example, the average computer user knows very little about how to protect herself from spyware and adware. I’ve seen countless hours wasted at work because of all this malware. The hours are doubly wasted because they’re wasted for the person whose computer is infected (she can’t do her work because her computer is being repaired) and for the person who has to fix the computer. Add to this the fact that most Windows users don’t even realize they have spyware right away. They just think they have a lot of pop-up ads or that their computers are running slow “for some reason.” That kills productivity. There are numerous debates about why Linux doesn’t have as much spyware and adware. I don’t want to go into all that right now. The point really is that Linux doesn’t have spyware, adware, or viruses. It also means you don’t need to spend money on anti-virus software. Though, you should still have some kind of firewall in place.
On the other hand, since almost all businesses and schools already use Windows, the time it takes to train people on a new operating system is not negligible. It’s also not a one-time deal, depending on how high your staff turnover is. Sure, you may spend a few weeks having your staff adapt to Linux’s interface(s), but if someone leaves, you can almost guarantee the replacement you hire won’t know Linux or be familiar with it. She will probably know Windows and Microsoft Office or maybe Mac OS X and Microsoft Office.
Still, when properly set up, Linux is just as point-and-click as Windows and Mac. Whether it’s using a KDE or a Gnome desktop, Linux always has the equivalent of a Start Menu and a taskbar. The only hard parts of adapting would really be on the IT side of things. Administering a Linux network may be easier, but it’s also extremely different. That’s another thing to consider. If your IT staff is well-versed in Windows and knows nothing about Linux, you have to consider, “Do I fire these people and rehire Linux-trained folk? Or do I send them to training programs for Linux?” Either way, you’ll be spending more money. Linux-trained IT folk (due to their relative scarcity) usually charge higher pay rates, too.
Bottom-line for Business
Weigh out how much money you’d have to spend versus how much time and money you think it will eventually save you. It’s simple economics.
For home users, the choice weighs in different factors. For example, since businesses buy or lease computers all the time, they don’t often consider buying a computer and paying someone to install Linux on it a big deal. In fact, that person may just be IT staff. For home users, though, installation is a big obstacle in Linux adoption. All the stories about “my grandma uses Linux!” usually come from serious Linux users who can troubleshoot just about any problem and who usually know how to set up Linux so that it works flawlessly. You really have three viable options for installing Linux as a home user:
- You have one of these grandma-uses-Linux friends who knows
just about everything about Linux. You don’t have to worry. Find this friend. Say, “Hey, I want Linux on my computer. Can you set it up for me?” She’ll not only have it set up for you, but you probably will never see a crash or an error message again. Your Linux experience will be amazing, and you’ll have done almost nothing make it so.
- You install Linux yourself. You have to have the time to do this, and you have to be willing to learn a lot, even with a “user-friendly” distro like Mepis, Ubuntu, or Xandros. It’s taken me three months to get to the point where I’m truly comfortable with installing and configuring Linux. I’m still no expert—not even an intermediate—but I know enough to be able to help new people out. If you view the learning of a new operating system as an adventure, and you have some spare time, go for this option. You will be rewarded.
- Pay for a computer that has Linux preinstalled. This usually means both buying a new computer and paying for software installation subscription (as most preinstalled commercial Linux computers use Linspire). Many I-don’t-want-to-be-bothered-with-installation folks swear by Linspire, though.
Cost shouldn’t be such a big consideration for home users, unless you go the Linspire route. Most Linux distributions are free in some way, if not completely free. For example, Xandros has an “open circulation edition” that is free. The only stipulation is that you can burn CDs only at the slowest speed. Otherwise, you pay for the “surfside” Xandros. Likewise, Libranet usually releases its slightly older version for free but makes its newest version cost money. Mepis allows you the option to pay for it, but it also has free downloads available. Ubuntu is completely free (though, if you want to donate, you can). In fact, Ubuntu will even ship you the CDs and pay for shipping. Naturally, since the shipping is free, you have to wait over a month to get the CDs.
You may run into some “use” obstacles, though, even if you get a Linux distro for free or cheap and you’re successful in installing it. For example, if you use Hotmail or Yahoo!, you won’t be able to check it consistently in Thunderbird, Evolution, or any of the other Outlook-like Linux email programs. Again, I won’t go into the reasons for this, because, in some ways, it doesn’t really matter. The point is, if you have Yahoo! or Hotmail, you have three options with Linux:
- Get a new email provider
- Check email only through the web browser
- Get some third-party hack like Gotmail or Mozilla’s Webmail to decode the tricky Hotmail and Yahoo stuff. The problem is that the “tricky” stuff keeps changing, so if it changes, you won’t be able to check your email through a mail client until Gotmail or Webmail is updated, too.
I’ve also heard that GIMP, while a wonderful graphics program, doesn’t offer the full functionality that Adobe Photoshop has for graphic designers. So if you’re a graphic designer by profession, stick to Mac or Windows. Likewise, if you’re a serious gamer and need the latest and greatest commercial games, you may want to stick with Windows. Not even Mac gets all game ports.
The default user/security model of Linux (not held up by Linspire, by the way) may throw off Windows users. Windows makes the first user of the computer an administrator. That means that user can add and remove software, change system settings, and let in all sorts of malware that can damage the entire operating system. Most Linux distributions set up a user and what’s called “root” (the Linux equivalent of the Windows administrator). The user cannot do anything to damage or upgrade the system without the root password.
The last thing Windows migrants have to get used to is installing software on Linux. First of all, there is no standard way to install software on Linux. In Windows, you either have a .exe file you double-click that walks you through a wizard, or you have a CD that autoruns and walks you through a wizard. After that, icons are usually placed for the new program on the desktop, in the Start Menu, and on the quick launch bar.
One reason Linux installation types vary is the existence of different Linux distributions. You may notice that some distributions use a variant of the .rpm file popularized by Red Hat or the .deb popularized by Debian. Sometimes you may download .tar.gz file you have to unpack and configure from the command-line.
Most of the time, though, you’ll use a graphical front-end that draws on online “repositories” to download software (and their dependencies) and install software. This could be called YaST or Yum or Synaptic or CNR. It’s a totally different way of doing software. It’s not easier or more difficult necessarily. It’s different. It’s kind of like the difference between renting movies from Blockbuster and renting movies from Netflix. I have found, though, that the appearance of icons for newly installed programs is a kind of hit-or-miss in Linux.
There are several distinct advantages Linux has over Windows. I’ll outline those, then talk about what advantages Windows has over Linux.
Linux comes in many different flavors. At first, this may seem like a disadvantage because you won’t be able to figure out easily which flavor (or “distro”) to use, but soon you realize that having different distros means suiting different users’ needs. For example, I hear many “not ready for the desktop” arguments talk about Linux as not being enough like Windows or relying too much on the command-line. Well, if you want a distro that is like Windows and has no command-line, maybe Linspire’s your distro. Or maybe Mepis is. You can also have the computer-literate user-friendly distro Ubuntu. You have the crazy built-from-scratch distros for those who want a totally custom system (Gentoo, Slackware). You have the crazy small distros (Damn Small, Puppy, Feather) for those with modest hardware (under 128 MB RAM, for example).
There are no registration keys in Linux. This may not sound like that great an advantage, but I have to say it offers a freedom from worry that I cherish a lot. For my copies of Microsoft Office, I carefully guard and back up my registration keys—with their hard-to-remember mix of numbers and letters. For my Linux applications, I don’t have to enter anything to install them. I can just install them. And there are so many apps at your disposal in repositories. And if the repositories aren’t enough, you can enable more repositories. I soon realized that my base XP install did not have a CD burning program, a serious image editing program, or even anti-virus software. Oh, and it doesn’t come with an office suite, either. All these and more are available for free in Linux.
Customization is king in Linux. You can use whatever desktop environment you want. You can change icons, toolbar transparency, splash images, window decoration styles. I tried to do this in Windows and realized I had to pay money for this.
The Linux community is also very supportive of new users. Sure, there are some annoying things about the Linux community. For example, many in the community are extremely negative towards anything Microsoft. Many think Linux can do no wrong. Many think newbies should just learn to live with the command-line. Still, people tend to be patient in answering questions. The Ubuntu community in particular is extremely responsive, welcoming, and helpful.
So what does Windows offer? Well, for one thing, compatibility. The compatibility works both ways—it’s a kind of “I pat your back…” thing. Software designers and driver-makers and hardware manufacturers tailor their products to work with Windows, and vice versa. Chances are, if you walk into Best Buy, Office Depot, Circuit City, or even Toys ‘R Us and buy a piece of software, there will be a Windows-ready version available. You won’t have that luck with Linux or even Mac. Printers, computer games, random programs will sometimes work on Windows only.
Windows also has a few functions that are available by default that Linux can have if customized but lacks otherwise. Fo
r example, in both Nautilus and Konqueror, I haven’t yet found this great Windows functionality: if I’m browsing in a folder and hit control-F, there will be a custom find for that particular folder and its subfolders. After the find is done, I can have the results show as list, icons, details, whatever.
It may just be my poor install of Linux (as I said before, I have only a few months experience with it), but I have not found Linux to be as stable as Windows XP. Sometimes (very seldom—I’d say once a month) things freeze up so that I can’t do anything to alleviate the situation except to shut down X and go back to full terminal. Almost always in XP, I can hit control-alt-delete and be at the dialogue box that allows me to shut down the computer, lock the computer, or go to the task manager and shut down a program. Once again, it may be that I installed Linux badly, but that’s what I’ve seen.
I hope something I’ve written here gives you a sense, either as a home user or a business user, of whether Linux is right for you. At the end of the day, an operating system is an operating system. You’ve got your programs. You’ve got your mouse. You’ve got your keyboard. You’ve got your data. You can always cut and paste and type and all that. Choosing an operating system is all about figuring out what your priorities are.