Where’s the Alternative OS?

windows-8-logoAs much as I love Linux (Fedora is my distro of choice), I remain frustrated that no company–at least none that I know of–is doing much to really compete with Windows or Apple. Linux, in my humble opinion, as a desktop OS, remains something usable by the few who enjoy getting their hands dirty with an OS–those that have technical expertise beyond that of the average user.

Windows has had a death grip on corporations and schools (from elementary through university) for many years now–basically as long as computers have been showing up in schools. That grip isn’t something that will likely go away any time soon. By supporting a vast array of hardware, obtaining a vast majority of users, and continuing to improve (with a few backsteps like Windows ME and Vista), Microsoft has done what others have failed to do. Apple is great, sure. I am a fan–but the company has chosen to not even attempt the kind of hardware support and third-party distribution that Microsoft has.

Sure, there were the early days when the Apple //e had some foothold in the classroom, but that is ancient history. Some colleges have labs with Macs, and many college students use Macbooks. Any college with a Computer Science program of any value uses some sort of Unix, but these are the techie computers, often restricted to a lab where only the software folks go.

I’ve tinkered

with Windows 8 a few times now, most recently attempting to help my mother with hew new Windows phone. I have to confess, I was impressed with that Windows phone. It had all the clean usage of an iPhone without the clutter of Android. The interface is intuitive. Its good. Very good!

Windows 8 on the desktop–now that’s a different story. I’m not alone when in saying that the Windows 8 desktop experience is awful. It isn’t simply because its a paradigm shift from what I am used to. Personally, I think Microsoft’s big mistake here was in assuming that the same paradigm used for tablets and phones could translate to the desktop.

Several months ago I attempted to help my sister with her new Windows 8 computer. She wanted to transfer some files and set up Outlook Express to pull email from a Gmail account. Basic stuff… It should have been really easy. I wrestled with the interface for a couple of hours, and in the end, I never succeeded in getting her email set up right.

It is almost embarrassing to admit, because something like this is the most basic of tasks. It should have been straightforward, easy. I understand that Windows 8.1 addresses some of the user interface complaints, but this was prior to its release. It was difficult to navigate without a touchscreen. It was difficult to find file locations. Heck, it took me a long time to simply figure out how to make a shortcut! And finding where a file is saved–yuck.

I’m not one of those anti-Microsoft-no-matter-what people, but Windows 8 on the desktop has really left a bad taste in my mouth. It is a far cry from being a developer’s OS, and the few people I know who have bought new computers with Windows 8 installed have been extremely frustrated by it.

Chromebooks seems to be picking up in sales, but these small, stripped-down machines offer only basic features. They aren’t for gamers or power users. They are designed to be inexpensive laptops to meet the most rudimentary needs of the average computer user.

Tux, the Linux penguin

Over 20 years have passed since the introduction of Linux. There have been countless distros, and more continue to be created. Red Hat proved that an open-source company can be a success. Most servers run Linux. Ubuntu has made great strides in creating a distribution that comes close to being usable by the average non-techie. But Linux for the average user remains something that is often discussed but never achieved.

As for Apple–I love my Macbook. I think it is the finest computer I’ve ever touched. OS X is an amazing desktop OS, but it comes at a cost. When a consumer can buy a similarly powered Windows laptop for a fraction of the cost of a Mac, there is little chance that Apple will take over in the desktop/laptop market. Sure, that $2,000 Macbook costs a lot more, but rest assured that the device is extremely well built and will last for well over 5 years. I cannot say for sure what the average lifespan of a Dell, Toshiba, HP or Sony Windows laptop is, but I do know that when people pay $400 for a laptop, it is an antiquated, slow device from the get-go. When it comes to buying a computer, the massive difference in price is pretty much the decision maker.

Even with the public frustration with Windows 8, Chromebooks, Macbooks, iMacs, and Linux desktops seem to have made only a small dent in the sales of Windows computers. (The one place where Windows 8 is great–the phone and tablet market–is, ironically, the are where Microsoft continues to fail to pick up steam.)

I’m not Microsoft-bashing. I really liked Windows 7. It presented a clean, understandable UI. It worked–very well. It was a better OS than Windows Vista in every way. So why Microsoft would abandon the desktop interface that they spent years making the masses comfortable with stumps me.

It seems that given the current state of affairs, with most people being flummoxed by Windows 8 on the desktop, that Red Hat, Ubuntu or even Google is poised to release a great operating system that really competes for the attention of the average computer users. So where is it?

Google seems to be hung up on getting users tied in to their entire Google+ network of stuff. Chromebooks pretty much require a Google account, which ties in to just about everything under the sun. Chromebooks seem to me to be little more than a physical connection to Google+. They aren’t designed as devices that can stand alone without a network connection. Gaming? Fuggetaboutit!

Sure, Ubuntu has made strides in making its Linux distro usable by the average user, but it isn’t all the way there. Most users don’t know what sudo apt-get does, nor do they wish to. As for Fedora–I love it–as do many fellow geeks–but one must be very comfortable with Linux to even think about using it. It doesn’t pass the mom testnot by a long-shot.

As far as Apple goes–They’ll never open their OS to other vendors. It just isn’t how they do things. One of the reasons Mac computers are so stable is because they have the advantage of controlling everything inside, from hardware to software. Microsoft has, and has always had, the challenge of supporting everything. I wouldn’t expect to build a computer, picking out a motherboard, processor, memory, hard drive, hooking it all up, and install OS X with any success. Windows, on the other hand, has to support this expectation.

Linux offers a great amount of power and control to the user–perhaps a bit too much, when it comes to creating a desktop OS for the masses. There is no consistent user interface. There are countless desktops and configurations, but nothing unified. While the Linux community sees this as a positive, the average user requires an interface that is consistent from computer to computer. Linux is free and open–always has been, always will be. In some strange way, the most positive aspects of Linux are detrimental to its usefulness by a wide range of people on the desktop.

Love it or hate it, I don’t think Windows 8 is going to be the downfall of Microsoft or its overwhelming hold on the desktop market. There is no real competition. Corporations aren’t going to switch to Linux or Apple overnight. They may not upgrade to Windows 8 any time soon. Why would they? There is comfort in knowing that the behemoth company behind the computers that a company invests in will survive to continue support and enhancement. As successful as Ubuntu has been, does anyone really think the average C-level executive has even heard of it?

I was thinking about creating my own list of things that need to happen before a Linux based OS can compete for real market share, but others have already done it. Here are a few links I found. (For the record, I don’t presume that it would have to be a Linux OS to offer Microsoft real competition.)

I’d love to see Red Hat get serious in the desktop market. Now is the time to do so.

ZDNet – 5 Things Desktop Linux has to do to beat Windows 8
udemy: Ubuntu vs. Windows
Could this be the year of the Linux desktop?
12 ways Windows 8 dominates the OS competition

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