20 May 2007

Proprietary vs Free software - an overview of the current state of the market.

As you will know, I am a big fan on GNU/Linux, and although I have tried a number of distributions in my time my current favourite is Kubuntu, as it combines an almost trivially easy installation and configuration process with the powerful KDE desktop environment. However, due to the requirements of my employers over the years it has to be said that I have spend significantly more time staring at a Microsoft Windows desktop than a Linux desktop. I'd like to outline my view of the current state of computer desktop operating systems, and make a few predictions for the future. I will not in this post consider server operating systems as the dynamics of the server market are quite different from the desktop.

The current situation, on the surface, looks much like it has done for the last 15 years. One company, Microsoft, has dominated the market almost to the total exclusion of all others. When people think about a computer, they think about Microsoft Windows. They expect to see a button labelled "Start" at the bottom left of the screen and small number of icons labelled "Internet", "My Computer" and so forth. The exact look and feel has changed a few times but the basic idea is the same. To the non-technical user any departure from this familiarity would represent a step into the unknown. I've not tried it, but I suspect if I were to move the taskbar to the left hand side (my current work PC is configured like this to make better use of the widescreen display) and ask an average user to use this, they would succeed but very slowly and uncomfortably. It represents a departure from what they are familiar with, although not such a huge departure that they couldn't figure it out and adapt. There are a core of Mac users who use a different operating system but the likelihood is that most of these will also be familiar with Microsoft Windows though friends, employers, internet caf├Ęs and the like. There is also a small technically savvy core of users who use other operating systems - mainly various GNU/Linux distributions, but the BSDs and Solaris probably also feature on this list.

However, I think we are seeing an accelerating sea-change. Until Microsoft Vista was released, there were essentially no changes to the user experience for the overwhelming majority of computer users since late 2001 - that's just over 5 years. At the start of this time, GNU/Linux really was just for the technically savvy or the curious. However over time, the ecosystem surrounding it has grown and the user experience has improved at what I can only describe as a phenomenal rate. Installation has become trivially easy, most distributions come with a sane set of defaults that require no configuration, the desktop environments (multiple) have improved in their usability and the range of high quality software to perform almost any task has increased immensely. Underneath, support for hardware has improved to the point where the vast majority of hardware 'just works'; this is as it should be, but in some cases that's not thanks to the efforts of the manufacturer of the hardware. My honest impression is that in late 2006, the GNU/Linux experience was far smoother than the Microsoft Windows experience for the vast majority of users, when comparing like for like.

So why hasn't everyone switched to GNU/Linux? The short answer is resistance to change, but conversations with Microsoft Windows users have revealed the following being given as reasons:

"Everyone else still uses Windows, so I don't want to be non-standard"
"Linux doesn't have any decent games"
"I can't use Microsoft Office on Linux"
"Last time I tried, my hardware wasn't supported"
"My customers want Windows so I'm sticking with it for the sake of my business"
"I use Dreamweaver|Adobe Acrobat|Photoshop which doens't run on Windows"
"The computer came with it, why should I change?"

Now let us fast forward a tiny bit to 2007 - Microsoft has released a long-awaited new operating system. And trying to identify what benefits it brings to the consumer is where I get writer's block. Improvements for Microsoft's ability to lock out competitors? Yes. A reason for people to bring more business to the hardware vendors? For sure. A "my new computer is shinier than your old one" feeling for some, definitely. A nice big kick-back from the entertainment industry to Microsoft for it's lock-down features aimed a preventing copyright infringement? No doubt. But for the user the only positive thing I can think of is a shiny new 3-D user interface, for those who have expensive enough hardware to support it. Now I'm going to be honest here - I've never actually seen Vista running, so I can only go by what I've read here but people say the 3-D interface is nice. But even such well-known companies as Dell have re-started shipping their PCs with XP instead as an option, and are about to start selling some of their range with Ubuntu pre-installed, at least in the US. Times are changing.

So here's a list of the bad things Vista brings the consumer that I've read about:

Lack of familiarity through a change of user-interface.
Reduced battery life on laptops
Difficulty burning CD-Roms
Won't run on anything but the newest, most expensive hardware
Attempts at locking out the user when using supposedly pirated multimedia end up locking her out when using any multimedia
Lack of compatibility with existing applications
An approach to security which is very annoying to the user
Lack of hardware compatibility

So the simple question is that if people are going to have to upgrade from Windows XP, they are going to see a few changes anyway so they might as well switch to GNU/Linux instead and save a few hundred pounds/euros/dollars. Here is a list of what they will find:

Good battery life on laptops
Good hardware compatibility
Runs well on older hardware
A slight change of user interface, depending on chosen distribution/desktop environment
Doesn't attempt to lock out the user in any circumstances
Free (as in zero cost)
A security approach that works and isn't intrusive
A very good selection of applications, although for a few people their favourite application won't be supported.

So where does this mean things are likely to go in the future?

Well, there is another revolution taking place that could make the choice of operating system less relevant. That is the shift to online applications. The most advanced proponent of this is Google. Just take a look at some of the things that Google has done:

Google Earth - works on GNU/Linux as well as on Microsoft Windows. This has wasted many hours of my life.

Google Maps - works in (almost) any browser. The mapping code is even available for others to use in their websites, leading to some very cool uses. My favourites are flood.firetree.net which tells you which parts of the planet will be under water for a given rise in sea level, and fillthathole.org.uk for reporting road surface defects in the UK.

Google Docs and Spreadsheets - Write any Office-style text document or spreadsheet from within your browser, using the industry-standard Open Document Format (ODF).

Google Search - seems so far ahead of the competition and it is no surprise that this is a huge money-maker for Google. They are not the first to implement search by a long way but others tried to monetise it by adding intrusive adverts that annoyed the user.

Google Checkout - provides payment services for online retailers.

YouTube - recently bought by Google and rapidly making the old-style entertainment industries less relevant.

...and much more. Of course Google are the only company with some cool online services that aim to revolutionise the way the internet works. Many others have tried to move into this market, but for one reason or another have been less successful (Yahoo! anyone? Or even Microsoft?). But innovative websites such as Cannonical's Launchpad provides project management tools for Free Software projects of which Ubuntu (unsurprisingly) is the largest. These have a much smaller niche but are essentially following the same model of an online approach to a computing resource requirement.

So will Microsoft be able to fight back? In short, not if it continues to treat its customers like criminals to be fleeced for as much money as possible. It's been a very lucrative approach for them until now, but its days are clearly numbered unless it can develop in a completely new direction. No longer when it releases the latest and greatest of its wares do people think 'Wow', I must have that.

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