Why Windows users should switch to Linux
10th May 2009 | 07:00
It's free, it's netbook-friendly and it can run everything you need
The netbook factor
Forget the thousands of school and university students running Linux on their desktops. Forget the nonprofit and charitable institutions worldwide using Linux to power their systems.
Forget Google, NASA, the US Department of Defense and dozens of global government agencies that use Linux for their day-to-day operations. Why should you run Linux on your computer?
The netbook factor
Until relatively recently, Moore's law was in full control of personal computing. Chips were shrinking and single-core processors were a thing of the past. Any new desktop was bound to have more RAM and a bigger disk than the previous top model.
Nowadays, though, things have changed, and most people use regular-muscle PCs for heavy-duty desktop tasks such as editing videos and playing 3D games over the Internet. In such an environment, what makes Linux believe it can compete in the one-size-fits all OS market any more successfully than Microsoft?
One reason is the emerging netbook sector. With versatile online apps and cheaper access to the web, many people are opting for a lightweight PC that's got just enough juice to help them do common desktop tasks like play DVDs and music, do homework, socialise online and serve presentations.
Linux has been riding on – if not driving – this great shift in the market. The new way of computing isn't just restricted to netbooks, either; it extends to other mobility-oriented devices such as mobile phones. All of these devices are often powered by the open-source OS.
If you trace the origins of the netbook to the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project, you'll find that there's a close Linux connection. The OLPC units run a modified version of the Fedora Linux distribution. Paul Frields, the Community Manager of Fedora, told us that the work they've done with the OLPC project has been a big help in making Linux work well on netbooks.
In fact, they've actually made a lot of advances for users of standard laptops as well. Most netbook vendors work closely with various distributions to offer Linux on their products. Asus, Dell, Lenovo, HP, Acer and Intel all offer netbooks that run Linux.
If you don't like the distribution that came with yours, there's no dearth of customised netbook distros to choose from. Fedora, Ubuntu, OpenSUSE, Mandriva, Foresight, CrunchBang and more all offer versions optimised to squeeze the most out of your netbook's minimal resources.
This situation will only improve thanks to the proactive involvement of various distribution vendors. Canonical, the company behind the popular Ubuntu distro, recently announced a port for the ARMv7 architecture. This is being developed in conjunction with the processor design firm.
Joe Brockmeier, Community Manager of OpenSUSE, said that his company is also assisting with work on ARM, which is the most widely used 32-bit processor architecture in the world. Contrast this with Microsoft's retail plan for Windows 7, which includes the low-priced 'Starter Edition' for netbooks that restricts users to running only three apps concurrently.
When you buy a netbook, would you prefer a low-cost restricted OS or a no-cost, no-holds-barred OS with a proven pedigree on the platform? It's clear that in this area at least, Linux holds most of the cards.
Stretching the pound
Stretching the pound
The current economic situation means that we're all demanding more for the pound. As companies squeeze their budgets and lean on their IT folk to get more from existing hardware, it's pretty certain that we'll see a flurry of update-friendly hardware, like AMD's new AM3 Phenom II CPUs, which don't force upgrades to more expensive DDR3 memory.
Updating your desktop OS is a different and often far more expensive process, however, and the results are not always favourable. Many people were disappointed when they moved from Windows XP to Windows Vista, and public confidence in Microsoft's operating systems was dampened.
Combine that with the difficult financial situation that we currently find ourselves in and it's easy to see that many will be reluctant to upgrade.
Jono Bacon, Community Manager of Ubuntu, explains further: "Firstly, a major new Windows release often involves significant hardware implications, triggering a new buying cycle for organisations. Secondly, we are in tough economic times, and proprietary software is expensive. So is hardware. This results in a buying cycle that is very conscious of cost efficiency."
To address this issue, both Microsoft and Apple are cutting down on the footprint of their new releases (Windows 7 and Snow Leopard) to make the code less expensive to manage and easy to run on a greater variety of devices. Flab-free Linux doesn't need the exercise but is just as easy to modify thanks to its free software development methodology.
Red Hat, the company that sponsors work on Fedora, has a team of over two dozen developers dedicated to working on the desktop environment. That might not sound like very many, but as Fedora's Frields points out, the company works in cooperation with the worldwide free software community, so it achieves much more for the small investment in resources. "It also allows us to be very flexible in our activities, so we can adjust rapidly to deal with changing patterns of use," he says.
Ubuntu is certainly taking no chances. Thanks to its work on integration, device support, netbook versions, server needs, cloud compatibility and performance, it can be positioned as the perfect OS for almost any user.
So while proprietary OSes work to cut down on their flab, Linux is already flexible and recession-busting. This is mainly due to its smaller budgetary footprint, making the distros less costly and more efficient.
One of the biggest advantages of switching to Linux is access to hundreds of free apps. As well as those available on the Internet, most distros ship with a DVD full of programs to try. So not only is Linux free to install, but you might end up dodging those pesky software costs too. To help you find appropriate apps, Fedora is working on a software management system called PackageKit.
This system will be able to detect when a user opens a data file for which they have no matching software, and will then ask the user whether they'd like to install a program, fetch it off the Internet, install it immediately and open the data file. And all for free, of course.
OpenSUSE's Brockmeier believes that Linux also has the upper hand in updates and application management. He points at YaST and Zypper, apps that make updating the entire system as easy as getting new programs.
All of the popular Linux distros also have their own software repositories that feature thousands of apps, from award-winning office suites to first-person shooters. Best of all, they all have teams dedicated to maintaining the repositories, adding more apps every day, scanning them for vulnerabilities and optimising them for their respective platforms.
Which proprietary OS gives you access to a virtually endless list of install-on-demand software, along with an uncomplicated and effortless update cycle, all at no cost? Umm... that's right, none.
Back in 1997, when most of us started fiddling with Linux, there was a good chance that all of your hardware would have been detected and supported out of the box.
Over the years, there's been an onslaught of devices using all kinds of components, not all of which bundle a Linux driver. Despite this, long-time kernel developer Greg Kroah-Hartman claims that the Linux kernel supports more devices than any other OS ever has done. This is mostly due to the Linux Driver Project, which is run by Kroah-Hartman.
The project has several hundred volunteer developers who offer to write and maintain free software drivers for any company. The advantage of free software drivers over proprietary products is that you can usually copy the code required from drivers for similar hardware, saving considerable time and effort.
Fedora's Frields thinks that the rapidly growing number of drivers is only natural. Since Linux has gained so much traction in key markets, there's more justification for the hardware vendors to look at the landscape, weigh the numbers and realise that they can easily justify the resources to develop a free software driver that opens up the market to millions more customers.
The end result? Michael Larabel is Editor in Chief of phoronix.com, one of the few websites that review computer hardware for Linux. He sees a "night and day difference" when comparing Linux hardware support between 2004 (when Phoronix was established) and 2009.
"The focus early on at Phoronix was just on whether the tested devices worked on Linux," he elaborates. "Now it's becoming a matter of not whether the device works, but how well-tuned the drivers are for performance, and whether 100 per cent of the features are compatible with modern-day Linux distributions."
Larabel says that's it's now difficult to find a device that will not work on Linux, thanks to the tremendous improvements in desktop hardware support over the last five years. Big vendors are now ensuring that the hardware they ship is compatible with Linux. Some even make sure that there's upstream Linux support before their products are officially released.
It's over to you
What's not to like? Linux offers you a feature rich, secure, stable and flexible platform. It's easy to use and gives all of its users more bounce for their ounce. And apart from these tangible benefits, there's also the community advantage – the ability to have your say in the future development of your favourite features.
In the early days, this might not have seemed massively beneficial. But think of the Linux user who wanted to carry around his OS and all his data on an encrypted USB thumb drive. It seemed an impossible dream, but guess what: he's doing it right now. And thanks to his initiative, you can too.
First published in PC Plus Issue 281
Liked this? Then check out How Linux lost the battle for your desktop
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