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EOS Editorial — The Three OS Monty

Why there has never been a better time to be a PC User

Let me preface this discussion with the disclaimer that I am not the typical desktop user. I am technical; I am mobile and travel frequently; I support and use software that runs on multiple operating systems; and I am an incessant tinkerer. Now that we got that out of the way, let me share the benefits of the day-to-day travels from Linux to Windows and sometimes Mac OS. For years I lived in a world dominated by a single operating system, only occasionally challenged by Apple. Now a new chapter is being written.

Lest I be accused of being an overzealous nerd living in a dark fantasy world housed in my parents' basement, let me lay out the story for you. Many people spend every day using their computer as their primary work tool. To them their PC is as important as the doctor's scalpel or the carpenter's hammer, though infinitely more complex. Having a high-quality tool that fits their needs is critical and no two users are exactly alike. While having a standardized desktop platform and applications makes communication and collaboration easy, it's unlikely that the best solution is a one-size-fits-all tool.

Desktop hardware has become a commodity with many vendors competing for your business. The next step is increased competition in the desktop operating space that will yield the lower prices and freedom of choice we have benefited from in processors and storage. Take the strongest proof point - Apple, which this year has moved to the same architecture as the Windows PC, just announced their preliminary fourth-quarter results (for their fiscal year ending September 30, 2006) and what a doozy. According to their October 18 press release they sold 1.61 million Macs (their sales of over 8.7 million iPods wasn't bad either). Earlier this year according to Gartner Dataquest, Number 4 PC manufacturer Acer showed shipments of 1.16 million units that bumped Toshiba down a notch. Consider Novell making a major push to gain adoption on the desktop combined with the Ubuntu craze (Google shows 63,200,000 search results for that term) and you have a wildly competitive desktop landscape.

Competition is good for the consumer because it drives innovation and keeps prices low. It also provides a great deal of choice. When it comes to your desktop operating system, users have never had such a wide variety of options. Six years ago, I would have conceded your best option as a business user was a Windows PC. That's no longer the case; now there are a growing number of interesting and evolving choices.

In my work I routinely work off of three different systems: an Ubuntu Linux laptop, a Windows XP laptop, and a Linux desktop (openSuSE). Each has its pros and cons. The great thing is that these systems along with Mac OS are giving desktop users a wide variety of choices to meet the needs of a growing number of sophisticated PC users.

Take my Windows laptop, really please take it - end Henny Youngman impersonation. It has great hardware support and virtually every peripheral is supported. However, after a recent hard-drive crash I was left to reinstall all my hardware and applications, which took many days. After the reinstall I realized over the course of years of use, performance had slowed to a relative crawl that was only cured by a complete reinstall. Plus there is the constant battle with malware (viruses and spyware) that require constant steps to clean and immunize my PC - all time-consuming and productivity-sapping consequences of that desktop choice.

In contrast, when I installed Ubuntu, it took me about one hour to install and update my system. Afterward, through the innovative beauty of Automatix (www.getautomatix.com), the installation of all my other applications including browser plug-ins were downloaded and processed for me in a few hours with the time to download the apps being the limiting factor. In Ubuntu it's also very evident how to add and remove any programs, unlike Windows, which suffers from clutter that lodges itself into the registry and fills up my systems folders with errant DLLs. In 10 years of using Linux, I also have yet to come down with a virus. However, when it comes to my Verizon EVDO card, I haven't had good results with hardware support. It's a trade-off that prevents me from choosing one over the other.

Finally there's Mac OS X built on the open source foundation of BSD. This operating system might be the best of both worlds with the powerful Unix heritage married to simple drag-n-drop elegance. Plus Apple's move to the Intel chipset from the IBM Power platform allows Mac to finally benefit from the commoditization of the processor market. For less than $600 you can buy a Mac mini, which starts to encroach on the budget territory staked out by Dell and so many others. Besides all those factors, the Mac is just cool; it's aesthetically pleasing, easy-to-use, and benefits from one of the world's greatest collective design teams. I can tell you my other systems are neither as well designed nor attractive, so yet another trade-off.

Maybe you were expecting the editor-in-chief of Enterprise Open Source Magazine to give you a rousing, chest-thumping rendition of the move to Linux at all costs. You got the wrong guy. What I want to point out is that Linux and open source is yet another choice that is causing good things to happen beyond its own community. Open source desktops are getting better; actually they are pretty darn good with many advantages including low-cost, high availability, resistance to malware, and innovation. In response, commercial desktops are being forced to provide better value and more innovative features. Whether you are a Windows, Mac, or Linux user, be glad you have so many choices; I hope you make the right one for your needs.

More Stories By Mark R. Hinkle

Mark Hinkle is the Senior Director, Open Soure Solutions at Citrix. He also is along-time open source expert and advocate. He is a co-founder of both the Open Source Management Consortium and the Desktop Linux Consortium. He has served as Editor-in-Chief for both LinuxWorld Magazine and Enterprise Open Source Magazine. Hinkle is also the author of the book, "Windows to Linux Business Desktop Migration" (Thomson, 2006). His blog on open source, technology, and new media can be found at http://www.socializedsoftware.com.

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