In the mid nineties I developed an undiminished enthusiasm for desktop environments. In the same week I remember installing OS/2 Warp, an early version of Slackware, Windows 3.1 and 95. Just so I could play. I concluded that OS/2 Warp, whatever it's technological advances and benefits, looked clunky and worked unintuitively. A perception that is still borne out running it in a virtual machine today. IBM really missed a trick with OS/2, they had an opportunity to beat Microsoft to market with a 32-bit operating system. However, although they only beat Microsoft by months Windows 95 was so much better it seemed to be years ahead of Warp.
Slackware Linux was interesting. It had a shiny graphical X-Window shell and shipped with a fun billiards game. It had some basic utility software and it ran quite well. I even managed to squeeze out a nice 800x600 pixels on my 14” monitor at a respectable (migraine preventing) 72Hz refresh rate. I was impressed with my success, but although by no means as unattractive or ponderous as OS/2 it lacked the polish and performance of the ground breaking Windows 95. Using Linux at this point and for some years after required a beard and did feel like wearing a hair shirt. It was viewed from the mainstream by those who were aware of it's existence as an interesting project and useful for developers and programmers. It wasn't really a desktop environment for the average computer user.
Windows users have long been familiar with free software and it's two main protagonists: freeware and shareware. Many imagine that open source simply equates to what they know as freeware. Freeware is software that is free to download and use, free software. Most importantly though freeware is not open, the source code is closed, sometimes patented, like most commercial products. Shareware is software that is free to download and distribute (in it's shareware form), but was usually functionally incomplete in some way. To get the full range of functionality you had to buy the 'full' product. The best and most successful example of this type of software marketing was Id Software's classic Doom game. Free to download and play across the first few levels of the first person shooter. You were free, even encouraged, to share and pass on the this game. To play the full game you had to buy a full retail boxed version.
Windows users have become used to vagaries of shareware, 'nagware' (click here to upgrade to full product, which doesn't have this message, now!”), 'crippleware' (fully usable but won't, for example, save ) and the variable quality of freeware. It's a reasonable suspicion that if software is actually useful and works why would anyone give it away?
This perception prevails somewhat. Microsoft is a huge multi-billion dollar organisation whose main product is an operating system. It's relatively expensive, so how could a free operating system hope to compare favourably with one sold by this software giant. Millions are spent on research and design, coders and developers, usability testing and marketing to produce Microsoft Windows. How could a free product compare to that?
It compares very well thank you very much. Open source is a very different thing to free- and shareware. Fortunately, the open source community also has some fantastic software that runs on Windows and has gained notoriety and widespread use. These champions of open source illustrate what free software can really achieve, but first what the hell is this open source stuff? Well, you might have heard the analogy that open source is free as in speech, rather than free as in beer. I don't fully understand what this is supposed to mean, but freeware is like free beer. Free to use and consume, but that's it, the brewers don't tell you how to make it or what it contains. Open source is not just free, as in no cost: to download, install and use; it's also open: you can download, inspect and modify the source code making up the software. What is the value of this to the average user? Transparency for one. You can rely on the community to ensure that the code you are running on your PC is not malicious. If there are doubts about what a piece of software is up to people who do know can inspect the code and see what is going on. Development is another. If the code is any good, someone will build on it, expand and develop, rewrite, improve and release their developments for someone else to pick up the baton and take things forward. All of these developments are free and open to the development community meaning better software for free for average users.
Politically this is a fantastic development. Software can develop and improve by cooperation without being stolen, hijacked or monetised by people who didn't develop and do not own the code. Open source flourishes and has a viable business model by monetising services that are corollary to the software itself. Linux, for example, has a strong business model. Canonical, the makers of Ubuntu, develop and build on the work of open and free Debian Project. Their operating system Ubuntu Linux is free to download and the code is open to hack and reuse in whatever way is consistent with it's open source licensing. Canonical offers corporate support packages for Ubuntu and other open source systems.
PC hardware is expensive, using your PC should not involve further cost. However, investment on developing expertise, knowledge and technical skill sets can be appropriately monetised maintaining the incentive to innovate and develop. Open source is good for everyone, home users, developers and programmers, business and hardware manufacturers.
Let's look at some of the poster children of open source to get a feel for what the community is capable of delivering for free. The obvious choice to lead out with is Mozilla's Firefox, allegedly the worlds most popular browser. Even Windows users love Firefox, version 4 will even deliver improved performance as this much loved and used web browser is currently lagging behind even Internet Explorer in terms of performance with Flash and Java.
Another first class example of open source has to be OpenOffice and the new fork of that project LibreOffice. They say most 90% of Microsoft Office users use 10% of MSOffice's functionality. I don't know how much less functionality OpenOffice has in comparison to Microsoft's Office, if any, all I do know is that since I started using Writer I have haven't missed Word or something it could do. I'm writing this in LibreOffice Writer now, and if I was using Windows I'd still be using it. Before I migrated to Linux I used as many open source products as I could to ease the transition and I have never felt like I was wearing a hair shirt word processing with Writer, web browsing with Firefox, or editing images with GIMP for Windows.
The GIMP (GNU Image Manipulation Program) may not be an Adobe Photoshop killer, but quite frankly I never needed one. Most of my image editing is limited to cropping and resizing. Perhaps comparing Microsoft Paint and LibreOffice Draw might be more beneficial. GIMP has always had what I need. There are other great, free and open Image editing softwares out there: Inkscape is reputed to be a reasonable Adobe Illustrator replacement, but what do I know. If you want to do some 3D modelling for free take a look at Bryce and Blender.
We had to come down to it didn't we? Of course we had to mention gaming. Gaming is excellent on the Linux platform. Why shouldn't it be? Of course there are problems. Some games manufacturers do want to release their games on multiple platforms. So they only invest in development on one: the most popular naturally. Most commercial games titles only have Windows version. However, this is no obstacle to playing them. Adobe only have a Windows version of Photoshop, doesn’t prevent you running Photoshop on Linux if you must either.
There is an open source version of the Windows API (Application Programming Interface), so using this interface you can install and run Windows applications and that does include games. Games can be problematic because of the intensive use of graphical hardware. You can expect to take a performance hit running Windows games in Linux but it is possible. I run Warcraft quite happily in Linux thanks to Wine. I'd prefer to run native Linux application and games if Software companies refuse to do that I can still use their product.
Using Linux and open source is politically valuable in creating community and cooperation to produce technology that increases the value and productivity of personal computers. No hairshirt required.
One problem with Linux just cannot be talked away. Linux needs to be installed and most home users lack the confidence, knowledge or motivation to migrate. Technically, Microsoft's Windows operating system also needs to be installed and it's installation process is no easier that Linux's. However for most computer users their operating system was installed in the factory and closest they will ever get to installation is using a restore disk to restore their PC to the exact state in which it left the factory. This is usually carried out as a very last resort when people find they can longer use their computer at all.
Linux advocates have proclaimed that 'this year is the year of desktop Linux' repeatedly over the last decade. However, realistically we can only expect a mass conversion of average computer users when Linux is shipped by default by several major PC manufacturers. This happened with netbooks, but as they have become more power and capable of running more processor and memory hungry operating systems and applications so the demand for netbooks running Windows has slow overwritten the brief mainstream foray of desktop Linux.
Linux and open source is solid, stable, secure, capable and free. That just isn't good enough to supplant Microsoft I'm afraid.