Linux vs Windows (Part 1)

The latest iteration of Windows is here, impressing, confounding and upsetting early adopters. As has become traditional, we pit the Microsoft OS mano-a-mano with Linux to determine the ultimate operating system. Of course, in reality this is comparing apples and oranges (and scoring them with bananas): One is a free codebase which can run on most any hardware imaginable, the other is a proprietary product with an undecouple-able GUI that, until recently, has run only on x86 PCs.

Our approach will be to consider features from the Windows 10 build available at press time, together with Microsoft’s own PR announcements and compare them with like-for-like equivalents from various Linux distributions. Much of the pre-release hype spoke to Windows 10 heralding a paradigm shift across the Windows landscape.

Certainly there are a lot of changes and perhaps most notable is that Windows 10 will be the operating system’s last incarnation. That doesn’t mean the end of Windows, but rather the beginning of “Windows as a Service”.

Updates will be pushed to consumers once Microsoft deems them ready, while businesses will be offered a choice of two release channels, dubbed Current and Long Term which offer more rigid release cycles. Individuals who purchase (or are entitled to a free) copy of Windows will see it supported “for the lifetime of that device.” Another intriguing development is that users of the pre-release Technical Preview who enroll in the Windows Insider Program can continue to use that and will have the privilege [pain, surely? – ED] of testing new features – and won’t have to pay.

Windows gone by

We can forgive Microsoft for abandoning its previous strategy of doing discrete releases as it hasn’t on the whole worked out well. Windows Vista was received with little affection, mostly because of its demanding system requirements, but let’s not forget good ol’ user inertia. This is going to get us in trouble, but Vista did have some good points. Sure, the constant user account control (UAC) interruptions were annoying, but they were part of a well-intentioned move to introduce proper account privileges to Windows. DirectX 10 introduced new and exciting multimedia features and the WDDM driver model promised improved graphics performance.

But for the most part, Vista was seen as a failure, ignored by users and businesses alike. At its peak it managed a paltry market share of about 21%. In sum, having a single release of Windows obviates fragmentation problems for Microsoft and upgrade woes for customers.

Assuming, of course, that users upgrade in the first place. Many an upgrade-refusenik cites Windows 8 as a reason for staying put and it will be hard to assuage their trepidations and get them to move on. Cosmetically Windows 10 doesn’t look or feel all that different to Windows 8.1.

This might just be because we Linux enthusiasts prefer to work with grown-up operating systems, but if Microsoft really wanted to avoid naming its latest progeny Windows 9, then 8.2 would be a much better title. Obviously it’s a secret how different the underlying codebase really is, but digging around the settings you’ll find the same Device Manager that has been kicking about since XP. You’ll even find win.ini and system.ini files which date back to Windows 3.1.

The Microsoft of today is a different beast to that of yesterday. They still enjoy desktop dominance (albeit split between its last five desktop OSes), but this is no longer enough, and CEO Satya Nadella is only too aware of it. The real battle is taking place on mobile devices, and Microsoft barely has a foot in the door.

One of the most touted Windows 10 features is platform convergence: PC, Xbox, Windows Mobile devices, giant Surface Hubs and even the Windows 10 build for Raspberry Pi will all run on a unified Windows core, so that one app will run consistently on any of these platforms.

For convertible tablet/laptop devices, there’s also the Continuum feature, which ensures apps will undergo a seamless UI transition whenever the device is transformed.

When Windows Phone 10 is released, it will enable users to plug their phones into a monitor, mouse and keyboard and use it as they would a regular PC. In July 2014 Nadella stated there was already 90% API overlap between mobile, desktop and Xbox code. Convergence has also been one of Canonical’s buzzwords ever since the introduction of its controversial Unity desktop.

Two Ubuntu phones have already been released, but these rely on Unity 8 which incorporates the new  Mir display server. These technologies have a long way to go before they are stable for desktop use, although brave souls willing to try can do so through the Ubuntu Next channel. In all likelihood Microsoft will achieve convergence before Canonical does, but the real challenge for both parties (both small fish in the mobile ecosystem) will be leveraging this feature to win over consumers.

Market Share

Windows 7, released three years after Windows Vista, did a reasonable job of righting some of its predecessors perceived wrongs and, credit where credit is due, was generally a much better OS than Vista. Adoption was fairly cautious, but by Q3 2011 it had surpassed XP. Unfortunately for Microsoft, many of those XP diehards refused to budge and to this day continue not to move.

In a way, Microsoft’s most successful OS has become its greatest bugbear. Even today, 14 years since being released and over a year after it reached its prolonged End Of Life (EOL) the blue and green XP dinosaur is still roaring (but probably gulping for breath).

No doubt Microsoft enjoy the remunerations that go with expensive post-EOL arrangements, but these resources could be better directed elsewhere. Which brings us to 2012, Windows 8, and the interface formerly known as Metro. While a boon for touchscreen users, desktop users were lost and confused searching for the familiar, and particularly the Start Menu and the desktop.

These were hidden behind unintuitive shortcuts or touch gestures. The OS was accused of being in the midst of an identity crisis, with desktop apps and Metro apps rendered entirely at odds with each other. Windows 8.1 was released about a year later and, heeding users protestations, backpeddled on many of the design decisions. Its reception was much warmer, but keyboard and mouse navigation remains awkward.

At the time of writing, there are about as many people still using Windows XP as are using 8.1, with both enjoying around a 13% share of the market. Currently, businesses still languishing with XP are faced with a trilemma: Do nothing, upgrade to the tried and tested Windows 7 or take a gamble and aim for Windows 8.1. The first is not a viable course of action for so many reasons.

The second seems like the safest option, but this is an OS that’s already six years old, and one for which Microsoft’s “mainstream support” program ended earlier this year. Extended support is promised until 2020, but given the glacial pace of certain organisations’ (cough UK government cough) migrations, by the time a Windows 7 rollout is complete it’ll be getting on time to do it all again. Windows 8.1 may be mature enough by now, but given the similarities between it and its successor, many will skip this release until they judge Windows 10 to be stable enough.

Familiar features

As people do more and more on their desktops – what with multiple browser windows, Skype conversations, music players, live streaming setups or whatever is the latest thing the kids nowadays are up to – desktop real estate has become a scarce resource. Thanks to high resolution, widescreen displays the situation isn’t as severe as it used to be, but imagine if you had the ability to group lots of different applications or windows together onto a single ‘virtual desktop’.

The latest Windows offering lets you do exactly this, with its new Task View feature. Apparently, testing via Windows Insider Program found that users preferred to have only icons from the current desktop visible, so this is the default setting. Previews of all available desktops are available at the click or tap of the Task View button or using the Windows+Tab key combination.

At the moment this is a little clumsy though, since invoking the keyboard shortcut places the focus inside the current desktop preview. A couple of extra key presses are required to actually cycle through other desktops and the applications running inside. Virtual desktops have been available on Windows through third-party programs since the Windows XP days, but more often than not these just used ugly hacks to hide and group various entries on the taskbar. This confuses a number of applications, which are hardwired to believe there can be only one (desktop, not Highlander ).

The discerning reader will, of course, be aware that Virtual desktops have been on Linux since the initial KDE and Gnome releases in the late 1990s, and that they were around, in various guises, long before that in the days of the Amiga 1000 (1985) and the Solbourne window manager (1990). It’s nice to see Microsoft join the party. Better late than never guys. Task View in itself is also rather similar to Gnome Shell’s Activities Overlay (the screen that shows all running applications).

Like Gnome Shell, Windows 10 also features a central notification area (which it has dubbed the Action Center), so that a user’s tray is spared domination by dancing icons and toaster popups all vying for their attention. Being able to livesearch applications (and insodoing get unwanted web results) from the Start bar is nice feature, although it’s been in Unity and Gnome Shell since their inception. The Unity Dash will even categorise various web results into ‘lenses’, but obviously it loses points because of the infamous Amazon sponsored results, even if they can be disabled. Being able to see all installed applications is a useful feature. It was vaguely present in Windows 8 (and was in fact the only way to find newly installed applications), but again has been present in a much more useable form in modern Linux desktops for about five years.

Windows Powershell has been around since 2006, and the series sees a fifth instalment with the latest OS. One of its most touted features is that it provides something akin to a package manager. This amazing technology enables you to source software from a trusted repository and install it without having to run the gauntlet of ambiguously worded questions relating to the installation of toolbars, smileys, or other bloatware. Packages can then be cleanly removed with a simple command.

The blurb from Redmond calls this Software Discovery, Installation and Inventory (SDII). If only we had something like this on Linux. Oh wait. At present, OneGet (being the title of this new tool) is just a collection of Powershell cmdlets that talks to the repository used by the third-party utility Chocolatey Nuget. This provides just shy of 3,000 packages right now, an order of magnitude smaller than any Linux package manager. In future there will be many other repositories available, perhaps even an official Microsoft one.

But at least you’ll no longer need to fire up Internet Explorer just to download your favourite browser, it can all be done by opening a Powershell window as administrator and doing: Install-Package -Name Firefox -Provider chocolatey Replace  Mozilla Firefox with  Google Chrome if you’re that way inclined The –Provider argument proved to be necessary for disambiguation with another package called xFirefox when we tested, but hopefully things will have been tidied up come the glorious 29 July, when Windows 10 will become available.

Naturally, Microsoft will encourage people to use the App Store as their first port of call for new software, but Powershell gurus will enjoy this method. Even if it’s not a patch on  APT or  DNF . Windows as a service can in some ways be compared to a rolling-release operating system, such as Arch Linux or Linux Mint Debian Edition. At the same time the multi- branch release model for businesses is vaguely similar to Debian’s release model.

Indeed, the whole Insider Preview model itself is a big old beta test itself, just like what has been happening with SteamOS over the past year-and-a-bit. But none of these are really Linux ideas, and it’s actually quite refreshing to see Microsoft co-opting them. Also pleasant is the fact that this is offered as a free upgrade for those already running a legitimate copy of Windows 7 or later, but this move is largely a deal-sweetener for potential upgraders that are sitting on the fence.

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