Mortal OS Kombat: Linux versus Windows 7


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Draw the line in the sand!  It's the showdown the tech world has feared: Microsoft's upstart Windows 7 versus Linux.  We've seen plenty of volleys back and forth from both camps over the past few days, thanks to the beta launch of the Windows 7 operating system.  The new OS has a lot going for it--features that directly target the growing Linux base in the mobile PC market coupled with design elements that, honestly, look a lot like what we've seen in Linux desktop environments for some time now.  But will that be enough to topple the best the open-source world has to offer?  We dig deep into the arguments from both camps to find out whether Windows 7 is The Terminator... or John Conner.

The Case for Windows 7

How could Microsoft pull off a victory and gain foothold against its open-source rival, Linux?   It's already got the clear majority, with approximately 88 percent of the desktop market running Microsoft-branded operating systems. But Linux has been growing , with the netbook market helping to drive the platform out to new users.  Microsoft is no stranger to this fact, tailoring Windows 7 to work smoothly on your average netbook configuration--we're talking about a 1.6 GHz, 1GB of RAM kind of netbook.  Asus seems impressed already, as the company plans to offer Windows 7-branded Eee PCs later this year.

There are also the usual basic arguments as to why any Windows OS could top its Linux alternative: Windows 7 is easier to install, easier to use , simple to configure, compatible with a wide range of devices and software, and is the operating system for PC gaming, period.  Windows 7 is also catering to admins with its tough little PowerShell utliity--a souped-up version of the command line that now allows administrators to remotely mess with machines via a powerful console-based scripting environment .

But really, the fight is in the netbook space.  IT World's Preston Gralla puts it clearly : if Linux gains traction on netbooks, people will become more familiar with using the OS ( already a significant issue plaguing Linux-based netbooks).  If people become more familiar with Linux as a whole, they might consider adopting it on their desktop platform as well.  Microsoft intends to nip this threat in the bud and, as the article correctly surmises, you can expect to see a tremendous marketing pushback as Microsoft goes after this developing, mini-notebook base.

The Case for Linux

Proponents of Linux argue that many of Windows 7's eye-catching features--from PowerShell to its Aero-based desktop interface-- have been available in the open-source community for years.  The Unix shell has had plenty of time to simmer to perfection, and desktop environments like KDE are almost picture-for-picture clones of the new direction Microsoft has taken Windows 7. Linux still enjoys a considerable gain in the server space, and that's putting it lightly . The new features of Windows 7 will not make a dent against the already existing features of the Linux operating system.

While Microsoft can try to inject itself into the netbook market, it's doing so against an established base.  Netbooks are expected to achieve a growth rate of 60 percent up into 2010, reaching 29 million units sold.  Of these, Microsoft has reached a base of approximately 70 percent--falling into industry expert predictions that Linux will sustain a market share of nearly 1/3 of all netbooks sold.  Compare this to the desktop, where around one percent of users run Linux, and that's quite a difference.  The large players don't fear Linux in the slightest -- HP, Dell, Asus, and Acer all ship Linux-branded netbooks.

And there's one qualification that's going to hurt Microsoft no matter what: the price.  An open-source platform can be tweaked and modified in innumerable ways, often in parallel by a group of independent developers.  The code can be stronger, the estimated development costs less than Microsoft's proprietary OS, and the overall product costs far less to incorporate ($5 to install on a netbook versus $100 for Vista) into a piece of hardware.  At roughly $500 a pop for an average netbook, what computer manufacturer is going to want to cut revenues by $95 (or pass $95 on to the consumer) for an operating system whose features can be replicated for far cheaper?

My take: Linux

There's no doubt that Windows 7 will make more headway into the netbook market than its failed attempts at capitalizing on this emerging sector in 2008.  But the ultimate factor in the netbook space isn't the feature-set of the operating system.  It's the cost.  When two similar notebooks exist at a hundred dollar price gap, we can't envision a consumer adopting the pricier model just for the Windows 7 experience.  The hype can't possibly be that much of a selling point...  right?  Consumers might be having a trickier time adopting Linux, but in a worsening economy, they might have a more difficult time sacrificing that extra cash.

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