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Linux fans see opportunity in Windows 7 changeover

Open source proponents say that the release of Windows 7 will give Ubuntu and other Linux distros a chance to grab desktop market share.

Linux runs on a tiny share of corporate desktops, but open source partisans say the upcoming release of Windows 7 and the popularity of lightweight netbook PCs could help it gain ground -- even in Windows shops.

For more on Linux:
Netbooks running Linux loosen Window's grip on hardware

Ubuntu server adoption slow but steady in the data center

Linux desktop adoption boosted by economy

Canonical Ltd.'s Ubuntu distribution is a favorite among many IT pros who would like to convert the end users they support. Canonical does not release user data, but Gerry Carr, the head of platform marketing for the company, said that whenever a new version of Windows becomes available -- especially in the case of Vista -- interest increases.

"Vista was a big push for us," Carr said. "We saw a lot of inquiries about Ubuntu when it came out two years ago. People reached a point where they had to buy and install the new version, so they looked at alternatives."

Carr expects a similar spike in Ubuntu interest when Windows 7 hits Oct. 22 and Microsoft customers explore other options. But the Windows camp would say that they've heard this all before and yet Linux runs on less than 1% of desktops.

Migrating from Windows to Linux
Many Windows shops will continue resist any push to introduce a second OS which requires new tools and skills. That is a high barrier to broader Linux desktop adoption.

[With Ubuntu], my system is ready to go in 15 seconds.
John Locke,
developerFreelock Computing

Linux in general faces huge obstacles on the desktop -- even after the Vista debacle. By all accounts some version of Windows runs on more than 90% of all desktops, and Linux is still mostly relegated to open source afficionados. The site Net Applications reports that Linux desktop market share hit 0.95% in August 2009, up from 0.65% for November 2007, the earliest date for which the company has numbers. Windows share was 93.06% in August 2009 compared to 95.69% in August 2009.

If Windows users can overcome the familiarity issue, Ubuntu's primary benefit is that it has fewer security issues and faster boot times, said John Locke, a developer and manager t the Seattle-based open source technology company Freelock Computing in Seattle, Wash.

Locke dumped Windows in 2003 because he "got tired of having to reboot all the time, the constant battle of spyware and viruses, and how the system slowed down over time." He now uses Ubuntu on his PC and Netbook.

"[With Ubuntu], my system is ready to go in 15 seconds with all my applications open, and I rarely reboot," Locke said. "And every six months or so, I get a free upgrade to a newer, faster version with even more great stuff, with more of the niggling annoyances fixed."

The Microsoft Office roadblock
While Ubuntu users beat the open source drum, Ubuntu and other Linux OSes struggle to gain market share in a space where end users know they need Windows to run their Microsoft Office applications.

According to's "Data Center Decisions: Purchasing Intentions Survey" of more than 900 IT pros, just more than 30% of the 189 respondents who said they use Linux over Windows or Unix deploy it on the desktop. (Specific data about Ubuntu on desktops was unavailable).

But that number could increase once Microsoft starts delivering Office Web applications: lightweight versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote - through a browser.

"When Microsoft releases Office online, it will impact open source sales, because it won't matter anymore which OS you are running," said Michael Montecillo, a principal analyst at Boulder, Colo.-based Enterprise Management Associates. "If Ubuntu positions itself as a more secure, stable platform, designed to work through the Web, this could have a heavy impact."

Ubuntu's Netbook niche
Canonical's Ubuntu Netbook Remix flaunts a user interface tailored to small Netbooks screens, Carr said. "The desktop icons are bigger and easier to see, the menu is more direct and easier to use" than Windows on a Netbook, Carr said.

Montecillo concurred. The security analyst uses Ubuntu on his Netbook "because it is not Windows XP trying to fit into a Netbook, [where] everything is crunched together and difficult to get to." Plus, he said it is more secure than Windows, with fewer malware issues. Of course Microsoft would argue that the new Windows 7 is more compact than its predecessor and sports better security.

And cost is always an area where open source wins; you can't beat free. "Microsoft competes vigorously in the Netbook market, [but] they will have to reduce the price of their OS to stay competitive," Carr said.

I really can't think of a single reason I would run Windows on a Netbook.
John Locke,

James Beswick, who runs the Los Angeles-based technology consultancy 415 Systems, said deploying Ubuntu on his employees' Netbooks reduced the initial Netbook price by 25%.

Plus, "if you're mainly only using a browser, it's a faster and easier platform. For my folks, there are no problems with viruses and malware, and no endless prompts about Windows updates," Beswick said. "For the humble Netbook, I'm not sure why anyone would choose Windows over Ubuntu for a lightweight surfing tool."

Locke, a Netbook and Ubuntu user, concurred. "With a slower processor than my laptop, my Netbook would be unbearable running Windows. It wouldn't have enough memory to run many programs [concurrently]," he said. "I really can't think of a single reason I would run Windows on a Netbook -- or anything else for that matter."

Canonical works with several original equipment manufacturers, including Dell and IBM to put Ubuntu on Netbooks in retail, and the company hopes to make serious strides in that space. Microsoft claims dominance of the Netbook market, but the Linux community refutes that assertion.

IT pros struggle to convert Windows users to Ubuntu
World dominance statements aside, Ubuntu is already a favorite among many IT pros who wish the end users they support would convert. But getting the masses to defect from Windows has proved a difficult.

Brennen Bearnes, deputy director of IT at Boulder, Colo.-based SparkFun Electronics, knows this firsthand. The company's IT and Web development employees use Ubuntu and Debian, the distribution Ubuntu is based on, and they are pushing to move other employees onto Ubuntu as well.

The rationale for moving off the familiar Windows OS is not only cost but also the availability of more tools for programmers and system administrators, Bearnes said. SparkFun also happens to be a do-it-yourself kind of company, so the open source ethos appeals to them as well, he said.

But deploying anything but Windows across the enterprise would result in a backlash from end users who hate change.

[Ubuntu] ... is too complicated for regular users who don't understand the file system.
James Beswick,
founder415 Systems

"The closest I've come to switching users over is putting Ubuntu on a computer that another co-worker occasionally shares with me," said Brian Rasimick, a research & development manager at a New Jersey-based manufacturing company. "After a five-minute crash course and an hour of limping along, he adjusted fine. Then he tried to install iTunes, which is not available on Ubuntu. … He asked why I'd install something where he can't buy stuff on iTunes and [asked] to go back to the old system."

Beswick of 415 Systems, said he considered deploying Ubuntu on employee desktops, "but the operating system is too complicated for regular users who don't understand the file system and need Windows applications," he said.

Germain Bisson, vice president of customer care at Ottawa-based IPeak Networks Inc., is a Windows user who said he was "reluctantly dragged into Ubuntu" because it is the six-month old company's default OS.

Bisson said weaning himself off Microsoft Office was a big step because for more than a decade he used it to manage his email, contacts and calendar, but now uses Google's Web-based email system, Gmail, and considers OpenOffice a good enough substitute for Microsoft Office.

Bisson runs Windows XP and Ubuntu on his Dell PC and on his Netbook in case he needs an application supported only on Windows but rarely falls back on Windows anymore.

"Any Windows user will have a transition issue, but I am finding I am more effective on Ubuntu," Bisson said.

He added, "The trend is toward online-based applications and free, open source. People don't want to pay for something that is available for free."

Let us know what you think about the story; email Bridget Botelho, News Writer.

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