In the battle for desktop OS supremacy, both Linux and Mac OS proponents say their platforms are gaining ground. See why Deb Shinder thinks Windows 7 has nothing to worry about.
There has been much hype over the last few years about Linux and Mac gaining market share, and even though their numbers are still small (both in single digits), some have gone so far as to predict that Windows is in danger and that Linux will "triumph over Windows" or that Mac OS is "set to become the dominant operating system in the world."
The perceived failure of Windows Vista — whose death was greatly exaggerated by a series of clever but not entirely accurate Apple commercials — only added fuel to the fire. Based on some of the headlines, you would have thought that individuals and companies were abandoning Microsoft in droves and flocking to the alternative operating systems. The impressive sales of the original EeePC and other Linux-based netbooks seemed to support that contention. Then, vendors started making netbooks that run Windows XP and the reports started coming in that Linux netbooks were being returned at a rate four times that of their Windows-based counterparts.
As of October 2009, according to Net Applications, Windows still had more than 92% of the total OS market share but Windows 7 only made up 4%. On the other hand, Windows 7 achieved that number only two weeks after being released; it took Vista seven months to reach 4%. Linux is nowhere near that figure (at around 1%), and Mac is only slightly higher (5.27%).)
So how will it all play out now that Windows 7 is in the game? Here are 10 reasons I believe Microsoft's new OS will rule the desktop operating system space just as XP does now.
Note: This article is also available as a PDF download.
1: XP users are (finally) ready for something new
Windows XP currently holds more than 70% of the OS market share, according to Net Applications. But XP was released in 2001, and despite three service packs, it's getting a bit long in the tooth. Although service packs have added features as well as fixes, XP still lacks many of the usability features that were added to Vista and Windows 7.
Of more concern, especially to businesses, XP lacks many of the security mechanisms that are built into Vista and Windows 7, such as UAC, protected mode IE, BitLocker encryption (some editions), system services that are more isolated and run with fewer privileges, a new TCP/IP stack with better authentication and encryption, Address Space Layout Randomization, and more.
Even many XP diehards are beginning to yearn for something new, and companies that want to take advantage of enterprise technologies such as DirectAccess and AppLocker will need to upgrade.
2: It's (usually) an easy upgrade from Vista
For those who are already running Vista SP1 or above, an in-place upgrade to Windows 7 is quick and easy on most computers. (However, note that there have been reports among a small number of users of an "endless reboot loop" problem with Vista-to-Win7 upgrades.)
Nonetheless, I have upgraded a number of adesktops and laptops from Vista to Windows 7 with no problems, and the vast majority of my readers have reported the same experience. Unlike with in-place upgrades with past operating systems, I have seen no performance or stability problems in the upgraded systems.
3: It's better, but not too different
Moving to any new OS always involves a learning curve. Some people love discovering new features and learning new ways of doing things. Others hate change, even when it's good change. In general, computer users just want to be able to get their work done. Most are used to the way things are done in Windows, and the basics are still there in Windows 7. Switching to an entirely different platform, such as Linux or Mac, takes much more getting used to.
It's certainly true that the graphical user interfaces for Linux have gotten better over the years, but computer users coming from a Windows environment will still find some challenges awaiting them there. The terminology is different — you have a root account instead of administrator. The file system is different — you have mysterious locations such as /dev for your peripherals (mouse, keyboard, monitor), /bin for binary (executable) files, and /etc for editable text configuration files. An application's files are spread out on your hard drive in different directories, not installed in their own separate subdirectories as they are in Windows. Installing a program may or may not involve having to compile the source code or create your own installation package. In addition to getting used to a new OS, in many cases you'll have to get used to new applications, too, since many Windows apps don't have Linux versions.
The Mac OS is a little more intuitive, but if you're coming from Windows, it's still a bit like entering a foreign country. There are none of the installation and setup problems you might experience with Linux, since OS X runs only on Apple hardware. However, you'll find that things are "arranged" differently. For instance, a program's menus appear at the top of the screen, rather than in the program's own window as they do in Windows. Once again, many of the productivity programs you're used to using won't run on the Mac, so you'll need new ones and, unlike with Linux, most of them are not free.
Windows 7 has a new, sleeker look and a number of new features, but it still retains the Windows feel. It generally takes XP users much less time to get to know the OS than when switching to a Linux or Mac platform.
4: Hardware requirements are reasonable
Many computer users were unhappy with the increased hardware requirements of Windows Vista. Those with older XP machines often found that their systems wouldn't support the new operating system. That led some to switch to Linux, which would run on less powerful computers.
By almost all accounts, Windows 7 runs much better on old or low cost machines than Vista did. Many users have been able to install and run Windows 7 on computers that would not run Vista satisfactorily, if at all. Fewer users will be forced to buy new hardware to upgrade to Windows 7, which might mean fewer will be moving to Linux to get a new OS without upgrading the hardware.
Of course, the Mac OS can't be installed on non-Apple hardware, so moving from XP or Vista to a Mac necessitates buying new hardware, regardless of how powerful your current system might be.
5: Most computer users aren't geeks
Geeks love the challenge of getting the hardware and software to work, and they don't mind spending hours or days experimenting with configuration settings or swapping out cards. Linux is the perfect OS for geeks — but most computer users aren't geeks. They care about the task, not the technology. They just want to be able to get their work done or play their game without worrying about hunting down the right drivers or compiling code themselves.
When a geek is told to "Just extract the tarball and use flex or bison to compile the app," hey, no problem. When typical home or office computer users encounter those words, they blink in confusion or cower in fear. Sure, new distros of Linux are easier to use than ever, but they still aren't as easy to use as Windows — especially when you factor in the familiarity aspect.
6: Most computer users don't care about "cool"
For some folks, it's all about being cool. And Apple products are undeniably cool, from the super thin Macbook Air to the charming Mini to the sleek and sexy iPhone. The goal is to be on the cutting edge, to own what's "in" (remember Cabbage Patch Kids?). Form takes precedence over functionality. It's also about elitism: being able to afford the "very best." Those people naturally gravitate to high priced, showy Macs.
However, the majority of computer users don't use their computers to make a fashion statement; they use them to run applications... which brings us to the next point.
7: There are a lot of apps for that
No matter how nice those Macs look, they don't run all the applications that many users need. Apple brags that one of the reasons to choose an iPhone is the fact that there are more apps available for it than for some other mobile phone operating systems. Well, that same principle applies when choosing a desktop OS — but in that case, Windows wins hands-down. There are more programs. Even more important, more of the programs that function as the de facto standard for a particular purpose (such as the Microsoft Office programs) are made for Windows. Yes, there's Office for Mac, too, but it doesn't have all the features and functionality of its Windows counterpart.
The same goes for Linux. There are substitutes available, such as Open Office instead of Office, or GIMP instead of PhotoShop, but it's just not the same. Even though these alternatives may be free, most people who rely on their applications for important work prefer the commercial versions (which run on Windows).
Mac and Linux fans will quickly point out that you can always use Parallels or Wine to run Windows apps in a virtualized environment. But the fact that those options are so popular just reinforces the argument that Windows has the best apps.
8: You get more — and less
Windows 7 gives you more new features, while at the same time providing a leaner and meaner OS. You no longer have to install a third-party application to get handy little functionalities like Sticky Notes, and Windows 7 adds major improvements to the interface, such as multi-touch support. You also get more keyboard shortcuts to speed up input, as well as the ability to encrypt removable drives with BitLocker to Go, better support for solid state drives, and virtual hard disks. Windows 7 has built-in biometric support, and Windows Media Center now comes with the Pro edition (but can easily be blocked via Group Policy in the business environment). Standard built-in apps such as Paint, Wordpad, and Calculator have been made more feature-rich so that you can do much more with them.
Yet all of these additions don't make Windows 7 a more bloated operating system. Microsoft also cut out many of the apps that were built into previous operating systems, but which many users never used. The email client (Windows Mail), more sophisticated Photo Editor (Windows Photo Gallery), Contacts, and Calendar programs are no longer installed with the OS. Yet for those who want them, all of those programs are still available as free downloads from the Microsoft Windows Live Web site.
9: The price is (generally) right
Sure, there have been many complaints that Windows 7 costs too much. But Microsoft actually dropped the price of the Home Premium edition, in comparison with the same edition of Vista, and it kept the prices the same for other editions. The list price for the full version of Windows 7 Professional is the same as for Windows XP ($299.99).
Although the full version prices may sound a tad high ($199.99 for Home Premium, $299.99 for Pro, and $319.99 for Ultimate), the vast majority of people will already have a qualifying Microsoft operating system. So they'll pay the upgrade price ($119.99 for Home Premium, $199.99 for Pro, and $219.99 for Ultimate) or buy a new computer with Windows 7 preinstalled (with drastically discounted OEM pricing).
A number of discount programs are also available, such as the student discount (one copy of Home Premium or Pro for $29.99 for students enrolled in colleges and universities) and the family pack discount (three Home Premium upgrade licenses for $149.99).
10: Businesses care about the bottom line
Speaking of price, what it all comes down to in the business world is the bottom line. Companies compare total cost of ownership of different software options, not just the initial price point. That includes support costs, hardware costs, training costs, and productivity impact. And the majority of businesses, after doing such an analysis, choose to stick with Windows.
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Debra Littlejohn Shinder, MCSE, MVP is a technology consultant, trainer, and writer who has authored a number of books on computer operating systems, networking, and security. Deb is a tech editor, developmental editor, and contributor to over 20 additional books on subjects such as the Windows 2000 and Windows 2003 MCSE exams, CompTIA Security+ exam, and TruSecure's ICSA certification.