Microsoft

A Linux zealot examines Microsoft Vista

Techrepublics' own long-time Linux zealot, Jack Wallen, decides to take on Vista and see how it stands up to Linux in the area of user-friendliness. Do you think Vista has a chance? Read on and find out.

I know, I know...you're wondering why this is in the open source blog. The reason is simple: I have used open source operating systems for a long, long time now. I have championed against Microsoft for over ten years. But when Techrepublic liked the idea of me writing some Vista content for them, I couldn't say no. Of course this meant me actually using Vista. So I thought it would be interesting for the open source crowd to get my initial reaction to my explorations with Windows Vista. You know, see how (or if) it stands up to Linux. It was a hard pill to swallow for me. It might be a equally as hard for you. Let's find out. Shall we?

Installation

To begin with I didn't have to do any installation. I wish I would have but I knew how finicky Vista was with hardware, so I wound up having to purchase a new laptop. This was the first strike against Vista. Why? Because I knew, with 100 percent assurance, that I could download the latest, greatest version of Linux and get it up and running (with full-blown 3D desktop and everything the Aero desktop has to offer) on any machine I have. With Vista - it's a crap shoot. Unless you have hardware with that magical sticker that says that the machine is certified for Vista, you just never know.

And of course this brings up one of the many really nasty points about purchasing a machine with a Windows operating system - you rarely get an install disk. Why is that? I paid the "tax." I bought the machine with an operating system on it. And we all know that Windows likes to be re-installed every so often. But without that disk - no dice. Fortunately I could create a "back up" disk so I could re-install the OS should it need...but only on that laptop. Oh but wait - this is Microsoft so I can only install the OS on one machine anyway. So much for that gripe.

First boot

Then after I unpacked the laptop it was time for the first boot. There was a small part of me that so badly wanted to toss in my Mandriva 2008 CD and forget the whole Vista experiment. But I behaved and let it boot.

During the boot process I couldn't believe how much I had to go through to get to the desktop. When I first powered up the laptop I thought I was watching a full installation going on. It took nearly 30 minutes to get to the point where I could start agreeing to every possible EULA I could imagine. And after all of those agreements, I finally reached the initial setup. The final setup was mostly just the standard username/password/timezone information.

Once the setup was complete I was greeted with a screen asking me if I was interested in peeking at the typical "free trials" that always seem to accompany any Windows operating system. I really hate this part of Windows. Why is it they seem to think ANYONE wants any AOL product these days? Why not offer something like Hotmail or any other product owned by Microsoft. These products just take up space, annoy the users, and ultimately wind up being deleted from the system. You never see a Linux operating system with annoying free trials of worthless software.

Getting to work

Finally. The desktop is loaded and I can get to work. The first order of business is to install Firefox, OpenOffice, and The Gimp. I may be using a Windows operating system, but that doesn't mean I have to use Office, Explorer, and some proprietary graphics application. The installation of these applications brought about the next really annoying issue with Vista. Being a long-time open source software user I am accustomed to having to give the root password in order to install software. But just giving permission to continue to perform an installation does nothing more than annoy the user. What good does it do? I click on the OpenOffice install icon and then I have to give Vista permission to install OpenOffice? Didn't I just do that by clicking the OpenOffice install icon? Seriously...what is the purpose of this? There is no safety with this system. It's not like you have to enter an administrator password - you just say "sure Vista, you can go ahead with this installation." So of course, after too many instances of having to allow the UAC (User Access Controls) to do what I had already told the system to do, I decided to disable this control. It didn't really take me long to figure this out (doing a search in Explorer for "user" finds the configuration setting) and, once I had it disabled, I was able to do a bit more work with a little less hassle.

With the UAC out of my way, Vista just seemed like yet another Windows operating system. I was limited with my configuration options; I couldn't control sub-systems the way I can with Linux, and Aero is seriously limited to what it could do. The former two points I expected (Windows is very limiting in user control). The latter point really surprised me though. Microsoft had proclaimed Vista's Aero to be the next level of user interface. Really? Some half-attempt at transparency and a bit of a reconfiguration of the Start Menu? Seriously? No. I think the next level of user interface is what I am currently working with - Compiz. And besides, Linux has been doing transparency for over five years (remember AfterStep 1.6?)! So where is the innovation? I can understand that the standard Windows user would look at Aero and ooh and ahh because that's how Microsoft works the public opinion - they steal ideas and make everyone think they where the originators (Can anyone say "Mouse"?).

Now, at this point I started having good feelings about the Vista Media Center. It's pretty simple to use. But very quickly the lack of options and customizations really hit me. There are a few Linux versions of the media center, and with each version, they can be customized in nearly any way you want. With the Vista Media Center customizations/optimizations are very limited. Typical Microsoft micro-management.

Another issue. I wanted to make sure the laptop always connected to my wireless network by default. I failed to check that option when I first set up the connection on the laptop and had a LOT of trouble figuring out how to make it so (without having to delete the wireless connection and start over). Again, with Linux this is simple.

The verdict

I can't say I hate Vista. I can say that, in comparison to the open source operating system that I use day in and day out, Vista pales in comparison. Vista can not do nearly the things Ubuntu or Mandriva (or SuSE, or PCLinuxOS, etc.) can do. And, at least from my perspective, the various forms of Linux can do all of these things much easier and much more efficiently.

My point is this: It seems that everyone assumes that the Windows operating system is the most user-friendly available. I think they are wrong. I think that Microsoft has actually managed to "dumb down" the operating system (in Vista at least) to the point where very little makes sense. Very basic tasks should be obvious. They are not. Obvious locations for certain tools are no longer valid. Administration that should be quick and easy is time consuming and confusing (at times).

If you think about it like this: Microsoft has basically created a new distribution of Windows. And migrating from one distribution (XP) to another (Vista) isn't as easy as it should be. Now migrating from, say, Ubuntu to Mandriva is simple. In either Ubuntu or Mandriva everything makes sense. And, in the case of Ubuntu/Mandriva you're migrating to an entirely different package management system...and it still makes sense. But migrating from one Windows distro to another becomes a task even administrators don't want to undertake.

I interviewed a head teacher at a local school that offers classes in various Windows topics (from MS Office to administrator-level SQL to programming) and he said they can't find anyone to teach and no one who wants to learn Vista. So they are sticking with XP. When I told him I had to pick up a Vista-ready laptop his first question was if I had already installed another operating system over Vista. I said "no;" he winced and apologized.

I'm not so quick to get rid of Vista. I find it challenging and I like a good challenge. But I will say that I find this Windows distribution (Vista) not nearly as user-friendly as most of the modern Linux distributions. Not only are the Linux desktops easier to use they are far more flexible and easier to administer. And yes, as soon as I no longer have a need for Vista, that Sony Vaio will sport Mandriva.

About

Jack Wallen is an award-winning writer for TechRepublic and Linux.com. He’s an avid promoter of open source and the voice of The Android Expert. For more news about Jack Wallen, visit his website getjackd.net.

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