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The Linux momentum: Ubuntu and other popular distros

Linux is no longer the exclusive territory of the initiated. As applications are moved from the desktop to the Internet, the penguin is no longer the obscure option for personal computing.

The battle of personal computer operating systems is back: while Microsoft is encouraging their users to update their operating system to any of the versions of Vista, which is already preinstalled in the majority of new PCs, Mac OS X and Linux believe the moment has arrived to prove they are a serious alternative to Windows, at home as well as at the office.

Microsoft Windows maintains an indisputable lead, although it is losing market share to Apple Mac OS X; and, for the first time, Linux is growing among the most critical users with respect to the two commercial operating systems.

The different versions of Windows have a market share, as of March 2008, between 91% of the world’s users (according to the calculations of Hitslink) and 95.94% (according to OneStat). Mac OS X has grown visibly since the beginning of the of the decade, even though it is used by less than 10% of the world.

Linux doesn’t even reach a 1% market share, although it now appears clearly on the charts. Its popularity has been growing in recent months, coinciding with the reluctance of users to adopt Vista and with the increase of machines that come preinstalled with Linux instead of a Microsoft option.

The most popular versions of Linux, with Ubuntu and other distributions (“distros“) of Debian at the top of the list, now comfortably appear in sectors like Internet technologies.

Windows, installed in 9 of every 10 personal computers

Market share for operating systems is calculated when a computer is connected to the Internet and, while serving as estimates, they cannot be taken as absolutes: browsers do not always provide this information, nor are all computers in use worldwide connected to the Internet.

Likewise, every time more computers can use various operating systems simultaneously (virtualization), or choose from a startup menu between two or three options for the session: the current Macs, for example, have Intel architecture and allow users to install Windows XP or Vista, Mac OS X Leopard and Ubuntu Linux. All in the same machine.

Market share in March 2008 for the different operating systems, according to Net Applications:

  • Windows: 90.55%
  • Mac OS X: 7.48%
  • Linux: 0.61% (W3 Counter offers, however, a 2.02%)

According to W3 Counter, in March of 2008, the market share of Windows Vista was 6.93% worldwide; two points below (4.91%) they place Mac OS X, while Linux reached the aforementioned 2.02%. Seen this way, the data is more worrying for Microsoft, since 78.78% of computers are remaining with Windows XP.

It remains to be seen what these users will do when they decide to change their current software.

Linux is (more) simple (than before), cheap, safe and streamlined

For the first time, there are open source alternatives accessible to the entire public. Linux wants to join the battle of the operating systems, with a legion of followers including the “early adopters”, who don’t hesitate in using Ubuntu or Xubuntu in their MacBooks or Sony Vaio laptops.

An Ubuntu sticker or a Linux penguin on your laptop is equivalent, in contemporary university classrooms, to the stickers of music groups that covered students’ folders a decade ago.

The new competitors of the iPhone for industry and media attention are affordable computers with open architecture: low cost laptops Asus Eee PC– a sales success-, and the XO from the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) foundation, whose design is not just attractive to children from poor countries, but to users in developed countries.

Linux is the lightest operating system and that which least taxes the performance of any computer, so that its use is also related to energy consumption and it is the operating system with the smallest carbon footprint.

A study by the British Office of Government Commerce (OGC) showed that Open Source Software requires less energy than Microsoft Windows systems: “the open source system will require less memory and a slower processor speed for the same functionality.” Based on their findings, the OGC recommends government offices should consider using open source systems.

The dilemma of the businesses: migrating to Vista or staying with XP? And how is Linux?

The technology heads of big multinationals are reviewing the same reports, and the numbers don’t look good for Vista: to migrate to the new operating system implies not only buying the licenses, but to change the machines that can’t use the new system due to lack of power.

Comparing Windows with Linux was, until recently, academic. Now, the biggest companies in the world not only install some of the distributions on their servers and infrastructure, but they are considering using it on desktops for the first time in history.

Linux still works with machines with old 486 processors, something unthinkable with Vista or OS X Leopard, that require more processor capacity.

In an article from InfoWorld, Ted Samson gives advice to corporate users of Windows XP. Samson suggests maintaining the Windows system while using virtualization software to run Linux on the same equipment, an option suggested by his readers. He quotes the advice of one named “GoStak”.

“I am suggesting [to businesses] VMware [virtualization software] on Linux with your current crop of XP licenses. Mission-critical stuff that must run on XP is available, meanwhile you can be working on migrating everything to a native Linux environment that will not toss you on your keister in a few years. Further, the one big thing coming down the pike, 64-bit computing, is fully supported with Linux, so you don’t have to worry about being able to fully utilize the next generation.”

Any version of Linux functions to full performance in any machine with at least a 1.5 GHz processor and 512 MB of read-only memory. The versions Vista Business and Ultimate, aimed at professionals and businesses, require processors of more than 2 GHz and more than 1 GB of read-only memory to, simply, not get blocked.

For optimum performance, the requirements are even higher: a 3 GHz processor and 2 GB of read-only memory (a processor two times more powerful than with Linux, and four times the read-only memory). With a coexistence between Windows XP and Linux for, subsequently, a total migration to the latter, businesses would not have that to invest in licenses nor in substituting machines that Vista would deem “obsolete”. Obsolete, only according to Vista.

The “early adopters”, increasingly fewer Mac users and more Linux fans

The “early adopters” are those who understand that the applications we use everyday (e-mail, office computer programs, centralized access to information by Atom feeds, RSS feeds, etcetera) are increasingly available online, so the Internet browser is becoming the actual operating system for new computers.

If one wants to use Microsoft Office and Adobe Photoshop, the option is not Linux. On the contrary, using Picasa for photos, Gimp instead of Photoshop and applications such as Google Mail, Google Docs or Zoho (office computing online), OpenOffice and Lotus Symphony (desktop office computing), Linux is a more valid option than Microsoft Windows and Mac OS X.

While practically all the applications designed for Windows can be used in Linux, those with more extensive use of high-end graphics and hardware drivers, such as image or video editing programs, won’t work well.

But, according to James Turner of Computerworld, “for everything else, Linux is definitely the way to go. Unlike Mac OS and Windows, Linux is free as air and open to development by folks who are motivated by the desire to make the technology better, rather than by corporate tech farms whose real interest is the bottom line. Which is all very nice, but is it any good as a desktop operating system? You bet.”

This new vision of personal processing, more dependent on the Internet, relegates to the past the commercialization of traditional operating systems: software versions that are closed, gigantic and increasingly more sophisticated and with versions of “proprietary” software that one must download or install and requires use of the hard drive.

Fear of the learning curve

Linux gains ground in this new scenario: besides being stable and fast, it works on powerful computers as well as those that are less powerful or old (as compared to Windows Vista and Mac OS X Leopard).

Ubuntu and other versions of the operating system are free, they include all the necessary applications for businesses, individuals, educational and research environments, etc.; and the majority of these versions are free and can co-exist with Windows and Mac OS X on the same computer.

For the average user, to change from Windows to Mac OS X requires the same effort as any of the most popular versions of Linux, like Ubuntu. Using Linux is no longer just a thing of experts or “techies“.

Installing Ubuntu, for example, is simpler and faster than updating Vista or Mac OS X. The option of Ubuntu, for example: is free, functions in any machine and has a learning curve similar to that of changing from Windows XP to Vista or to OS X. It is safe, requires less resources and, used in dozens of machines from the same company, can reduce the electric bill.

Windows Vista vs. Windows XP vs. Mac OS X vs… Linux

The reluctance of businesses and users to install Windows Vista have allowed Mac OS X, Linux and the veteran Windows XP to gain an unexpected prominence. Since the arrival of Windows 95, the setting hasn’t been so promising for the rivals of the latest version of Microsoft. Because, surprisingly, even Windows XP competes with Vista.

Several studies have shown that Windows XP is faster than Vista. The XP version of the operating system is, also, the most valued by users, who are waiting for the arrival of the third big update, in the middle of this year, that will make it more stable, compatible and safe.

Users worldwide claim their supposed right to continue using XP, even when they need to buy a new computer. The American technology journalist Galen Gruman claims to have verified that the feeling of rejection of Vista is as extensive as the desire to continue using XP.

Microsoft is continuing with its plan to discontinue its sale in June of this year so that the popular petition of some users to “downgrade” their new machines -to ask for XP instead of Vista- will no longer be possible in the middle of 2008, neither for private nor corporate clients.

Gruman, whose petition to keep Windows XP in the market has received more than 100,000 signatures and thousands of comments, believes that many users are considering -this time seriously- to opt for Mac OS X and – yes, this is new- Linux.

The petition “Save Windows XP” won’t change the industry, but it shows for the first time a generalized refusal to an updating of the most widely used operating system in the world.

A forecast from Gartner: the beginning of the end of Windows

Computerworld summed up, in April of 2008, what accounted for the change in attitude of Windows users. “Whether it’s because of Vista’s confusing array of versions, its hefty hardware requirements, its driver issues or its invasive security features, users are resisting the upgrade to Vista and considering other options, from Mac OS X to Linux to just sticking with Windows XP, thank you very much.”

Gartner researchers have announced that Windows is collapsing. Analysts from the market research firm -that, obviously, doesn’t have the absolute truth- predicted, at an April 2008 Gardner-sponsored conference, the collapse of Windows as an operating system, citing growing complaints related to the use of Vista, as well as the reluctance to adopt it by Windows users who have not yet dared to approach the fearsome task of updating.

Slashdot, a technology blog referenced by technology professionals, reports on one Australian secondary school that replaced Windows with Ubuntu. The school’s networks administrator Daniel Stefyn said he was “pleasantly surprised” upon learning that several applications ran faster on Ubuntu than with Windows.

Larry Deign from ZDNet agrees that the fall of Windows is inevitable without radical change, although he argues that it will be a slow process.

In the meantime, Microsoft has recognized its concern, first upon announcing the advance of the launch date of the next version of Windows (7, that will be more “modular” and “configurable”, according to Bill Gates), to 2009, instead of 2010, as previously had been announced. Shortly after, Microsoft contradicted the announcement and maintains, for the time being, the launch of Windows 7 for 2010.

Microsoft is focused on making Vista your next operating system

It is difficult to resist commercial force of any of the versions of Windows Vista: the commercial inertia and the agreements with hardware businesses will assure that Windows continue dominating in an overwhelming way the market of domestic operating systems. Substituting an operating system is not as simple as opting for Firefox as a web browser instead of Internet Explorer, which is also starting to happen.

According to IDC, 94% of PCs sold in 2008 for domestic use will have Windows preinstalled. In the business market, the figure drops to a still majority 75%. This last percentage includes the businesses that choose to preinstall Windows XP. Al Gillen, of IDC, estimates that 2008 will end with just 60% of home computers and 70% of businesses still using Windows XP.

The true alternative to Windows: Mac OS X vs. Linux

The use of Mac OS X is growing, above all if one counts users of the simplified version of the software, that which is integrated into the iPhone. Apple has been positioned as a distinctive brand and the already classic series of advertisements in which two people compare Windows (a corporate, gray man, without personality) and Mac (a young fresh, attractive, informal man who is sure of what he wants and says) seems to help the phenomenon. Some parodies of the ads, in which a person appears who represents Linux, are growing in popularity on YouTube.

The latest version of the operating system, Mac OS X Leopard, arrived in stores with some problems of instability, which caused complaints from some users (as is commonly known, Apple enjoys “fans” instead of users and good reviews still outweigh doubts and complaints).

Apple maintains its unique position in the data processing market and, now, in consumer electronics (iPod and accessories) and mobile phones (iPhone, that is basically a simplified Mac with OS X included): the brand manufactures the hardware, creates the operating system and several applications for productivity, multimedia editing and games.

For many, making hardware and software, like IBM in the 1980s, is an obsolete business model. But the reality is that sales of Apple are growing faster than those of any another brand, and its market value has surpassed that of Citigroup.

Some day it will have to give up its image as the “David” of the industry that it has conserved since it’s inception: according to its stock market value in the middle of April of 2008, Apple is worth 162,000 million dollars, more than IBM (159,000) and only behind three technology companies: Microsoft (290.000), Google (208,000) and Cisco (189.000). Or seen another way: Microsoft has 91% of the market for operating systems, but the value of Apple already represents more than half the business of Bill Gates.

The merits of Apple products have enjoyed detailed coverage in thousands of publications and blogs (a sample of the free publicity that Apple has benefited from since the eighties: an anonymous user explains why he loves his Mac in his personal blog) so there is no need to repeat it. IBM, whose workers have depended historically on Windows machines, is planning a migrating plan to the Mac platform, according to AppleInsider.

Nevertheless, Mac OS X, in the computer as well as in the iPhone, is not an open operating system. Apple retains intellectual control of its system, and its designs from the controllers to the icons on the the Dock (the Mac version of the startup, in Windows, and of the panel of Linux-Ubuntu).

The operating system functions reasonably well, although Apple repeats some of the tics that are disliked by Windows users, such as imposing one way or another their own software over other alternatives: QuickTime over Flash Video (a de facto standard on the Internet), iTunes over any other music application, Aperture and Final Cut before other alternatives, etc.

On the other side, Ubuntu, one of the most popular distributions of Linux, offers a simpler and stabler architecture than in the past, capable of functioning in both work and personal environments. Downloading Ubuntu from the Internet, recording the system on a CD or DVD and installing it after testing it are actions within reach of any veteran computer user. Although it could prove challenging to those who aren’t willing to dedicate a couple hours to reading one of the online tutorials, with installation advice.

The total time, verified by faircompanies, in locating the latest stable version of Ubuntu on the Internet, to download the Live CD file, to record the file downloaded on a virgin CD, to restart the computer and follow the instructions that appear on the screen to try and install the system: 2 hours and 30 minutes.

The installation allows not only the maintenance of Windows XP or Vista on the machine, but it facilitates the automatic importing of a user’s Windows accounts to the Ubuntu accounts.

After this interval, now we are working on this article with the following applications: the basic Ubuntu text editor, Firefox, Skype, Google Docs, Google Apps for Your Domain, Google Mail, and some music (Heartbreaker, by Ryan Adams), playing on the Rhythmbox Music Player.

The music available in the library of this program originates from the iTunes program in the Windows environment of the same computer. One only has to direct it toward the location of the folder from “Import file”.

Other veteran computer users have had less luck than us. This is the case of Alex Wolfe, technology writer for Information Week, who apparently had some problem with the installation.

In the case of Apple, how do you install Mac OS X, if do not want to update your computer from Windows XP to View? The brand from Cupertino is as direct as usual: if you want to use Mac OS, buy a Mac. The increase in sales seems to validate Apple.

Switching to Linux, simpler than expected

Is it simple and viable to use Linux? It’s best to try it yourself. Most distributions of the operating system offer for free the download of a file with extension “.iso” that, once recorded on a CD by the user, can be tested on the computer without needing to download anything on the hard disk.

Data processing manufacturers, like Dell or Asus, now sell some of their computers with Linux preinstalled.

  • The same file Live CD (or Live Distro), a complete operating system stored in an extractable backup (CD or DVD, although it an also be executed from a hard disk or through a remote connection to a server) serve to initiate the installation of the system, if the user is convinced after trying it from the CD.
  • It is possible to user partitions to maintain a copy of Microsoft Windows XP or Vista, Mac OS X Leopard and the chosen version of Linux. The installation assistant carries out all of the work in the case of Ubuntu. It’s not necessary to have any knowledge of Linux.


Geeks like Ubuntu. Its market share is still laughable and it is still necessary, despite the efforts to make it accessible to everyone, to have some experience as a computer user.

Nevertheless, in faircompanies we are carrying out an exhaustive test of this operating system, including the work in this article (with three different desktops working at the same time, each one of which with 10 windows of Firefox open, as well as other applications functioning at the same time).

Most popular versions

Some distributions of Linux have simple documentation and instructions for both the download of the operating system as for its subsequent installation on any computer, independently of its architecture (it usually has version for machines with 32 bit processors, as well as 64 bits, and for PowerPC computers- the old Macs, that now have the same processing architecture as the PC-.

DistroWatch has made an in depth comparison of the different distributions of Linux. It also has a popularity ranking of the different versions. The first 25 positions, from more to less popular: Ubuntu, PCLinuxOS, OpenSUSE, Fedora, Mint, Mandriva, Sabayon, Debian, Damn Small, MEPIS, FreeBSD, Dreamlinux, CentOS, Slackware, Kubuntu, Gentoo, Puppy, Zenwalk, Knoppix, Arch, Sidux, Slax, Vector, Ubuntu Studio, PC-BSD.

Ten biggest distributions in number of users, according to Linuxforums (with their advantages and inconveniences):

  • Debian (Live CD; free). Pros: original philosophy of free software, non-commercial project, strong community, big selection of packages and architectures, one of the best management systems, excellent documentation, extremely stable, modular, fast. / Cons: slow cycle of upgrades, installer based on text (it requires a minimal knowledge of programming), lacking configuration tools.
  • Slackware (Live CD; free). Pros: stable, secure, strong adhesion to the Unix principles, fast and performs well. / Cons: minimal management system, infrequent upgrades, limited detection of hardware.
  • Fedora (Live CD; free). Pros: widely used, good support, innovative, well designed desktop, configuration tools. / Cons: not as stable as Debian or Slackware for the use in servers, nor as simple or updated as Suse or Mandrake for use in desktop computers.
  • Mandriva (Live CD; free). Pros: brought up to date frequently, easy to use, well designed desktop, strong community of developers. / Cons: unstable, launches reserved initially for members “mandrivaClub” and, after several weeks, to the public.
  • Suse (Live CD; commercial). Pros: up to date, easy to use, good design of the user interface, stable. / Cons: lack of speed and performance.
  • Ubuntu (Live CD; free). Pros: enormous and passionate community of users and developers (the Mac-users of the Linux environment), good documentation, up to date, fast release cycle. / Cons: nothing significant (Linuxforums talks about “the business model doesn’t seem to be viable”).
  • Knoppix (Live CD; free). Pros: Live CD, excellent detection of hardware, adequate selection of packages and up to date. / Cons: slow, if it is used from the CD.
  • Gentoo (Live CD; free). Pros: quickly brought up to date, very fast, good documentation. / Cons: tedious and slow installation, and can be unstable.
  • Mepis (Live CD; free). Pros: Live CD installable, preconfigured with the last plugins and codecs. / Cons: is still not well established, poor adhesion to the principles of free software.
  • Xandros (Live CD; commercial). Pros: designed for novices, easy to use, very stable. / Cons: small selection of packages, includes proprietary components, only free for personal use (fees for business users).