The launch of Windows Vista sparked controversy amongst the PC community, at a time when there is growing interest in Linux and other open source alternatives. Matt Grainger takes a look at the key players in the operating system space?

Smooth Operators

On January 30th last year, Microsoft released Windows Vista, which was almost immediately met with howls of derision. True, there were plenty of people who had no problems with the system, but detractors tend to shout very loudly and it would even seem that the chorus of protest has hurt Microsoft’s market share. It is with this in mind that PC Retail decided to take a look at the sector.

"Microsoft appear trapped in a negative publicity spiral, which the consumer press (quite apart from IT industry commentators) are promoting. ‘Vista Is A Failure’ they’re all shouting, so naturally computer buyers are more open to consider alternative systems," says Robert Peckham of the Mac Technology Association.

It has been an upsurge of interest in the non- Microsoft operating systems that has reduced the giant’s market share. At the time of writing, Windows enjoys a decisive 91 per cent market share, so unlike other markets it is inevitable that any growth in the ‘other’ segment comes at the expense of Microsoft. The two main desktop-based rivals are the Mac and Linux.

At this time, the greatest obstacle to the advancement of Windows Vista is Windows XP. It has sat comfortably as the king of operating systems for quite some time, but things weren’t always so. After its launch in 2002, Intel announced that it would be holding on to Windows 2000 and Microsoft faced various antitrust lawsuits over the integrated media player and messaging service.

However, after hundreds of updates, tweaks and a few service packs, the system has become widely adopted – even by Intel. Indeed, it is now relatively stable and so ubiquitous – even loved – that there is a campaign to save it from its imminent demise.

It’s the imminent demise of Windows XP that has created such furore, as well as generating interest in the alternatives. Microsoft UK’s, Windows OEM & WGA product manager Lawrence Painell attributes this to a number of reasons: "Windows XP has a great design from an engineering and compatibility perspective, and as we know Windows supports more of the devices customers use, such as printers, music players and cameras, straight out of the box.

"Also, the great support from Microsoft and our partner network means that there is always someone who can provide a solution to a problem, whether it is hardware, software or services. The other key factor is the length of the release, which at seven years, was far longer than for any other operating system Microsoft has ever released."

For many users, the operating system is the ‘face’ of their computer; it is the interface that defines a PC and there is arguably none so well defined as the Apple Mac OS series.

The Mac OS is often praised for its stability and efficiency and the system has many exclusive features and some that have been imitated for Windows. "Despite Microsoft’s blatant ‘adoption’ of many aspects of OSX’s features and operations in Vista, it is still the more logical operation and ease of use that sets Apple’s operating system apart from the competition," says Peckham.

It has an array of integrated widgets and runs a fully compatible version of Microsoft Office. Additionally, due to its architectural security and relatively small market share, security is remarkably tight.

Gamers may be frustrated by the lack of compatible titles, but in fact the vast majority of available software is designed to be compatible with Microsoft Windows. And the Mac OS does support virtualisation programs such as Boot Camp or Parallels that considerably widen the range of available software.

Unfortunately, Apple prevents the Mac OS from running on non-Mac hardware and it cannot even be run on a PC using virtualisation software. This hardware specific policy has allowed open computing firm PsyStar to accuse Apple of anticompetitive behaviour in a counter-suit, alleging that it is creating a monopoly by tying the software to ‘generic hardware’.

"There are the first signs of the return of Apple ‘clone’ computers into the Mac market, but these may well falter as Apple legal starts to head them off," says Peckham. "However, once upon a time it was unthinkable to believe that Apple would ever switch to using Intel processors in their computers, and yet here I am working on a MacBook powered by a Core 2 Duo engine, so really who knows what Apple will decide to do next?"

A segment of the market that is unlikely to be accused of anti-trust is the Linux freeware sector. Although the Linux system takes up a comparatively tiny proportion of the market, it has a vocal group of advocates, and has shown incremental market growth over the last ten years.

"The trend is definitely upwards for sure," says Red Hat’s Nick Carr. "You’re never going to see a situation where there is less being used than the previous year. I think what’s really driving growth is that open source software is getting more capable and mature as time passes, so its more competitive in all sectors."

Linux also has the highest security rating out of all the available operating systems. This is due to the comparatively low market share of Linux and the generally higher technical expertise of Linux users. There has not yet been a single widespread threat to Linux systems.

However, it is precisely these attributes that often discourage users from installing Linux. For every tech-savvy PC owner who complains that Windows ‘dumbs down’ the interface there is a further nine users who have limited knowledge of computers, who praise its simplicity.

Nonetheless, some more recent releases for Linux have aimed to change this. The most recent offering, Ubuntu, offers a user-friendly interface and a raft of free software as part of the package. This system is aimed chiefly at the home user, which is reflected in its rich graphical interface and simplicity of use. The system is free to download although the developer Canonical does charge for technical support.

Another big player in the Linux sector is Red Hat, the subscription based operating system that is aimed towards the server sector. Red Hat’s marketing manager, Nick Carr, attributes the success of open source software to the year-on-year improvement of the services offered: "I think that five years ago, Open Office couldn’t hold a candle up to Microsoft, I think that year-on-year more people are finding Open Office to be a suitable replacement.

"If you look at [Red Hat’s] Fedora or any open source desktop now, they’re very competent and very capable. We’re seeing high uptake with students and that’s what they’ll take on into their commercial lives."

The recent increased interest in the ‘alternative’ operating systems has been mostly at the expense of Windows Vista, which has suffered a high volume of negative press since its release, so much so that Microsoft has embarked on its own PR drive.

Vista does have a vastly improved graphical interface, on par with Apple’s OSX and the security has been significantly tightened, especially when compared to XP. However, Vista is still likely to be a major target for malware developers in the future, again due to a large user base.

It is also DirectX 10 enabled, which will please gamers and features a number of new or improved functions such as Internet Explorer 7 and Remote Access.

Detractors point to the low uptake from the business sector – including Intel – which has shown reluctance to invest in the new software. However, it is misleading to use this argument as it fails to account for the high costs facing businesses when they change systems.

Licensing, staff retraining, hardware upgrades and physical install must all be budgeted for when undertaking such a change so it is always likely that business uptake will be slower than the home market.

Painell is keen to address the naysayers: "Windows Vista is doing very well. Above all, customers are satisfied with the product. According to our research, 89 per cent of customers who routinely use Vista today are either satisfied or very satisfied with their experience. The product has improved dramatically since launch.

Microsoft and our partners have worked extremely hard since then to fix incompatibilities, and have shipped SP1 and other Windows Updates. Long-term changes designed to bring customers forward are paying off, but they also created near-term pain for customers immediately following launch 18 months ago."

Despite the media frenzy surrounding Vista and the potential redistribution of market share, its probable that in future the boundaries of market share will become far more overlapped due to the increasing popularity of virtualisation. This allows multiple operating systems to be run on one PC.

Asked about how he would increase Linux’s market share, Carr opines: "I think the answer to that is more subtle. We are seeing more people who are running windows virtualised on their desktops. Applications and games can be run on a virtualised desktop over an open source operating system. I think wholesale migration to Linux is unlikely but co-existence through virtualisation will be more common."

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