Is it time for the Linux desktop?

Is Linux an alternative for Windows in 2019? Ready to take the FOSS plunge?
18 December 2018 | 339 Shares

The ‘latest’ IBM Linux Watch during a press conference in Taipei, 2002. Source: AFP

Despite once being termed “a cancer” by Microsoft’s Steve Balmer, the Linux operating system has won, we’re told.

The vast majority of the world’s online services now run on Linux. Websites, communications packages, ERPs, databases and almost every software-as-a-service available online runs on, and is powered by, some variant on Linux— even the PS4 gaming console runs a flavor of it— so why in the majority of workplaces do the desktop machines still run Windows?

Fire up your desktop computer or open the laptop, and it’s the Windows splash screen that greets us – mostly. Will that ever change, and will Linux ever make the transition to the everyday computing environment which many of us utilize to get work done?

Readers of a certain age may recall the decision taken by Germany city Munich’s government to switch to open source solutions for its IT infrastructure back in 2003. It had decided on a Linux variant as an operating system, and use of OpenOffice instead of Microsoft Office. Since then, the council has voted to switch back to Windows 10, a transition to be completed by 2023, quoting reasons of interoperability between Linux and proprietary systems.

But the IT environment has changed significantly in the last few years, most significantly in this context with the rise of cloud computing. Where even ten years ago the predominant desktop model was one of local application installation, now many apps run in the cloud, with only an internet connection required on modest hardware to run enterprise-class applications.

Google’s Chromebook concept has made some headway in exploiting this new computing paradigm, with Chrome OS happily operating on low-end laptops. Both Android and Chrome OS are arguably from the open-source stable, so could the concept spread to other free and open source software (FOSS) deployments in time?

Google as a company runs Linux (Goobuntu) on the machines of most staff. Users who need or prefer Windows as their operating system have to apply for special dispensation to do so. And while one of the world’s biggest companies has greater resources than just about every other organization on the planet, their experiences may be an example others can follow.

So what are the issues that need to be considered if we’re to re-examine the possibility of FOSS on the desktop once more in 2019?

Microsoft’s revenue growth to 2018. Source: Statista

Money

Deployment of any IT platform involves a calculation of total cost against potential gains.

  • Software license cost, if any. Put simply Windows 10 and Microsoft Office cost money; the FOSS alternatives do not.
  • Service and support costs. Red Hat may be a free OS, but the company makes its not unsubstantial income by support and service. But Linux-based computing tends to run more reliably and securely than its commercial counterparts, with significantly lower support costs – companies with all-Apple desktops will happily tell you that their machines (running a BSD variant) rarely go wrong.
  • Migration – like any deployment, the process of a new platform’s rollout can be significant and encompass many factors such as staffing, training, testing, maintenance, and monitoring.
  • Integration – the presence of legacy systems brings up issues of Linux/FOSS working alongside or with proprietary software & systems.

Training

Getting staff to move over to a new operating system needn’t be a high hurdle to overcome. There are, if necessary, versions of Linux (or rather, GUIs to Linux) that look and feel a lot like Windows. The image of Linux as being difficult to use, and needing command-line knowledge is long gone. The most common distribution of Linux, Ubuntu, ships with a highly attractive, usable and stable desktop that is learned quickly and easily.

Drop into BIOS to change OS. Source: FOSS Bytes

Installation

One of the big stumbling blocks to people using Linux is the difficulty many experience in getting it installed onto a PC. There’s the long download of .iso images, making and ‘burning’ boot devices, then possible BIOS/UEFI reconfiguration. After that, wiping and partitioning disks isn’t a simple task, plus there are the issues surrounding hardware devices (such as wireless cards) and the availability of Linux drivers.

The big difference here between traditional Windows machines and Linux is that Windows comes as part of OEM installs. In fact, installing Windows from scratch is just as problematic as any other operating system install, Linux included – it’s just that we rarely have to bother.

In some geographies, machine manufacturers offer Linux OS pre-installed on desktops and laptops, plus such pre-configuration is always available from boutique PC vendors.

But if an organization has a dedicated IT department, or the funds required for one factored into its TCO calculations, then getting Linux rolled out needn’t be an issue for the end-users.

Applications

Every organization uses its own apps and interfaces, so instead of attempting to discuss every possible application’s viability in an all-Linux environment, we instead have taken a single member of the TechHQ team’s application choices, and have seen if they can be replicated– or improved upon– in FOSS.

As you’ll see from the table here, in the majority of cases, there is either a web-based alternative or – if on-machine deployment is necessary (for working offline, for example)– a native Linux alternative.

There are some variations that a simple table can’t cover in the context of an either/or comparison. Users of Google’s G-Suite of online applications can, for instance, opt to work on documents offline, or online as normal. Microsoft’s online versions of Office have slightly different functionality from the installed app versions– as ever, the devil’s in the detail (or, in computing terms, in the testing).

None shall parse? Source: Wikipedia

For that problematic use-case scenario of where a proprietary piece of software is an absolute must, there’s always the virtualized operating machine. One such example came up during this article’s research, where a highly-complex Excel formula simply wouldn’t parse into any other application. As a temporary workaround, we’d suggest a hosted version on the desktop of Window/Office – but clearly, this isn’t a sensible way forward in the main.

Windows-native application FOSS version Cloud version FOSS alternative
Internet Explorer/Edge No N/A Chromium, Firefox
Outlook No Yes Evolution, Thunderbird
Word/Excel/PowerPoint No Yes WPS Office, Libre Office
Grammarly Web plug-in Yes Writefull, Slick Write
Dropbox Yes Yes Seafile, NextCloud
OneDrive Yes (unofficial) Yes pCloud, Spider Oak
NotePad No No SimpleNote, SublimeText
Spotify Yes Yes Musicolet, Spotify as a Snap
Acrobat PDF Reader No No Evince, Ocular
Adobe PhotoShop No No GIMP, Inkscape

In conclusion, here are some of the pros and cons that TechHQ found in the course of our research. As mentioned above, mass deployment of Linux would depend very much on many factors, with total cost probably at the heart of any decision.

Availability of training for staff, company ethos, IT support budgets– all will play their part. In short, however, here’s what we surmised, from a technology point of view:

Advantages

  • Linux runs for longer on what in the Windows world becomes legacy hardware. A modest processor and 4GB of RAM is ample for most users, so IT departments can expect hardware to last over five years, not the more traditional two or three.
  • Applications and services can be customized by organizations to serve their ends with relative simplicity.
  • There are significantly fewer cybersecurity concerns on Linux than on Microsoft solutions, plus OS and application patches tend to have less impact on the day-to-day running of the organization.

Disadvantages

  • Initial installation onto computers of different configurations can be problematic, especially when it comes to drivers for wi-fi connections, touchscreens and so on.
  • System compatibility with existing proprietary systems can be difficult. Companies locked into the Microsoft Windows/Office/SharePoint/Exchange environment will struggle in the short term.
  • Decision-makers and support staff may take some convincing to switch to FOSS, not because of any inherent problems with the platform, but rather because of complaints from users unhappy with having to change or relearn.