The first beta of Microsoft’s forthcoming Windows 8 operating system arrives later this month, but in the meantime you have a chance now to give a quick look to some of the most interesting versions of the Linux desktop to emerge in some time.
You will, most likely, make your decision on whether to embrace Windows 8 on factors other than the strength of Linux distributions, if history repeats itself. But the current generation of Linux OSes will provide you with a better gauge than ever on whether Windows provides the value worthy of a multi-year investment.
Here are a few reasons why you should evaluate the new Linux:
• Set it, and forget it. Unlike previous versions of distros such as Ubuntu, Fedora and others, you truly can forget about mind-numbing line commands when you need to do stuff. That’s because developers have worked hard over the past decade to take out a lot of the heavy lifting of tasks like navigating through the file system, finding the applications you need, synchronizing with wired and wireless networks and even printing. Distros like Ubunto 11.10 and LinuxMint 12 are among the most intuitive to use yet of Linux-based desktops.
• Security. Full-drive encryption in some distros, notably Fedora 16, is available with the tap of a couple of buttons on installation. Hackers have already largely ignored Linux, but added layers of security like encryption make some distros of Linux even more secure than the last time you may have checked them out.
• It’s free, as in beer. Microsoft has not yet established pricing for Windows 8, and probably won’t until just before the general release expected late this year. But distros like Ubuntu, LinuxMint and others already have: $0. That doesn’t mean that value-added resellers can’t provide it at a fee for also offering services -- such as data migration. But licensing fees won’t be an issue for those adopting most Linux desktop operating systems.
• A GUI you’re used to. Windows 8 will give you the choice between its new, tile-based Metro interface and a more recognizable GUI, but a GUI that will be slightly different nonetheless. However, Ubuntu, Fedora, LinuxMint and others will still provide, basically, the type of interface to which we’ve all become accustomed. While Microsoft’s Metro will be aimed at making the interface unified between PCs and mobile devices, it will no doubt offer some disruption to those who just need to still get work done. So for those who have been reluctant to look at Linux because of the disruption it would cause in a workplace, Microsoft will cause at least a small tremor of disruption with Windows 8.
• Customized distros. Windows 8 will have versions for tablets, smart phones and PCs. But Linux distros like BackTrack Linux and WebConverger 11.0 provide customized, fixed-function support for security testing and digital signage, respectively, and there will almost certainly be other fixed-function versions in the near future. (WebConverger will, at this point, run a fee of $150 for your specific, customized version.)
• Application Support. A key knock against Linux distros has been the relative dearth of application support by ISVs compared to the Microsoft platform. But application support for Linux continues to grow every day and suites like LibreOffice continue to close the gap with rivals like Microsoft Office. Other applications like Thunderbird have also continued to improve.
Migrating from one operating system to another, even under the best of circumstances, will cause a disruption. So with Windows 8 starting, once again, the process of determining when and how that disruption will take place, this is as good a time as any to look at Windows alternatives. Peering out into the new Linux distros may be a bit more surprising -- in a good way -- than you’ve seen in the past.