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Windows Vista Business Vs. Ubuntu 8.10

The time was right, following the release of the most recent version of the Ubuntu desktop Linux OS, for Test Center reviewers to take a side-by-side look at the two operating systems.

Driver

In fact, the anti-Vista uproar has been so loud that Microsoft has been forced to keep Windows XP alive in many forms—including as "downgrade options" for OEM customers and, currently, as an option for the new class of PC called netbooks. But, to be fair, Microsoft did fix many issues and problems with Vista when the company released Service Pack 1, and driver and application support has noticeably improved.

But so, too, has Linux—and without the controversy or drawing the anger and wrath of a marketplace. In fact, while Redmond, Wash.-based Microsoft has stumbled over the past two years in gaining acceptance of Vista in the corporate world if not the marketplace in general, various distributions of desktop Linux have been gaining significant support. Lenovo Group, Dell Inc. and Hewlett-Packard Co. now provide at least some client computers with Linux OS as an option.

So the time was right, following the release of the most recent version of the Ubuntu desktop Linux OS, for Test Center reviewers to take a side-by-side look at the two operating systems.

Ubuntu 8.10 Desktop Edition, nicknamed "Intrepid Ibex," provides so much functionality and ease of use, at zero cost of acquisition, that it is really impossible to ignore.

Installation

In previous years, there would have been no contest. For installation, Windows required disks. Linux required disks, line commands, support from online user groups, more line commands, more support and, well, you get the picture. But over the past few years that really hasn't been the case. Installing Ubuntu—or even other distributions of Linux from SuSE to Red Hat/Fedora to smaller distributions like Mandriva—has become a snap. (Customization is another story, though.)

For now, Microsoft has lost any advantage it once had in the basic installation process with Vista against Ubuntu.

Once each OS was installed during evaluation in the Test Center lab, Ubuntu 8.10 scored big against Vista in both performance testing and in wireless integration—areas where Linux has had some trouble in the past.

Edge: Ubuntu

Performance

Using the same custom-built PC test bed loaded with, alternatively, Ubuntu 8.10 and Windows Vista Business, Ubuntu proved to be a quicker installation, scored higher in benchmark testing, managed wireless connectivity more easily and booted slightly faster than Vista. Keep in mind that less than two years ago, wireless integration with Ubuntu was pretty weak and nonintuitive—especially for Linux newbies— while Windows XP enjoyed nearly universal market support. Early results show Ubuntu has closed the gap dramatically.

The Test Center's PC test bed was built with an Intel Core 2 Duo E7200 CPU at 2.53GHz, an Elitegroup Computer Systems G31T-M motherboard with integrated Intel graphics and 2 GB of SDRAM. First, Windows Vista Business was installed on the PC; using Primate Labs' Geekbench benchmarking software the system rang up a score of 2,838. That's about on par with other Vista-based systems we've reviewed this year with similar hardware specs. Geekbench is a multiplatform benchmarking software and scans each system for elements of both hardware and software performance, including floating-point CPU performance and I/O.

We then did a clean install on the same PC with Ubuntu 8.10. Running Geekbench on the PC, the system returned a score of 3,367—a measurable and noteworthy performance spike. Even apart from the Geekbench score, the PC with Ubuntu 8.10 was noticeably faster when opening or switching between applications. Boot time with the PC running Vista was 56 seconds; with Ubuntu 8.10 it took 50 seconds.

Edge: Ubuntu beats Vista on performance.

Connectivity

In Ubuntu 8.10, developers also have integrated a simple, intuitive console for managing wireless connectivity, including for Wi-Fi and broadband wireless. After installation, it took two clicks of the wireless console to hook up the PC to a wireless router. The PC was built with a Linksys Wireless-G PCI adapter, nothing exotic, and connectivity worked like a charm. No line commands were needed; no installation of drivers was needed. It just worked. Connecting to a network via Ethernet, Wi-Fi or wireless broadband is now possible with two clicks.

In a wired Ethernet connection, Vista will in most cases just connect—no questions asked. But to flip between Ethernet and WLAN, for example, does take some clicking back and forth and required additional navigation that isn't always the most intuitive.

Edge: Ubuntu beats Vista on client connectivity.

Portability And Sharing

There are a few other noteworthy improvements in this Ubuntu version vs. the 8.04 release. With two clicks of the management console, a "guest" account can be created to permit more than one person to customize a desktop on the same PC. A guest account can then be saved to a thumb drive and loaded onto another PC. Developers also have provided a streamlined upgrade process to get from one version to the next. (The upgrade process was a little balky when we tried to upgrade from 8.04 to 8.10 inside a Sun VirtualBox virtual machine.)

Windows Vista does provide for sharing and guest use of the client, but it's a much less intuitive and much more restrictive process.

Edge: Ubuntu beats Vista on portability and sharing.

Browser Support

This is where Microsoft does have an advantage with Vista—which supports all the major Web browsers including Firefox 3.0, Chrome, Opera, Safari and, yes, Internet Explorer 7.0. While there are early indications that Internet Explorer 8, which is now in beta, could have some problems unless bugs are resolved prior to launch, the wide array of popular browsers that run on Vista is an advantage for the folks in Redmond.

A number of niche browsers do perform on Ubuntu, which is bundled with Firefox. And some may even say that its inability to run Internet Explorer is actually an advantage. But a growing segment of users may find themselves switching back and forth between different browsers for different reasons (for example, iPhone users may lean toward Apple's Safari browser even on Windows for a number of portability and consistency reasons.) A limited lineup of browsers compatible with Linux and Ubuntu won't help anyone seeking to migrate. In this case, Vista gets the nod for browser support, but its advantage over Ubuntu is a relatively small factor in measuring the overall capabilities between the two operating systems.

Edge: Vista has the advantage over Ubuntu. Price

Here, there is no argument. Ubuntu is free, as in no cost of acquisition. Microsoft has set a variety of different pricing schemes—not only from Vista Ultimate to Vista Business and all the other flavors of Vista, but even from OEM to OEM and solution provider to solution provider. In a down economy, that may start to matter as more enterprises determine that it's simply more efficient to install Ubuntu 8.10 at no up-front cost—even as a bridge until Microsoft launches Windows 7.

Edge: Ubuntu beats Vista on acquisition price.

Support And Road Map

Canonical Ltd., London, the organization that oversees development of Ubuntu, releases a new version of Ubuntu every six months, the most recent being version 8.04 in April. That version, nicknamed Hardy Heron, is considered a long-term support release, meaning free updates will be made available to that version for three years. Version 8.10, released last year, will receive updates for 18 months.

Microsoft has been unusually aggressive in publicly working on its next-generation, post-Vista OS, Windows 7. While the company has said nothing publicly nor has anything been set in stone, some believe that Windows 7 could begin to appear in the market as early as 2009—much quicker of a move on the road map than was Microsoft's move from Windows XP to Windows Vista. From a consistency perspective, Microsoft's road map leaves something to be desired, especially for solution providers and CIOs who are advising and planning for three years out.

Ironically, when it comes to Windows and Ubuntu, leaders in both camps have been recognizing strengths in the other and trying to introduce their more attractive points into their own operating systems.

For example, Mark Shuttleworth, founder of Ubuntu, has continually stated that one of his goals is to make the user experience in Ubuntu attractive and rewarding enough to longtime users of Windows so that they'll be comfortable in making the switch.

"Windows is a very important platform, and our justifiable pride in Linux and the GNU stack shouldn't blind us to the importance of delivering software that is widely useful," Shuttleworth wrote last year in between the releases of Ubuntu 8.04 and Ubuntu 8.10. "I believe in bringing free software to people in a way that is exciting and empowering to them, and one of the key ways to do that is to show them amazing free software running on their familiar platform, whether that's Windows or the Mac OS.

"Firefox, for example, is an inspiring free software success story, and I'm certain that a key driver of that success is their excellent support for the Windows environment. It's a quick download and an easy install that 'just works,' after which people can actually feel that free software delivers an innovative and powerful browsing experience that is plainly better than the proprietary alternatives. I've noticed that many of the best free software projects have a good Windows story. MySQL and PostgreSQL both do. Bazaar works well too. And users love it—users that may then be willing to take a step closer to living in the GNU world entirely."

One response by the Ubuntu community has been development of WUBI, or Windows-based Ubuntu Installer. WUBI writes the entire Ubuntu OS as a file on a Windows machine. While the world is much more familiar today with dual-boot systems, for novice users—or for anyone who is put off by fear of losing data—doing so might not be viewed as much of an option. But with WUBI, there is no partitioning of the disk drive; it can install or be uninstalled in a Windows Control Panel under the add/remove function.

"Being able to install and uninstall a Linux OS as if it were a Windows app is a brilliant innovation," Shuttleworth added.

On the Microsoft side of the equation, the company has been quite public about its desire to make its server-side technology work better with Linux; the company still has a working relationship with Novell, Waltham, Mass., that has Microsoft distributing "coupons" for the server version of Novell's SuSE operating system.

And thanks to virtualization, either operating system can be run as a guest with the other operating system as a host. For example, Sun Microsystems Inc.'s VirtualBox application can run in either Linux or Windows; a Ubuntu user can load Windows onto a PC, and a Windows user can load Ubuntu in a virtual machine.

More than a decade ago, Microsoft challenged and defeated an attempt by IBM Corp., Armonk, N.Y., to keep a foot in the door of the desktop operating system space when IBM brought to market, invested in, developed and maintained its OS/2 and OS2 Warp operating systems. There were significant segments of the market that truly believed OS/2 was superior, yet Microsoft's Windows still won the day, the year, the decade. It's unclear now whether the exact same thing is happening.

But while the Linux community and Ubuntu development community are vast and quick moving and, in some cases, are backed by hardware guys like Round Rock, Texas-based Dell Inc., there is, by and large, no throat to choke when something goes wrong. Microsoft might not always leave solution providers or customers satisfied, but there's an entity that remains legally responsible for much of the technology it places into the marketplace.

In addition, Microsoft remains aggressive about pushing out updates to Vista as an operating system and delivering patches when holes are discovered.

Edge: On support and road map, Microsoft gets a very slight advantage.

Application Support

It's also important to note that the ecosystem around Ubuntu has grown significantly over the past couple of years as well. Canonical continues to bundle key application software with Ubuntu, including OpenOffice.org, Rhythmbox (music management software that can integrate with MP3 players including iPods), Firefox 3.0, GIMP photo editing software and more. However, it is—and will be for a while—a Windows world when it comes to application support. Whether for multimedia, business, network, client, gaming, productivity (and on and on and on), Microsoft enjoys a much stronger position than Ubuntu with application support. It's not as much a criticism of Ubuntu or Linux as it is an acknowledgment of the deep roots of Microsoft's ecosystem in the IT world. On application support, it's not even close: Microsoft's advantage is overwhelming. That may deteriorate in the near term as software-as-a-service and cloud computing grow.

Edge: In the here and now, the Linux community falls short of Microsoft on this point. Security

While some may argue—and credibly—that the Windows platform is much more vulnerable from a security perspective than Linux because it's a bigger target, Windows Vista Business allows for a nice, drill-down level of security management on a client-by-client basis via its Local Security Policy console. And Vista has been tuned to run hand-in-glove with Windows Server 2008, which the Test Center has previously found to be unparalleled in terms of its ROI potential, management features, scalability and flexibility.

From our vantage point, Windows Vista Business still maintains an advantage in terms of strength of network management and administration in Windows environments (surprise, surprise.) After all, Windows servers—including Server 2003 and Server 2008—have an optimal working relationship with Windows clients. But even there, the Vista installed base in commercial settings in North America shows no signs yet of hitting a crossover point with Windows XP in terms of installed base.

Edge: On security, it's essentially a tie.

A Look Ahead

Ubuntu developers are scheduled to release the next version of the OS, Ubuntu 9.04, code-named Jaunty Jackalope, in April. In that version, expect the OS to come bundled with the newest versions of open-source applications like OpenOffice.org 3.0, the latest release of GIMP photo editing software and more.

For its part, Microsoft continues to make Windows XP available on netbook platforms, and is expected to release Vista Service Pack 2 in the near term. An early look at Windows 7 shows some improvements in areas such as User Account Control, better personalization and improvements to Bit Locker, and support for multitouch technology, among other things.

Our analysis of Windows 7 pre-beta and beta versions also reveals the OS may be the most secure ever produced by Microsoft. However, it's still unclear—even if Ubuntu and other Linux distributions provide improvements in their next iterations—whether Microsoft will pick up an appreciable edge in security over its open-source rivals.

But we're more than a little concerned about how tightly Internet Explorer 8 is tied to the Windows 7 platform; public remarks about Interent Explorer 8 in beta testing have not been kind and other ISVs, including McAfee, continue to exhibit show-stopping incompabilities in some applications with Microsoft's next-generation browser. Vendors and communities may point fingers back and forth about who is to blame for not being compatible with the other software, but for us that misses the point. Ubuntu's platform is not tied to Internet Explorer and Mozilla's Firefox platform shows no such show-stoppers in how it works with the open-source OS.

Windows 7 shows improvement over Vista, but not in a dramatic way. Indications are that the change from Vista to Windows 7 will be much more subtle than the sea change solution providers, VARs and their customers experienced when confronted with trying to switch from Windows XP to Vista.

The Bottom Line

Ubuntu 8.10 Desktop Edition easily ranks higher than any other Linux desktop OS we've looked at in the Test Center. Head to head, Ubuntu simply beats Vista on so many important points that Windows is no longer the simple, reflexive default. We're calling this one for Ubuntu, plain and simple, because it's a beautifully done operating system, it functions as advertised, it's easier on the client side to get up and running and it costs less. Application support is still a big deal working against it.

We understand that not every solution provider and not every customer will exactly be eager to make the jump from Windows to Linux on the desktop. VARs may also fear they'd lose out on financial incentives that Microsoft might provide, while Ubuntu provides no rebates or spifs.

But because Linux is developed under the General Public License, solution providers can, in effect, set end-user pricing themselves. And customers need not change all at once; some customers may be much more amenable to installing Ubuntu in a VirtualBox VM on some Windows desktops to test it out.

Just because Ubuntu 8.10 is a desktop OS that's ready for prime time doesn't mean that everybody should make the jump all at once. Take baby steps, if that works better. But know that the steps are a lot easier to take than in the past.

One point to remember is that the Test Center doesn't dislike Windows Vista. It works fine (with enough CPU strength and 4 GB of memory installed). It just works less fine than Ubuntu 8.10.

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