Windows is weak: Where's the Alternative?

Posted by helios on Jul 16, 2005 8:31 AM EDT
C/NET; By Molly Wood
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I'm not convinced that the Linux community can pull it together enough to get behind one truly dominant distro. Part of the problem is that the anarchic and altruistic nature of the open-source movement keeps it from sacrificing features and quality in order to carpet-bomb the market with a product that works just well enough for mass adoption.

So, here are the four pillars of technology that Windows Longhorn was supposed to deliver:

* Windows Future Store, or WinFS, a file structure that would allow for databaselike searching on your desktop. You could organize files by context, location, or metadata, greatly simplifying information storage and retrieval. WinFS would basically abstract your information; you wouldn't need to worry about where it was literally stored, since you could just search for anything, anywhere on your hard drive, and have it pop up in a single results pane.

* Avalon, the presentation and graphics infrastructure, including the new XAML programming model for application UI design.

* Indigo, the collection of .Net technologies that serves as a communications platform for applications and Web services.

* Fundamentals, comprising tweaks and new technology to improve the OS's stability, speed, and security. This would include "trusted Windows" security features based on the Next Generation Secure Computing Base (NGSCB), which shifts sensitive data and operations into a separate compartment of the operating system.

Here's what you'll be getting.

* No WinFS--not for the desktop, not for the server.

* Indigo and Avalon have been uncoupled from Longhorn, meaning they'll be made available as, essentially, plug-ins to Windows XP when and if they're completed.

* The thinnest possible delivery of NGSCB. Microsoft said its application developers objected to the idea of rewriting their apps in order to create a secure vault for sensitive information, and so it's shelved most of its ambitious security plan in favor of something more palatable to developers.

Windows: a limping giant At this point, Longhorn seems to be a largely cosmetic upgrade--something that helps you organize your data a bit better, thanks to graphical views, shortcuts, and desktop search aided by behind-the-scenes indexing. And since most of its key features have been or will be made available for Windows XP, Microsoft finds itself in the unenviable position of trying to convince the public that Longhorn, far from being a crucial update or a hotly anticipated new version, even matters at all. (Hint: if you have to say it, it's already too late.)

TalkBack Is Windows on its last legs? Talk back to me! Post your comment here The long-awaited 64-bit Windows has arrived, but without strong application support or really much fanfare at all. Plus, on the server side, poor Steve Ballmer was forced to admit that Microsoft needs to support Linux servers, because so many of its own clients are headed rapidly in that direction. The company has been forced to release stripped-down, low-cost versions of Windows to developing countries, hoping to counter the growing threat of both piracy and Linux, and the product really isn't taking off.

I think you know what I'm getting at. Windows is weak. So where's the alternative? There may never be another moment in time like this: the giant is flagging, and a few well-aimed slingshot missiles could bring it down for good. Now is the time to beat Microsoft. The problem is, no one's stepping up to fill the void.

Enter the arena Excluding complete vaporware, like the intriguing possibility of Google delivering the Next Big Thing in operating systems, I think Apple is the most perfectly poised to strike a killer blow. But it will have to untie the Mac from OS X. Some people want attractive, killer-design, expensive hardware, and that's why they buy Sony and Apple. Other people--and a heck of a lot more of them--want function-over-form, inexpensive hardware that they can buy, sell, hack, and tweak like any other commodity. They buy Dell, Gateway, and Windows. If those people start buying Tiger, Apple suddenly owns the joint.

This scenario is not even remotely out of the realm of possibility. Tiger is based on Unix, for Pete's sake. There's no reason it can't run on Intel-based PCs. Apple's already using Intel processors in its Xserve RAID storage system. Steve Jobs said in 2003 that it was technically feasible to port OS X--then in Panther stages--to any processor, but as recently as February, Apple chief financial officer Peter Oppenheimer said the company has no plans to switch platforms. It should. People would use OS X if they didn't have to buy a new computer to get it (heck, by some accounts, Tiger and Longhorn are darn near the same thing). Apple should do the switching for them.

Linux will almost certainly beat Microsoft in the server space, given time, but what about the desktop? The most promising contenders have either faltered or failed to catch on. I truly believed Red Hat could succeed on the desktop, but, along with a series of other mistakes, it launched this bizarre, confusing Fedora project, trading away brand recognition and confusing consumers about whether it would even support the new desktop product. SuSE Linux was bought by Novell and has since focused mainly on its Professional packages. Xandros sold supercheap operating systems, even giving away a stripped-down desktop product, packaged it with familiar compatible apps such as OpenOffice, and simplified installation. But it just never caught on. Linspire, formerly Lindows, was really just a vehicle for low-cost PCs and operated more like a Web service than an OS.

I'm not convinced that the Linux community can pull it together enough to get behind one truly dominant distro. Part of the problem is that the anarchic and altruistic nature of the open-source movement keeps it from sacrificing features and quality in order to carpet-bomb the market with a product that works just well enough for mass adoption. That's the Microsoft MO, after all. And even if Linux can pull it off, time is ticking. Microsoft will pull it together eventually, and Linux's moment may pass. Still, I'm willing to consider the possibility. Linux, your deadline is Christmas, 2006. Let's see what you can do.

In the meantime, the best alternative to Windows is Windows. Longhorn's not likely to get far off the ground, and if Microsoft plans to keep back-porting features to Windows XP, that operating system will probably hang around long, long past the point Bill Gates wants it to. That's probably OK--most users have few complaints about XP, unless they're the "complain about Microsoft no matter what" types. It's relatively fast and stable, although its security, as always, leaves much to be desired. It won't be an easy sell, convincing people to give up XP for something new, but that's the sell that Microsoft is hoping to make with Longhorn. As long as Microsoft is going door-to-door, hat in hand, why shouldn't someone else beat it to the buzzer?

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