Desktop Ready is a bit of a misnomer – a standard that operating systems are measured against in order to fulfill a requirement that no-one has taken the time to spell out definitively. This causes a major problem, from where I stand – and leads me to ask the following questions:

  • How does one measure the “desktop-readiness” of an operating system?
  • If there is a standard – how was it determined?

These two questions, and a few remarks and observations – has lead me to believe there is not one single desktop-ready operating system available today if they are judged by the loose set of criteria we apply to this category. Here’s why I say so:

Criteria 1 – You should not need the command-line to do anything with the Operating System.

This is a hot topic as far as operating systems go. The first thing I ask here is: define Need. I need the command line on almost a daily basis – whether the OS is Windows or Linux. I don’t work as often on MacOS, but I can say this much – if need for the command line was the only criteria to judge the desktop-ready state for an operating system, MacOS would also not make the cut. Here is an interesting article on the use of command-line in MacOS.

A clear definition of needing the command-line needs to be drawn up before this can be used as a meaningful criteria for judging the desktop readiness of a particular OS.

Right now, no OS – and yes Windows Pundits, not even Windows, is completely free from using the command-line from time to time.

Criteria 2 – An operating system should be easy to use.

Right – this is where one particular confusion enters the debate. No operating system today is impossibly difficult to use. People equate being familiar with being easy to use. People are so used to clicking on “START” and “My Computer” to do anything on their computers that they get completely lost when presented with anything BUT that. Now I am not knocking the Windows interface – it is just one of many useable interfaces out there. I enjoy the gnome interface – personally it is my favorite – and clicking on “Applications” to access my installed programs or on “Places” in order to access my personal folders and network places just makes more sense than most interfaces I have come across. Microsoft has lost the plot with Vista and Office 7 though. I find myself continually ending up in the wrong place in Vista – though I must add that users who spend a lot of time in the interface doing basic tasks love it. Office 7 is still a mystery to me, and I spent most of every day in it’s strange interface up until this past weekend.

So – no operating system these days is hard to use – or should I say “Get used to”. Software companies spend a lot of time and effort on making their interfaces friendly and useable – and if you set the bar so high as to disqualify every OS that does not look and feel similar to Windows XP then no current OS except XP (which is being phased out by MS in any case) qualifies as a desktop-ready OS. In fact I bet KDE would be a closer match than Vista.

Criteria 3 – Driver/Hardware Support

This is a contentious issue. Linux critics are quick to shoot down Linux in the desktop-ready debate with this argument, and it is a valid one – to a point. Linux lacks driver support. That is a fact – but it is through no fault of the OS. The issue, and it is really only an issue with brand-new hardware these days, has to do with companies defending their proprietary source code that works with their particular hardware. This is fortunately an issue that is being sorted out at great speed. Ati and Nvidia provide Linux drivers for their hardware and Intel screen cards are well supported. Most hardware these days work very well with almost any version of Linux, wireless network cards are a notable exception to this rule though. When wireless works in Linux – and my personal favourite Ubuntu especially – it works very well. When it doesn’t though, it is a real pain. On to Windows – that stalwart of wireless networking – or is it? Vista STILL has issues with various wireless network cards, and I have come across Vista/Hardware combinations that would only work with certain Wifi protocols. MacOS is almost an exception to this rule – they run the OS on pre-selected hardware, after all.

Pop in an Ubuntu disk into almost any computer/laptop and most things work out of the box – and those that don’t work can be fixed with a simple driver install/download. The days of chugging around in terminal with source tarballs are largely gone.

In fact we have a newish Dell desktop sitting in our workshop that insists on running in 640/480 screen resolution – and we have tried both XP and Vista.

Again, no Operating system qualifies as completely “Desktop-Ready.”

Criteria 5 – Software support and availability.

A lot of programs run on Windows only. That is a fact and one can not look past that. Does this qualify Windows as desktop-ready in this category? No. There are a lot of programs that run on only Linux, and of course MacOS programs are Mac only as well. Let me approach this issue from three angles:

a) Software Compatibility

Here we run into a few issues: Proprietary lock-in is one of them. Many developers only develop for the most common desktop operating system out there – today that is Microsoft Windows. This means that many programs do not have Linux or MacOS ported variants. Many programs developed for MacOS will not run on anything but MacOS. This means that many people will use an operating system based on a favorite piece of software that they use to perform their daily tasks. What has happened recently is that MacOS and Linux have developed tools to use non native software on their platforms. With MacOS you can run a whole OS in Parralels, and with Linux you can use Wine to get many programs written for Windows to work. There are also more and more ports of software available that enable cross platform computing.

Here I am willing to say that Windows might have it’s nose ahead in the desktop stakes – or do they? This leads me to my next angle:

b) Software Interoperability

For a desktop OS to be useable it must allow its users to interact with users of different operating systems seamlessly. Take an e-mail with an attachment as a for-instance. Say Joe Bloggs sends an e-mail to Dave Widget with a Microsoft Word document attached. Joe uses MS Windows XP with Office 2003, and Dave uses Ubuntu with OpenOffice.org. Dave will be able to read, edit and return Joe’s document seamlessly. The same goes for Patty who uses an IMac to work on. Interoperability has become mostly a non-issue as of late. With offerings like OpenOffice that has installers available for Windows, Linux and MacOS one should never be left out of the loop at work or at home. The “or do they” part in my previous paragraph rears it’s ugly head here though. Enter Sally, who uses windows Vista with Office 2007. She sends a mail out to our recipients with a Word document attached. Catch is that she saves it in .docx format. And nobody can read it. She will now have to save the document in .doc format every time she sends it because not even people with Office 2003 will be able to open it if she doesn’t. Right here Microsoft have dealt a blow to the desktop readiness of the Windows/Office combo.

c) Software Availability

This ties in loosely with the “Software Compatibility” I mentioned earlier – but here I want to focus not on using the same software across different Operating Systems, but on what different options are available out there to do certain tasks. Here, depending on what you need, you have thousands of offerings available. Linux has equivalents available for everything that you get on Windows/MacOS, and some things that you won’t find on those platforms. Another point is that your typical Linux live disk (the desktop variants anyway) already include a full-blown office suite, image editor, mail reader and several other tools that the regular desktop user will use. With MacOS and Windows, however, you will find the tools are not installed by default – at least not very good ones – but they are available for purchase. Let me also hasten to add that most of these paid for programs are of very high quality, and that most of the free offerings out there are at least as good.

No operating system will fulfill all your needs though. There is no such thing as a drop-in replacement for another OS/Software combination. There is no drop in product that will instantly meet all your needs. And by this criteria, there is no desktop ready OS. Yes I know I am very strict on this one, but I want to make a point.

Conclusion

There is no truly desktop ready OS. None of the popular offerings out there today meet any of the above criteria satisfactorily. The reason is not that these operating systems are bad, a clearly defined guide for what is a true Desktop OS just does not exist. Without even touching on the common headaches of Security, Virus/Mallware risks and Stability one can already see that some dearly held industry stalwarts don’t make the cut, and some dearly held mainstream hopefuls have a ways to go before they are ready for the masses.

Watch this space though – Software developers and vendors are not asleep, and they are constantly trying to meet the user’s needs. In the case of Microsoft their way of doing it is often puzzling to say the least – and I submit that they are no longer the Desktop OS leaders in terms of useabilit. One must remember that numbers in use does not mean Desktop Ready – and that Desktop Leader is more narrowly defined than that. My sneek feeling is that there is no clear leader if you take everything into account, but given current trends I think MacOS would be a contender for Desktop OS of the future, with a Linux offering – possibly Ubuntu – will be close on its heals, if not in the lead if they fix a few issues. Unless things change drastically though the era of the Microsoft Desktop will be over soon. Already the only claim to desktop ubuquity and software/driver/hardware support is sheer numbers.

And that is an untenable position to occupy.

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