While the answer is unclear, Microsoft Corp. surprised many of the attendees at its annual worldwide partner show here this weekend by allowing a third party to present a "hands-on lab" that allowed attendees to play with a range of Linux desktop software.
Titled "Linux and Open Source: Understanding the Competitive Challenge," and run by Don Johnson, an electrical engineer from Techstream Inc., the lab let attendees, many of whom were not familiar with Linux, experiment with KDE (K Desktop Environment) as well as see the Apache Web server in action.
In addition, Johnson, who has been a system administrator and is familiar with both Microsoft and open-source solutions, gave them an overview of some Linux concepts and what he believed were the key tradeoffs between Windows and Linux.
However, it was clear that his bias lay firmly on the Windows side for the most part.
Johnson did clarify at the start of the lab that he was not anti-Microsoft and offered kudos to the software giant for allowing him to offer the lab.
He also highlighted the difference in emphasis between the two operating systems: Windows, which focuses on integration; and Linux, which is flexible and modular.
There are essentially three key Windows/Linux tradeoffs, "which can be spun either way, depending on the application," he said.
The first is integration versus flexibility.
The Linux operating system is far more flexible than Windows, he said, as the source code can be changed and then recompiled.
"But the price for that is the issue of complexity and a lack of customized integration for the Linux user," Johnson said.
The second issue focused on whether the operating system is user-friendly or expert-friendly.
Linux has been written for those who have more IT expertise and knowledge, whereas Windows is designed from the ground up to be user-friendly: "There is a steep learning curve associated with using Linux," he said.
The third tradeoff for users is the matter of a proprietary or single architecture versus an open one that runs on several hardware platforms.
"Linux runs on just about anything, whereas Windows has a targeted platform focus," he said, adding that one of the main reasons people started looking at Linux was to avoid vendor lock-in.
"But the different Linux distributions, particularly those from Red Hat and Novells SuSE Linux, also essentially lock them in as switching from one to the other is by no means easy, although probably not as difficult as migrating from Windows to Linux. But it is a lot more difficult than many of the distributors allow users to believe," Johnson said.
Open-source software design clearly favors modularity and flexibility over integration, and Linux users will not be able to escape some of the complexities of Unix, like knowing where the command line is and how it works, he said.
Device drivers are also problematic for Linux, Johnson said, because while there are several hardware vendors committed to Linux solutions and to releasing device drivers, a lot of this device driver support lags for Linux and is often almost immediately available for Windows, he said.
"Device driver support is still an issue for Linux and its users," he said, pointing to the fact that it is still hard for some users to install and upgrade Linux device drivers.
Many open-source applications, like Apache, now also run on both Windows and Linux, "which is something to bear in mind," he said.