Microsoft’s Windows 8 dominated countless headlines in the weeks leading up to its launch late last month, but October saw the debut of another major operating system as well.
Canonical’s Ubuntu 12.10 “Quantal Quetzal” arrived a week ahead of its competitor, in fact, accompanied by a challenge: “Avoid the pain of Windows 8.” That slogan appeared on the Ubuntu home page for the first few hours after the OS’s official launch, and attracted considerable attention.
Apparently Canonical decided to tone down its message later in the day—the slogan now reads “Your wish is our command“—but it seems fair to say that the underlying challenge remains.
Window of opportunity
Ubuntu is a widely popular open-source Linux distribution with eight years of maturity under its belt, and more than 20 million users. Of the roughly 5 percent of desktop OSs accounted for by Linux, at least one survey suggests that about half are Ubuntu. (Windows, meanwhile, accounts for about 84 percent.)
The timing of this latest Ubuntu release couldn’t be better for Windows users faced with the paradigm-busting Windows 8 and the big decision of whether to take the plunge.
Initial uptake of Windows 8 has been unenthusiastic, according to reports, and a full 80 percent of businesses will never adopt it, Gartner predicts. As a result, Microsoft’s big gamble may be desktop Linux’s big opportunity.
So, now that Canonical has thrown down the gauntlet, let’s take a closer look at Ubuntu 12.10 to see how it compares with Windows 8 from a business user’s perspective.
1. Unity vs. Modern UI
Both Microsoft and Canonical have received considerable flak for the default user interfaces in their respective OSs. In Microsoft’s case, of course, it’s the Modern UI, formerly known as Metro; in Canonical’s case, it’s Unity. Both are designed with touchscreens in mind, and borrow heavily from the mobile world.
By removing the Start button and overhauling the way users interact with the operating system, Windows 8’s Modern interface poses a considerable challenge for users, who face a significant learning curve.
Unity, on the other hand, became a default part of Ubuntu back in April 2011 with Ubuntu 11.04 “Natty Narwhal.” It has definitely undergone growing pains, but more than a year has passed, and Canonical has revised the interface accordingly. Although it still has numerous critics, most people concede that it has matured and improved. Some observers, in fact, have even suggested that it may feel more familiar to many longtime Windows users than does Windows 8.
Linux has long been known for its virtually limitless customizability, but given the current controversy surrounding desktop interfaces, that feature has become more salient than ever.
This is a point on which Windows 8 and Ubuntu differ considerably. Yes, Windows 8 does allow users to customize some aspects of their environment, such as by specifying the size of Live Tile icons, moving commonly used tiles to the left side of the screen, or grouping tiles by program type.
Most of the changes you can make in Windows 8, however, are largely cosmetic, and they don’t include a built-in way to set the OS to boot to the traditional Windows desktop. A growing assortment of third-party utilities such as Pokki can restore that capability, but otherwise you’re stuck with Modern UI. Windows 8 offers what you might call a “tightly coupled” interface—in other words, one that you can’t change substantially.
Ubuntu’s Unity, in contrast, is more of a loosely coupled UI. First and foremost, you can easily replace it with any one of several free alternatives, including KDE, Xfce, LXDE, GNOME 3 Shell, Cinnamon, and MATE.
Also available for Unity are third-party customization tools, including the increasingly popular Ubuntu Tweak, while a raft of “look” sites are available for myriad Linux interfaces with a variety of themes to change the desktop’s appearance.
The rule of thumb with Linux in general and Ubuntu in particular is, if you don’t like it, swap in something else. Also worth mentioning is the fact that Ubuntu supports multiple workspaces, essentially letting you run up to four different desktops; Windows 8 Pro does not.
Whereas Windows 8 Pro comes bundled with Microsoft’s Internet Explorer 10 browser, Ubuntu comes with a wide assortment of open-source software packages such as Firefox, Thunderbird, LibreOffice, and more, offering both individual and business users a pretty full suite of functionality.
Beyond those bundled programs, both Ubuntu and Windows 8 offer app stores to help users find the additional software they need.
Dating back to 2009, the Ubuntu Software Center now houses more than 40,000 apps, ranging from games to productivity tools to educational resources. In addition, by using Wine or CodeWeaver’s CrossOver, you can run Windows programs on top of Linux.
The Windows Store just launched with Windows 8, and at the time of its debut it included just over 9000 apps. Microsoft execs have said that they hope to provide 100,000 apps in the Windows Store within 90 days of the Windows launch.
Operating system binaries and drivers, however, will not come from the Windows Store. Rather, it will have both Windows RT (ARM) apps and Windows desktop (“legacy”) apps. Entries for legacy desktop apps in the Windows Store will take users to separate sites where they can purchase or download the apps. Ubuntu’s repository, on the other hand, centrally stores all operating system and app binaries and drivers.
As a result, aside from numbers, a key difference between the two app stores involves security. Ubuntu provides a GNU Privacy Guard (GnuPG) keyring-protected repository system wherein each application and driver has a unique keyring identity to verify its authenticity and integrity as having come only from the Ubuntu repo system. The keyring method of protection has been highly effective at ensuring that no rogue applications find their way into the repo—or onto users’ PCs.
Historically, Microsoft Windows has lacked such a keyring-protected repository. Although Microsoft does support its OS with monthly Windows Updates, no comparable third-party vendor support for updates exists. Because of this situation, users have had to venture online to obtain their own third-party-supported updates manually at separate websites. The Windows Store was developed to mitigate that risk and is specifically designed to curate apps, screen apps, and provide the capability to purchase apps. Time will tell how well it succeeds.
4. Hardware compatibility
To run Windows 8 on your PC, you’ll need a processor that’s 1GHz or faster with support for PAE, NX, and SSE2. You’ll also need a minimum of 1GB RAM for the 32-bit version or 2GB for the 64-bit version, along with 16GB (32-bit) or 20GB (64-bit) of space on your hard drive. For graphics processing, you’ll need a Microsoft DirectX 9-compatible graphics device with a WDDM driver, Microsoft says.
Of course, that’s the minimum. If you want to take advantage of Windows 8’s touch features, obviously you’ll need a multitouch device. To make the most of the software, you’ll want considerably more than that.
Ubuntu’s requirements, however, are much more modest: Canonical recommends 512MB of RAM, plus 5GB on the hard drive. You’ll also find versions such as Lubuntu and Xubuntu for lower-spec machines. In short, if hardware is a constraining factor for you, Ubuntu is most likely the better choice.
5. Cloud integration
Starting with the launch of Ubuntu One in 2009, the cloud has played a key role in Ubuntu Linux for some time, enabling users to store files online and sync them among computers and mobile devices, as well as to stream audio and music from the cloud to mobile devices.
Ubuntu One works on Windows, OS X, iOS, and Android, as well as on Ubuntu. Users of Ubuntu Linux get 5GB of Ubuntu One storage for free; 20GB costs $30 per year.
Beginning with Ubuntu 12.10, the OS also integrates Web apps and online searches directly into the Unity desktop for a more seamless experience.
With Windows 8, the cloud is coming to the forefront of Microsoft’s platform as well. For storage, Microsoft’s SkyDrive offers users 7GB of space for free. If you need more than that, you can have an extra 20GB for $10, 50GB for $25, or 100GB for $50 annually.
Storage isn’t the only benefit of the cloud, however. Beginning with this new release, the new Microsoft Account sign-in (formerly Live ID) lets you use a single username and password to establish common preferences among all the Windows-based hardware and services with which you work. The idea is to employ the cloud to connect your PCs, tablets, and smartphones through a common, user-specific experience.
Ubuntu doesn’t fully compete with Windows in this regard, since it doesn’t offer counterparts to Windows Phone 8 or Windows 8 RT that are tailored specifically to non-PC devices. However, Ubuntu for Android is in the works.
Although Windows RT apps run within a sandboxed environment for greater security, Windows 8 Pro desktop legacy apps have no equivalent. Instead, third-party software developers are left to their own devices to add security measures to their apps.
Windows 8 and Ubuntu Linux provide their own firewalls, however, as well as the option for full disk encryption.
Despite the fact that Windows 8 Pro offers some security improvements over Windows 7, the new OS still carries forward with the WinNT legacy kernel, which is at least partially responsible for the litany of security issues Windows has suffered over the years.
To mitigate some of those issues, Microsoft created in conjunction with partnering OEMs Secure Boot, an extension to UEFI. Windows 8 now provides Secure Boot support on OEM systems, while Ubuntu 12.10 offers a raft of advanced security features such as support for installation with Secure Boot systems.
Additionally, Ubuntu Linux comes with Linux Security Modules (LSM) installed by default. Other security-enhancing measures include chroot, seccomp, seccomp-bpf, and the newest addition—LinuX Containers (LXC)—for third-party developers and users alike.
Just as an aside, it’s interesting to note that, each year at Pwn2Own, hackers get a chance to hack Windows and Apple Mac systems, but Linux is not included in the contest. No exploit can escalate against (and gain root privilege on) Ubuntu Linux running AppArmor-sandboxed Firefox.
7. Administrative tools
For administrative controls, Windows provides Active Directory, using dedicated Active Directory servers.
Canonical supports Active Directory as well, and Ubuntu Linux clients can join to an Active Directory Domain using third-party software such as Likewise Open or Centrify.
In addition, Canonical provides Landscape, an enterprise administrative tool of its own that can perform most Windows Active Directory tasks. Landscape presents an easy-to-use, browser-based control panel through which you can manage desktops, servers, and cloud instances.
8. VPN support
Users who require virtual private network support will find it in both Windows 8 and Ubuntu 12.10.
In Ubuntu repositories, the provided utility is OpenVPN, which uses a custom security protocol based on SSL/TLS for key exchange. Both operating systems offer support for varied protocols, however, depending on site-specific and inter-site needs.
9. User support
Microsoft offers support for Windows 8 Pro users through its TechNet subscription service, which is priced starting at $149 per year.
Last but certainly not least, Ubuntu Linux is free, while Windows 8 Pro will reportedly cost $199 after the current introductory upgrade offer of $39 to $69 expires.
So which operating system is better for small-business users? The answer, of course, is in the eye of the beholder. If one thing is clear, however, it’s that any lead Windows may have once had over competing operating systems is shrinking every year. Depending on your needs, Ubuntu Linux 12.10 could provide a compelling alternative. If nothing else, it’s almost certainly worth your while to try it online or take it for a free test drive.
Windows 8 Pro (x86)
$39 to $69 upgrade
CPU architectures supported
x86, x86-64, ARM, PPC
Minimum hard-disk space
Concurrent multiuser support
Two or more
GPL Open Source: Main, Non-GPL: Restricted
Productivity software included
Graphics tools included
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