I never realized I had quite so many super-smart and geeky readers. The quality of comments – especially those that came through my inbox – was amazing.
This post attempts a synthesis. That is difficult because many of the super-smart and geeky readers had diametrically opposed views. This was typical:
The bottom line is none of this stuff matters enough to get religious about it. If you want to go through a four week learning curve to use Ubuntu, have it. If you want to use second-rate office software because it's good enough, by all means do that. But if you're preaching for a mass conversion to happen, don't hold your breath waiting. In all likelihood your son will soon want a Windows machine so he can play the same games his friends are playing.
And I have to say he is right. Ubuntu is faster – and it is nicer for some things – but I have such huge capital embedded in Windows (years of use) that I will use Windows for many things. Moreover getting Windows games to play on Ubuntu is (frankly) not worth the chop (even inside “virtual windows” – explanation below). Also my son does have a windows partition – and the only thing he runs on it is Cyberlink Powerdirector 8. Games get run on the Wii (or Playstation) – but a non-linear video editor is essential for him in these days of YouTube. My son communicates with movies…
My purpose was not to learn to use Ubuntu. My purpose was to work out where I stood as a stock analyst. It makes no sense whatsoever to change unless you have very specific needs [the usual need being to maintain servers].
By contrast I was told a story about an elderly (and non-techie) woman in Lithuania who was given a brand new laptop with Windows 7 on it. The first thing she did was wipe the disc and install Ubuntu. Why? Because she was used to it and knew how things worked.
And that is the point: these things have inertia – and the inertia is real. Windows is useful primarily because it is there. In particular:
(a). The easiest system to use is the one you are used to. If you use Windows at work it is likely you will use it at home. I feel uncomfortable on a Mac because I have not used one since I gave away my Mac Plus. [That I guess dates me…] The woman in Lithuania felt uncomfortable with Windows because that is not what she is used to using. The cost of changing (four weeks) is just too high.
(b). The price does not really matter. The OEM cost of Windows is about $50. The laptop lasts three years. There is no way that anyone is going through 4 weeks of hard intellectual work of learning a new system (any new system) for saving of about $17 a year. That is simply a non-starter. This defends market share. I hated going from my Mac to a Windows machine at work – but once I crossed that divide all my future machines were Windows. However the young are back buying Macs and that will weaken the Windows incumbency. There are a few places where Ubuntu has serious share (the Baltic states spring to mind) but that is rare. The proof that price does not really matter is the sudden willingness of people to buy Macs at price points up to $500 higher than current PC offerings. They do this because – well – the Mac is nice…
(c) Lots of software is written already for windows – especially games – but also video drivers etc – that do not run as native on linux. Moreover because the desktop share of linux is so small nobody wants to bother porting their software. You use Windows because everyone else does.
(d). Microsoft had a really useful suite of “developer tools”. This meant that many businesses wrote software for their businesses that works in Windows and does not work elsewhere. This also means that they have a reluctance to change. [By contrast most business software these days is written with web-interfaces. We have written a database for work – and our developer wrote it to work on our linux server – but the interface is our browser…]
Microsoft has not come up with a really good “must have” product in a while. That said – Windows 7 is quite a good system – and even my tech friends who are linux devotees – confess an admiration for the new-found stability. This will drive some sales as sensible people did not move from XP to Vista – but will move from either XP or Vista to Windows 7.
Inertia matters and this bodes well for Microsoft. The tailwind (developing countries) remains strong for some time. Inertia saves the Western business momentum. The cash-flow is robust for at least a few years – and will probably grow. I even purchased some Microsoft stock.
Some thought I was overstating virtualization as a future because it is reliant on very fast connections. There are a few responses to that. Firstly within the enterprise (which is the core Microsoft market) virtualization is a reality now. I know a 50 person financial firm whose computers are really two mondo-powerful servers. The 50 staff all have a “virtual box” with the computing capacity shared on the servers. One server would do the job – but two is for redundancy. There are an exact copy two servers in a remote location about 50 miles away – that is the disaster recovery. This is superior in lots of ways. There are no distributed hard drives which makes data much safer from theft (you cannot walk out with a hard drive). There are no USB keys or other ways to pilfer data in the field. The computers are mobile – someone can log on from anywhere in the world. If they move desk they do not need to move their computer. The disaster recovery is really simple – and is an exact duplication of the work machines. No decentralized data to lose. No problem with mirroring.
This is a sophisticated and superior set up. But it is cheaper than the existing set up – and easier to maintain. That is a winner. What works there will work elsewhere. I mentioned this to a UBS executive and he just said they were miles behind on that. But hey – even UBS will catch up! It will happen in the home too – maybe earlier in countries like Australia (which is rolling out the National Broadband Network) – but it will happen more generally. I have gone personally from opposing the NBN (a costly government project) to being supportive (it will allow us to save huge amounts in IT infrastructure). That said – if it works in Australia it will happen everywhere with sufficient population density. Anywhere that you can deliver high definition TV on demand has more-than-sufficient bandwidth.
Linux as the dominant operating system
So lets get to the big point. I am going to put it in bold because it – at first look is such an outrageous statement – but I think it is inevitable. Within 18 months the world’s biggest selling operating system (that is the one in the largest number of new devices) will be linux. It is not even going to be close. Within three years linux will be utterly dominant – maybe a 70 percent share.
The thing is all that share will not be on laptops or desktops. It probably won’t even be on tablets or pads. It will be on telephone handsets. The handset market is about a billion pieces per year. The computer market maybe a fifth that. The dominant phone operating system will be Android – and Android is just a cut-down linux. Who cares about the front-end of Ubuntu (which is adequate). What we should care about is the front-end of Android – which is a winner.
That has implications – and if you were a PC maker or a Microsoft investor you better think them through. But I will outline a couple.
(a). You can run a windows machine or even a Mac on a linux machine using virtualization. This makes possible Windows as an app – or for that matter Mac as an app. This will require more computing power than a handset currently has (but give it time). It will also require some form of “docking stand” into which you plug your keyboard, mouse, printer, very fast internet connection, sound system and maybe a hard drive for mass storage.
(b). Virtual machines can be spread across multiple platforms and can share computing capacity with the platform. So you can have your “windows as an app” which uses the handset for simple tasks (such as word processing etc) and uses the cloud’s processing power for complex tasks (such as rendering an MPEG4 movie for YouTube).
This machine can be far better than the computers of today. Here are a few drivers:
1. Software only from repositories. One of the reasons why Linux has far fewer glitches than Windows is the software loading process. With windows I go to a site and download a .exe file and click (although there are even drive-by infections on the web). Nobody polices the sites I get software from. With Linux most software comes from “repositories” where the software is downloaded from vast servers. (Downloading software from outside repositories is surprisingly difficult…) When the software comes from “trusted sources” it is far less likely to contain a virus or trojan. The Apps store is just a repository – and refusing to allow software purchases outside the store is a protection mechanism. When we do cloud-software the service provider will probably also provide repositories. Cloud computing increases security – and the absence of trojans will increase privacy.
2. Machines are mirrored in the cloud. If you lose your phone you buy another one. You then download your old computer from the cloud. No data is lost. The new “owner” of your phone will not have access to your machine without some serious identification – probably your thumbprint and a password.
So here is the question: can Microsoft – or even Apple – win the “pc as an app” war? Is incumbency enough protection? In the corporate area it clearly is enough for now. The financial firm I described above is fully virtualized. The servers run linux – but the (thin) clients are all Windows.
I learnt a bundle from the comments – so more requested.
PS. I mentioned that the virtualized PC does not play games well. There is a reason – I run a laptop. To play the game well the virtual computer would need to take direct control of my graphics card. If it does that the host computer (ie the linux box) loses control of it – and hence loses its screen images. So I can’t play even simple 3d games in my virtual computer. Every business function is fine – but the “fun-stuff” is not. The graphics card companies (ATI, Nvidia) can probably solve this by having dual-chip graphics cards or the like. But no matter where I looked I discovered that graphics cards were the biggest problem with my set up.
It is probably good for me to have a work computer that cannot play games. (Saves much time wasting.) But it is not ready for general prime time. Again solutions cannot be far away – but they are not really viable for a non-geek now. [My computer will accept a second graphics card through a PCI slot. This is precisely what is envisaged by the manufacturer when they put that option in the BIOS.]