We are at the beginning of an embarrassment of riches in the OS space. In case you have been living under a rock, the most recent OS release season was kicked off by Microsoft with their GA release of Windows 7 the other day. There was some minor fuss in the trades about it. Next to the plate will be Ubuntu with 9.10 on October 29th, then OpenSUSE on November 12th with 11.2, and then Fedora on November 17th with Fedora 12. This not to ignore the recent OS.X 10.6 (now 10.6.1) which came out at the end of August. Pretty sure August is in a different season, but maybe not "Computer Seasons".
I am not sure what is more interesting: The actual operating systems or the emotion and hyperbole around them.
Take Windows 7 for example: it is a solid release. It fixes most of what went wrong with Vista, most especially the *perception* of Vista. I used Vista from its first release, and it got gradually better with every patch and every service pack. It followed in XP's footprints in fact: XP was not all that great before Service Pack 1 either, and really only stable and semi-secure after SP2, though most appear to have forgotten that. XP in its current form is fairly fast, fairly stable, and will be the nemesis of Windows 7 for some time, as most will see no reason to leave XP unless they are buying a new computer with Win7 already installed. As new hardware comes out that does not have WinXP drivers available for it, there will be a slow gentle nudge over to Win7. By the time Win8 arrives, Win7 will have the largest market share of the the Windows OS's.
Windows 7 is not a bad OS, but as Jack Wallen over at Tech Republic points out, it is hardly anything new, with the possible exception that we won't have to wait for the first service pack to have a stable OS. Not being a bad OS will probably be enough to have Win7 do well. There will be some who figure that if they have to change OS's, why not go whole hog? Some will go Mac/OS.X. Others will revisit Linux, especially with IBM and Ubuntu working jointly on a Linux desktop intended to replace Win7.
Netbooks are currently a MS stronghold. MS was going to restrict Win7's special Netbook edition.. MS appeared to realize that might have opened up the playing field for Linux, in particular Ubuntu's NetBook Remix, Moblin, or the Moblin/Ubuntu NetBook remix. This set of restrictions was dropped, but the Win7 edition for Netbooks is still pretty stripped down: For example, no Aero.
No Aero: Is that so bad? No. Aero is to Win7 what Compiz is to Linux: Eye candy. The OS works well without it. But the dropping of Aero is somewhat artificial: I have Ubuntu 9.10 running on my Dell Mini 9 Netbook (a two year old design) *with full Compiz*. No problems. It is not that the hardware, even the low end NetBook hardware, can't deal with compositing the desktop.
Another thing about Win7 without Aero though: It looks a lot like XP. That could be good or bad, depending on your point of view.
One word often tossed about in the trades when they are dissing one particular OS or another is that it does not "innovate". I have heard this about every OS at one time or another. Without exception, I have not seen that term defined in any meaningful way. Innovation is a slippery term, and in the eye of the beholder of course. One great example was the recent OS.X release: Was that innovation? It looked almost exactly the same as the 10.5 release before it. Apple had taken all their time and money and put it under the covers, improving and polishing and securing the plumbing. Then, in a nod to the fact that no one was going to perceive the work, they dropped the price of the upgrade, even though, from a changed lines of code, and therefore a cost to develop point of view, this was every bit as big an upgrade as any other.
Is that innovation? Innovative strategy? Shrewd timing? I have no idea. I fully support it though. I love 10.6. It is fast. It is stable. it does what I want, and does not get in the way.
By any sense I can think of, every OS coming out this fall is evolutionary. None of them are innovative exactly, but all of them are better.
The Ubuntu development model pretty much ensures it will always be more of an evolver: How much innovation can one inject with a major release every six months?
Two days before Halloween we'll get the next GA version of Ubuntu: 9.10. I have been testing 9.10 since Alpha 3 or so, and it will be another solid release. Faster boots, more unified look and feel, easy install and upgrade, etc. All the hallmarks of Ubuntu.
With the built in OpenOffice, or the option of IBM's Lotus Symphony, the Ubuntu desktop can function in almost every way as a full replacement for Windows. If you are fully "Web 2.0" or "Cloud based" in your app stack, then it is a 100% replacement. Pretty much any modern Linux is.
I have the 9.10 RC1 loaded up on the D620, and it deals very well with the dual head configuration, as long as I remember to turn off Compiz first. It does not deal well with all the screen real estate of two monitors and the composite video at the same time: The Intel GMA 945 just does not have the juice for that. One or the other. Not both. The failure is disheartening too: The screen goes black, and cntrl-alt-backspace does nothing. Hard reboot to get back the screen.
The changes to X that made it far more able to dynamically deal with changes in graphic configurations were a good thing, but taking out the ability to bomb out of X via cntrl-alt-backspace was very much *not* innovation.
Ubuntu will ship with 2.28.1 as its final version of Evolution. I had been testing Exchange 2007 functionality via MAPI all along, but RC1 was the first move from 2.28.0 to 2.28.1 I noted. The MAPI provider is (as of today anyway) still 2.28.0. The account sets up, authenticates (even using the real server name rather than the IP address like the version of Evo-MAPI that shipped with 9.04. Click on a message in the MAPI Inbox, and Evolution crashes.
The IMAP access appears to have been sped up a little bit though, so that is something. Since the rest of Evo is at 2.28.1, hopefully MAPI will go there soon. Looking at the GIT log for MAPI, there are at least three checkins that look like they are must-haves that are targeted at the 2.28.1 version.
I have been testing OpenSUSE 11.2 as well. Not quite as often as Ubuntu, to be honest, but my Dell D620 triple boots between Windows 7, OpenSUSE 11.2, and Ubuntu 9.10. I had hoped to see some evidence that Evolution MAPI (in it 2.28.1 form) would be appearing sometime soon in OpenSUSE, but it is not there by default as of RC1. Some quick poking about revealed no special repository that needed to be enabled either.
I took the opportunity of having OpenSUSE 11.2 installed to look more closely at KDE 4.3.1, since OpenSUSE is supposed to be the very best place to experience KDE.
I have had nothing but trouble from Xinerama and KDE under OpenSUSE. It just does not want to configure correctly my D620's 1440x900 internal LCD and the Dell 1901FP 1280x1024 external panel. I do not know what its problem is, but I am pretty sure it is a KDE thing, since when I load up Gnome it had no issues at all with Xinerama, same as Ubuntu. I have not tried Kubuntu to see what that would do.
That little problem, plus the no-show so far of MAPI, plus an annoying keyboard bounce (only there is OpenSUSE / KDE), have kept me from running what is otherwise a pretty good desktop (though I am typing this on it now, using the lovely Bilbo Blogger). I can see why people love OpenSUSE enough to make it their primary desktop OS, but it is missing a few things I need, want, and actually care about such that Ubuntu is where I always fall back to.
Linux in General
Looking across the sea of Linux releases that are being actively maintained, I perceive four major subgroups.
One is the cutting edge, leader type. I mostly review that type here. The folks that are actively releasing once or twice a year (OpenSUSE is going to an every 8 month release cycle). Right now those releases are all hovering around kernel 2.6.31, OpenOffice 3.1, Firefox 3.5, Gnome 2.28, and KDE 4.3. The near alignment of the package releases makes it difficult in some ways to really say that one Distro is really all the different from another. They are all hewn from the same materials... For all that common fuel, there are big differences between the big three, but they have to be experienced to be fully understood: YAST versus Synaptic versus YUM being one example.
Another group is the supported versions: The RedHats and SUSE's and Mandrake's of the world. Perhaps Ubuntu LTS. These releases stay behind current, do more internal testing, release only once every two or three years. These are the solid, reliable, day in day out server types. The Linux desktops in the group all suffer, in my mind, because they do not have the latest X11 and the latest kernel so that they lag in new hardware support.
Then there are all the special use Linuxii: the Real Time, or the embedded Linux. The WebOS and Android Cell phones. The system recovery and password reset disks. Clonezilla. This category, in sum, may actually represent the largest install base, if for no other reason than no one out there actually knows they have Linux in them. To them, its a DVR, not a OS, etc. Android 2.0 just came out, so clearly there are lots of holiday goodies here.
Then there are all the others. There may be more distinctions than I make, but to me they are an amber waving sea of single use / single developer systems. The "I did not like their Icons, so I started a new Distro" types.
And Finally ...
I recently noted in my personal blog that I was not enjoying Blackberry OS 4.7 on a BB Storm nearly as much as I would have hoped. I fixed that today by loading up OS 5.0. What a difference! it is not stable yet, but it is faster, it uses the keyboard better, and it generally makes the Storm a much more livable place to be. OS's may not be something everyone get excited about, even when we are in the middle of such a tidal wave of updates, but having a usable OS sure makes a person a lot less miserable.