by havoc

If you compare Linux to Windows, what are the similarities and
differences? I mean this broadly, for example:

  • User interface
  • System architecture
  • Pricing and business model
  • Licensing
  • Range of software components (“enterprise stack”)
  • Branding and perception

I’ll use “Windows” to mean the whole universe of our primary
competition: Windows, Active Directory, Exchange, .NET, and Microsoft

This comparison matters because we need to give people a reason to
switch to Linux. If someone asks how Linux is different, we should
have some good answers. If someone asks how Linux is the same, we
should have some good answers also.

Different means risk: the potential to be better (or worse). Different
may also create interoperability, training, and marketing
issues. Similar means safety: you ask people to decide between Linux
and Windows on other grounds.

Each project and company in the Linux world has its own answers,
implicit or explicit.

In the area of user interface for example, GNOME attempts to be
different. It does try to stay familiar in many ways (and tends to be
configurable in a more-like-Windows direction, something many vendors
take advantage of). But I think it’s clear the project has “do the
right thing on its own terms” as a goal, and feels there’s genuine
value to having the capability to understand what the right
thing is and get it implemented, something one only learns through

Companies such as Lindows, on the other hand, have Windows interface
cloning as a core premise (note the name “Lindows”). Add technologies
such as WINE and the basic retail-box-with-proprietary-license
business model, and the cloning goes well beyond interface.

Since I work at Red Hat, I can tell you the “why is Linux different
from Windows on the desktop?” answer we’ve articulated so far:

Which isn’t to say we won’t have more to say later. But this is what
we’ve said so far.

There are a lot of possible answers, some of them include:

Price: “Linux is just like Windows, but has lower licensing

Not Microsoft: “Linux is just like Windows, but isn’t sold by
Microsoft.” If Linux is essentially the same as Windows, but offered
by another vendor, customers have more leverage.

Revolutionary Technology: “Linux has exciting innovations
not found in Windows.”

Open Standards: “Open source projects better adhere to open

Most likely this list is as long as the list of open source desktop
projects and companies. My talk at
went through some more ideas.

I obviously have some opinions about the right answer to these
questions. I don’t think we need to be better than Windows in all
respects. We need to be better than Windows in the respects that

One interesting thing about Linux is that it supports multiple
projects and companies pursuing multiple approaches, and thus as a
whole community we can try a lot of different answers to this question
and see which one sticks. While at the same time, individual groups
can tightly focus on a single approach and give it a wholehearted

A reason this is useful: the comparison between Linux and Windows
probably has to change over time. For example, while many advocate
cloning Windows today (on the level of architecture, protocols,
interface, and more), this argument is generally based on migration
– and thus if we’re successful, the rationale for cloning
may go away. (Unless of course you subscribe to “not Microsoft” or
“having two vendor alternatives” as the fundamental differentiation
from Microsoft – in which case keeping Windows and Linux fully
substitutable may make sense indefinitely.)

Plainly a very complex issue, and I doubt anyone will be 100%
successful in predicting whether, how, and why Linux will succeed in
gaining desktop marketshare from Windows. But perhaps we could benefit
from thinking about it more explicitly from time to time.

(This post was originally found at

My Twitter account is @havocp.
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