The Year of the Linux Desktop?
I’ve been a Linux user since 1998. I’ve also been a Linux sysadmin by trade for most of my career. So naturally, I’ve always been one to avidly track the inroads that Linux has made into the consumer market.
At the turn of the century, the whole “Year of Desktop Linux” thing was beginning to pick up steam. Read any PC publication around that time and you’ll notice a stunning amount of vitriol towards Microsoft (Micro$oft) by readers and commenters. Heck, even the writers of the articles themselves had a decidedly anti-Microsoft attitude. There are a lot of reasons that this attitude existed, but the core of it was the Microsoft controlled the desktop PC market. If you were using a computer, you were using Windows. The hardware vendors were locked in. The software vendors were locked in. So, by extension, the users were locked in.
But then cometh a challenger. Linux on the desktop brought a fresh new approach, a much better security model vs the Windows 9x releases and a chance to dethrone Microsoft from its perch atop the market. In 2000, the best competitor to select from Microsoft’s camp is (in my opinion) Windows 2000. Why? Because Windows 2000, while admittedly targeted towards business users, was the first consumer-friendly release of the NT product line. While it eschews DOS compatibility, Windows 2000 actually did a pretty good job of playing late 90s and early 2000s Windows games. It was also decidedly more stable and secure than the 9x line.
But who to chose as our Linux standard bearer? Linux has never been just one operating system. There are as many Linux distros as there are churches in the southern United States (probably). The distro I chose was actually the one I used at that time, Linux Mandrake 7.2. This was a RedHat derivative, and thus is an RPM distribution. Just looking at the screenshots above, you can clearly see the similarities between our Linux distro of choice and Windows. This was by design: it should be easy to switch from Windows to Linux with a minimum amount of learning (or so the thinking went).
We’re going to compare a few aspects of these two operating systems and make a totally arbitrary decision about which one was better. Don’t worry…it’s completely fair and balanced.
Installing Linux Mandrake 7.2
For years, installing Linux was a task for experts only. The first Linux installation I did was Slackware. Actually, you can get yourself a copy today and install it and see how unintuitive it is (it hasn’t changed much). Now, I didn’t mind that so much. It helped me to learn Linux. I had to troubleshoot my way out of problems. However, Linux Mandrake provided a relatively nice graphical installer that made it (dare I say) as easy to install Linux as it was Windows. Above are some screenshots showing the process.
Notice some of the natural language in the installer? It speaks to a team that was having fun with being the underdog. Overall, while it’s difficult to install this old distro on modern machines (or even VMWare), for the time the install was relatively painless assuming you had supported hardware.
In some ways, therein lie the problem. Linux was seemingly a lot pickier than Windows with regards to hardware. I say “seemingly” because this was largely another problem of vendor lock-in. Vendors only had incentive to write drivers or support hardware for Windows. They were the only game in town. Consequently, there were a great many devices that were very hit and miss in Linux (modems, in particular).
Still, with supported hardware, this install was a success.
Installing Windows 2000
The Windows 2000 install process doesn’t differ much from Windows 98…or even Windows 95, for that matter. The initial install starts in text mode and then launches a graphical installer. There’s no ScanDisk this time and no support of real-mode hardware drivers. Apart from that, it’s pretty standard fare.
Because of this, there were no complications installing Windows 2000 on the same hardware as Linux Mandrake. The Windows 2000 installation wasn’t particularly speedy: it took about 15% longer to install than Linux, yet both OSes installed about the same amount of data to the hard drive.
Winner: Tie…wait, what’s this?
The Mandrake installation had an option to change the colours of the windows/background/dialog boxes during the install. I found no such option in the Windows 2000 install. I consider this to be fundamental to a successful software install.
Winner: Linux Mandrake, due to their devotion to customer choice in install colours
Linux Mandrake 7.2 has ClanBomber
The usability test is entirely concerned with whether or not the operating systems being demonstrated have ClanBomber installed. ClanBomber was a sensational Bomberman clone that (should have) dominated the entire world.
As you can clearly see in the image above, Linux Mandrake does indeed have ClanBomber installed. As further evidence, you can see where I started playing a delightful game of ClanBomber in the images above. Clearly, this meets the high standards we’ve set.
Windows 2000 does not have ClanBomber
Clearly, Windows 2000 fails the most basic usability test by its complete and utter lack of ClanBomber. Not only that, but as seen above, Microsoft went the extra mile and deliberately called out the fact that ClanBomber was unavailable.
I see now why there was so much animosity towards Microsoft. The entirety of it was well deserved and Microsoft should not have been allowed to continue to develop software. Like, at all.
Winner: Clearly Linux Mandrake, for its steadfast devotion to ClanBomber availability
Well, that’s two for two. That makes Linux Mandrake the undisputed champion of the desktop in the year 2000.
If I’m honest…
Yes, this review is in jest. While farcical, it’s actually not far off of how an anti-Microsoft spin may have been applied at the time. I, myself, was guilty of bashing Redmond at every opportunity. It was frustrating, at the time, to see so much wrong with the Windows ecosystem and have no alternative.
Just prior to the turn of the century, Apple looked dead. Unix was for mainframes. There really was no other option than Windows. What’s most interesting, though, is that the winner in this race may, indeed, have been Linux.
In 2000, it would have been nearly impossible to predict the meteoric rise of the smartphone. Desktop computing was the primary way in which we interacted with the Internet. It was an essential tool of business and it’s where we played our games.
Today, while rumours of the demise of the desktop have been much exaggerated, the smartphone is the number one way in which the majority of the people in the western world consume content. And the operating systems that run those smartphones are NOT made by Microsoft. Oh, true, Microsoft has tried to make a go of it. But it was too little, too late. Or perhaps the vitriol from the late 90s/early 2000s finally did them in.
Either way, Android is (essentially) Linux. It runs on millions of devices that people use everyday. And Linux isn’t just the smartphone. A huge swath of the internet itself runs on Linux. Apache web servers. MySQL databases. Nginx. WordPress. It’s everywhere.
If I had to choose a desktop operating system in the year 2000, I would have chosen Windows 2000. It was the standard. It was supported. It was pervasive.
If I have to choose the operating system with which I want to browse the web or play games with today, I guess it’ll just depend on my mood that day. The options are wide open and the performance is practically equal across the board. It truly is a different world.
What do you think? Were you a Microsoft basher in the 90s? Has your attitude changed over the years? Let us know in the comments!