Will Windows ever be viable on the desktop?

For years now every time an IT journo needed a story he could write about how Linux would never be fit for the desktop because ... well whatever his editor told him to say that week really. They would religiously stick an old coverdisc into a machine they had just been handed to review, say it didn't pick up this device or have a driver for that printer and say "this isn't for your grandmother to use".

Except, in all the time I have been using Linux my experience has been very different. Since the turn of the decade, if you put a Suse CD in the drive it would reward you a few minutes later with a fully installed system. Not just OS, not just all the drivers, but a fully functioning desktop or server, whichever you choose from the install menu, with all applications and services. Even in the 90s when I had a run of dodgy servers after an "update" to Win NT 4.0, the install was snappy and effective. True, it was text based install back in the 90s, but XP still is to this day!

Yeah, the journo would say, but would you put it on your wife's/ mother's/ granny's machine? Well I held out for a while on this experiment but about 5 years ago got fed up of the cries of exasperation coming from my wife's office and Suse'd her up. Did I have any driver problems? Nope. Not even for printers.

Did I have any software problems? A couple, with old software that was already obsolete even under Windows. A bit of exporting to PDF and cutting and pasting into openoffice for the very tricky ones seems to have sorted this. One of them had to stay a while in the form of an XP Virtual Machine that got booted a couple of times per month. In the main however, day to day, week-in week-out work just carried on undisturbed. No more screaming at the machine, no crashes, no blue screen lockups, no long boot times, no being told it was your fault the machine crashed and not to do it again as it went through a 20 minute disk check.

The secret? People who use computers use them to keep data, communicate online or play games. The first two categories can be switched easily in the main. Contrary to journalist opinion, they do not keep them to review new Microsoft software products. Obviously an IT journalist or IT support tech does exactly that, and so do I, but actual users? They hate computers that don't work.

They really want to get back on to Facebook / Myspace / Youtube and continue what they were doing when the system told them it needs to update, then reboot, then don't turn the machine off I am busy updating, then reboot, then watch it do some more post update configuring, then boot to be told their virus subscription has expired, then find Windows Genuine Advantage has decided that their software is bootlegged, then stick it on on a USB key only to find it has an autorun virus, then get past that and try to open the attachment their friend sent them only to find that new Vista laptop had Office 2007 and they need to go and get a reader program to view it but it's already midnight and they want to go to bed. Better start again before work in the morning, eh?

So, if we still want to find a viable version of Windows to use for the desktop, let's look through all the options and pick one.

DOS now there was an operating system. Except technically it wasn't even that. Desqview and Qdos multi-taskers aside, anyway. But it never, ever crashed. I could put a small database system on a boot floppy and dedicate an old machine to a useful purpose. It only had an add-on version of Windows with a handful of programs and couldn't use memory effectively. Still, I managed to desktop-publish some magazines on that setup.
win 3.11 superfast (try it in a VM), long dead, not so stable, fossil, nice program manager - kde4 is now nearly as good - no other desktop OS seems to be able to touch it, gamers whined it did not have enough performance compared to their DOS games and it would never replace it.
win 95 not quite as fast, still rocket powered, more stable but not very, supports last important update to office - 97 version, crashes if share lots of tiny files, like on my renderfarm of 386 & 486s can't run on modern hardware
win NT 3.5 solid, stable desktop and workgroup server
win NT 4 crashy, drive killer, better for games - err wot? the start of the rot - we suffer stability issues to this day!
win 98 crashy, dead, loads of win-only devices use kde 3.5 or xubuntu instead
win 2000 lean. mean, stable-ish, dead on the desktop (not server) killed win-only devices, room full of dead ones
win xp pop ups everywhere - scary & loses focus
delays on menus and right clicks,
constant billg time - no one knows what the machine is doing
the current Windows of the masses - but it is on death row
introduced teletubbies interface, techies always switch it right off
no UAC
win vista unwanted, unloved, no drivers!
64 bit version has little software - even if it says vista on the disk, it means vista32 only
32 bit reduced hardware support - where did my 8GB ram go?
even more interface crap, normally switched straight off to classic mode
intel chipset util does not support it
right click to search - where did it go - a tiny icon hidden in gray colours in the corner, show desktop became a tiny unmarked button in another corner,
in fact where did loads of things get moved to in menus and the control panel? why?
UAC out of control
win 7 install fails on raid driver,
first thing fan sites post is a classic theme, how important is aero exactly?
UAC ignored
not likely to overtake XP any year soon
not even likely to overtake Linux on netbooks - crippled netbook version

Where does it all go wrong?

Too fiddly even if you have a 32" screen every file operation is through a tiny slot sized dialog box - it's like looking at a phone book through a letter box when you have more than a dozen files. In the later OSs you might be allowed to resize some of them manually, but there is no maximise button or remembered settings.
So much for the GUI everything you need to do to fix a windows problem involves long hexadecimal strings in regedit and harsh scare stories of what happens if you don't back it up properly first.
The home versions insist on regedit to change lots of things, only business versions get GUIs for it even though they can automate these changes from a central server instead. No wonder people are scared of the command line if this is how the GUI looks to them.
Not that any modern system needs the command line for anything but speed for experts - I have been using YaST for over a decade. So why do most sites show commands in web support pages - cut and paste them in - they are effectively scripts with no clicky scrolly nonsense!
The registry is a really bad idea putting the whole of the systems eggs in one basket. The old conf/ini files were great for backing up, and had modular access - you cant screw the whole system from the apache config, and you get cut and paste support again.
Windows is totally dependent on 3rd party security there is nothing inherent except insecurity - in the early 90s we laughed at jokes about people getting viruses from a word processor document, then billg made it happen. Then he added the same ability to emails, then fonts, then printer queues, then ActiveX so now the hacker doesn't even need to spread a virus, you go to his website to get it!
Utilities are mostly 3rd party and expensiveexcept where Microsoft releases one free to crush a competitor. Internet explorer was released just to crush netscape, and has had hardly any work done to it since.
Patents and threats on any and every piece of junkwho wants to pay for the obsolete FAT on a camera, just because those cute Microsoft guys managed to hide it in the standard specifications? What did any user ever gain from that?
Windows server - expensive, unreliableI had a client who defended it saying he had literally 2000 of them that never gave him any trouble. Of course they were deliberately rebooted every week, of course they were kept at low load levels, that's why there were 2000 of them. He was happy, because that is a job for life for him and another couple of techies, just running round fixing failed hard disks and reinstalling. Hmm, wouldn't like to have to fit a service pack to them though ... So, maybe the TCO of a Windows server is comparable to a Linux one, but how many more servers do you need to do the same job with Windows? Set up an exchange server for email and another one for webmail and another one and another one all doing small parts of the same job, all at high server license rates, then throw in the client access licenses.

The viable alternative.

What do I use? openSUSE KDE3.5 with Xubuntu VM for internet use on my main system, openSUSE with KDE4.2 on others, Kubuntu on some desktops, Ubuntu LTS on my servers.

I am happy with my Ubuntu LTS on my servers thank you very much, any support I pay is to the hosting company who work for me rather than against me. My uptime tends to be: from the day it is installed until a hard disk fails. I might run updates during that but no reboots unless one of those rare remote kernel attacks is found. On that subject, at least they are found and fixed rather than left for the next service pack or even until the next OS upgrade. And they are fixed for five years with LTS.

Yast or Webmin etc. provide remote admin without the graphical overhead - with Webminyou get a nice glossy web page to control the server with no need to run huge graphical systems full of vulnerabilities. With Yast you can even control the server totally in windowed text mode. Windows Core is just catching on to these ideas for servers.

A quick summary of viable (or otherwise) desktops.

Gnome a bit Mac-y for me, firmly for less technical users
KDE3.5 the pinnacle of what a windows user wants from a desktop, speed, stability, features like opening up any kind of connection inside the equivalent of explorer - drag and drop from a camera to a windows share to a secure server
KDE4 literally a backward step because it still hasn't been finished, an attempt to look and act more like Vista / OS X
Mac OS OK but deliberately simplified, nice fast boot, most shortcut keys don't work, need mouse for everything, less security and support than needed for serious server usage
Fedora quick turnover and subsequent loss of support, cutting edge technology, small package repos
Kubuntu kubuntu better for windows users, ubuntu more mac-like, good support and momentum, lots of repos
Puppy etc. lots of small distros to do netbook / appliance like computing on tiny drives and slow processors
openSUSE good all rounder, supports server, desktop, media codecs (not off the disk, but then most windows can't either) well finished in the main, loses only in its association with Novell, lots of repos
Redhat only interested in servers, playing catch up with the desktop
Xubuntu simple classic mode windows with a few improvements and good speed
Xandros (EeePC netbook OS) OK but deliberately simplified, nice fast boot, most things hidden even if installed
Live CDs one hell of a rescue package, also try out with no install, one click install if you like it