Windows XP vs. Vista vs. Linux

Change is in the air for operating systems

Michael Horowitz

Michael Horowitz wrote his first computer program in 1973 and has been a computer nerd ever since. He spent more than 20 years working in an IBM mainframe (MVS) environment. He has worked in the research and development group of a large Wall Street financial company, and has been a technical writer for a mainframe software company.

He teaches a large range of self-developed classes, the underlying theme being Defensive Computing. Michael is an independent computer consultant, working with small businesses and the self-employed. He can be heard weekly on The Personal Computer Show on WBAI.


Michael Horowitz
6 min read

Mike Ricciuti of CNET says Windows XP is "doomed" and that "most of us will likely be using Vista sometime in the near future" (see Microsoft: All roads lead to Vista). In contrast, Ina Fried of CNET writes that Windows XP may get another reprieve, the title referring to the fact that major computer manufacturers are slated to stop selling Windows XP in June. Who's right?

One reason Mike cites for the Vista assimilation is that "Dell launched a Vista migration program to nudge big companies toward the OS. The PC maker's 'client migration solution' will cut migration costs..." I see this as evidence of Vista resistance. If there was value to Vista, the cost of migrating would not be an issue.

Mike also writes that "Microsoft is greasing the skids for Vista acceptance by offering free telephone support for Vista Service Pack 1 through March 2009".*   Microsoft never did this with XP service packs, so why are they doing it for Vista? They are trying to get people to go where they don't want to go.

Let's not forget the price cuts to shrink-wrapped versions of Vista which were to take effect at the same time Service Pack 1 was released. As Don Reisinger wrote (see Vista price cuts show how much trouble Microsoft is in), those price cuts were really a publicity stunt.

I don't think Don's article went far enough though. To me, the price cuts were intended to break out of computer industry news vehicles (like CNET and ComputerWorld) and be reported to the general public. No techie is going to decide to go with Vista because its a few dollars cheaper today than yesterday. No, the audience for the price cut announcement was non-techies.

And the message wasn't the price cuts (hardly anyone buys Vista in a box on the shelf of a retailer). The real message was that Service Pack 1 was about to be released, news that normally stays within the IT industry. The subliminal point being that while Vista may have been bad initially, now it's OK. An unusually well done bit of PR.

As for Mike's point that "XP may work, but it's not pretty", that's damning the OS with faint praise. The four regulars on the Personal Computer Show agree on only two things: making backups and avoiding Vista. After Hank Kee kicked the tires on Vista he was challenged to provide reasons to migrate from XP. All he could come up with was a comment from his wife, "it's pretty".

Back in November, I wrote about a dog and pony show where Microsoft tried to scare people about how insecure Windows XP was. That they have to use FUD (Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt) to sell Vista says a lot. Think of a politician trashing their opponent rather than touting themselves.

I wrote a trio of postings here on why I think XP is the better choice for Windows users (just comparing XP and Vista, not considering Macs and Linux)
-- I pity the fool (Windows XP good, Vista bad)
-- When to convert from Windows XP to Vista, Part 2
-- Putting Windows Vista on trial

In short, until Vista is at Service Pack 2 or has been around for at least another year and a half, it shouldn't be on your radar screen.

In large part, Mike's argument comes down to this: "I've been running Vista on three machines for well over a year. Compatibility issues are beginning to disappear, my wireless network connection no longer mysteriously vanishes, and other random glitches appear to have been fixed."

In other words, Vista works for me, so it's ready for the world. Many of the reader comments here at CNET make the same point. Vista, no doubt, runs fine for many people. That doesn't make it the right choice for you.

My perspective is defensive computing. To that end, I want mature software, and Windows XP, with 7 years of bug fixes applied to it, is the more mature option. I also want the one with the best chance of working with assorted peripheral devices. Score another for XP.

Cheap Laptops Running Linux

The personal computer field is maturing to the point that people will soon be cognizant of two hardware categories: full-blown personal computers, typified by Windows and Macs, and stripped down ones for children, senior citizens or traveling. Linux is perfect for people with simple computing needs (see Is Linux right for your mother?).

Ina thinks Windows XP will continue to be sold on what are now cheap laptops running Linux. Quoting: "The biggest area where XP is likely to stick around is in the nascent but growing market of low-cost, flash memory-based notebook computers, such as the Asus Eee PC".

I don't know that Microsoft is smart enough to see the threat from these machines. Way back, it was IBM that didn't take PCs seriously. Now, perhaps, it will be Microsoft that doesn't take simple, cheap machines seriously. Every new version of Windows is bigger and more complex. I doubt they can do simple. Large companies usually can't.

Linux does simple.**   It can be stripped down as needed. In 2004 I reviewed a product called NASLite that converted an old computer into a Linux-based file server. It was a useful product, but amazing for its size - it fit on a floppy disk. A single floppy contained the operating system, networking software, an internal website used for reporting and a telnet based administrative utility.

On top of this, the Linux GUI is flexible, extremely so. No doubt this will result in some horrible user interfaces, the XO from OLPC comes to mind. But, it will also result in some that are more appropriate for children or senior citizens than a full-blown copy of Windows or a Mac. And people comfortable with Windows XP can find versions of Linux that mimic XP. One of the cheap laptops running Linux ships with a simple interface but it can be reset to the normal user interface of the underlying Xandros Linux.

Linux benefits out of the box from being immune to the vast majority of malicious software being spread online. Thus, children, senior citizens and anyone else craving simplicity doesn't have to deal with anti-virus and anti-spyware software.

The Cloudbook has a normal hard disk, but that won't last. The future for ultra-cheap laptops is flash (a.k.a. SSDs or solid state devices) and flash ram is expensive. All laptops benefit from flash ram because it's rugged, consumes less power (no moving parts) and creates less heat. Cheap small Linux machines especially need the faster read time offered by flash ram, it helps offset their relatively slow processors.

But, to keep the machines cheap, flash ram needs to be minimized. Linux is a perfect fit because it needs relatively little hard disk space. The $300 version of the Asus Eee PC has a 2 gigabyte "hard drive" that fits the operating system, applications and still leaves room for some of your data files. Try that with Vista or XP.

Microsoft may be able to brow-beat the world into using Vista on fully functional PCs, but if they walk away from XP on simple, cheap computers and cede the market to Linux, they are a dead man walking.

*How many of us believe that the free tech support from Microsoft will be useful? For example, see this item from Leo Notenboom about how Microsoft was unable to help him install a legal copy of Windows XP. They didn't know what their own error message meant. Incompetent being the applicable word.
**See my Linux vs. Windows page