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By Katherine Noyes and Dietrich Schmitz | PC World | Published: 15:03, 26 November 2012
Microsoft’s Windows 8 dominated countless headlines in the weeks leading up to its launch late last month, but October saw the debut of another major operating system as well.
Canonical’s Ubuntu 12.10 "Quantal Quetzal" arrived a week ahead of its competitor, in fact, accompanied by a challenge: "Avoid the pain of Windows 8." That slogan appeared on the Ubuntu home page for the first few hours after the OS’s official launch, and attracted considerable attention.
Apparently Canonical decided to tone down its message later in the day – the slogan now reads "Your wish is our command" – but it seems fair to say that the underlying challenge remains.
Ubuntu is a widely popular open source Linux distribution with eight years of maturity under its belt, and more than 20 million users. Of the roughly 5% of desktop OSs accounted for by Linux, at least one survey suggests that about half are Ubuntu. (Windows, meanwhile, accounts for about 84%.)
The timing of this latest Ubuntu release couldn’t be better for Windows users faced with the paradigm-busting Windows 8 and the big decision of whether to take the plunge.
Initial uptake of Windows 8 has been unenthusiastic, according to some reports, and a full 80% of businesses will never adopt it, Gartner predicted. As a result, Microsoft’s big gamble may be desktop Linux’s big opportunity.
So, now that Canonical has thrown down the gauntlet, let’s take a closer look at Ubuntu 12.10 to see how it compares with Windows 8 from a business user’s perspective.
Both Microsoft and Canonical have received considerable flak for the default user interfaces in their respective OSs. In Microsoft’s case, of course, it’s the Modern UI, formerly known as Metro; in Canonical’s case, it’s Unity. Both are designed with touchscreens in mind, and borrow heavily from the mobile world.
By removing the Start button and overhauling the way users interact with the operating system, Windows 8"s Modern interface poses a considerable challenge for users, who face a significant learning curve.
Unity, on the other hand, became a default part of Ubuntu back in April 2011 with Ubuntu 11.04 Natty Narwhal. It has definitely undergone growing pains, but more than a year has passed, and Canonical has revised the interface accordingly. Although it still has numerous critics, most people concede that it has matured and improved. Some observers, in fact, have even suggested that it may feel more familiar to many longtime Windows users than does Windows 8.
Linux has long been known for its virtually limitless customisability, but given the current controversy surrounding desktop interfaces, that feature has become more salient than ever.
This is a point on which Windows 8 and Ubuntu differ considerably. Yes, Windows 8 does allow users to customise some aspects of their environment, such as by specifying the size of Live Tile icons, moving commonly used tiles to the left side of the screen, or grouping tiles by program type.
Most of the changes you can make in Windows 8, however, are largely cosmetic, and they don’t include a built-in way to set the OS to boot to the traditional Windows desktop. A growing assortment of third-party utilities such as Pokki can restore that capability, but otherwise you’re stuck with Modern UI. Windows 8 offers what you might call a "tightly coupled" interfacein other words, one that you can’t change substantially.
Ubuntu’s Unity, in contrast, is more of a loosely coupled UI. First and foremost, you can easily replace it with any one of several free alternatives, including KDE, Xfce, LXDE, GNOME 3 Shell, Cinnamon, and MATE…