Of course, whenever Microsoft launches a new platform, a lower-cost alternative emerges as the champion of the people. SMBs have little option but to make lower-risk choices than their enterprise counterparts, even if they have the potential to better handle the hardware/software transition.
But many of the same problems facing a Windows Vista adoption also plague Linux, Apple and other OS alternatives. Evaluating a new or upgraded OS, then, is often a confusing task even for the most experienced IT professional.
Here are a few good starter questions SMBs should ask when evaluating alternative OS platforms:
Talk with technical experts, system integrators and migration planners about what readily identifiable advantages any given OS offers your business. For instance, Linux has excellent licensing schemes with more flexibility than Windows Vista and is hardly as restrictive with regard to digital rights management schemes. Occasionally a big-name vendor will promote Linux enterprise desktops or, more commonly, servers as alternatives to Windows platforms, which may also be supported by the vendor's technical support staff at additional cost.
Apple Inc. has long been a key player in the alternative desktop OS space, even if the Unix underpinnings are lost on most end users. Mac OS X is a shining example of the "alternative platform" for both work and play, although it hasn't supplanted Windows XP. But even Apple cannot provide stable, long-term roadmaps. This only serves to complicate its position as a viable alternative to Vista.
Admittedly, this question is pointed more toward Apple, which generally locks its customers into buying from single-source hardware vendors. Windows clearly has the competitive advantage here, even though it's not the only one to run mundane Intel/x86 hardware products. The bidding process helps ensure the lowest price, which is what any customer really wants, given plenty of viable options.
And why shouldn't a vendor make such a guarantee? As a business client, you need a dependable roadmap to which you can refer. Linux is no longer the hobbyist OS it was, and now operates on more varieties of hardware than ever before. With big-league names like Waltham, Mass.-based Novell Inc. pushing initiatives for better user interface control and improved usability, Linux is maturing to a better platform for the long term every day.
Budgetary allowances have to be made for hardware upgrades just to match or optimize Vista minimum requirements. Licensing costs have to be considered for platform transitions. Legacy applications have to be accounted for. And man-hours invested into learning a new interface must be considered. Larger organizations may be able to transition between platforms in small, compartmentalized phases, but what about resource-strapped SMBs, many of which are operating at full capacity as is?
Ultimately, while now may be a perfectly opportune moment to explore alternatives to Vista, I recommend that SMBs stick to what works. Like buying a new car, there's good reason to wait six months for Microsoft to work out most of the unforeseen problems and issue recalls. Like having a new car, there's no immediate benefit to trading in for the newer model, unless you want an updated look just to keep pace with the Joneses.
Justin Korelc is a longtime Linux hacker and system administrator who concentrates on hardware and software security, virtualization and high-performance Linux systems. He has contributed to books on Windows and Linux home theater PCs and the MythTV environment, and writes regularly about Windows and Linux subjects for several Tom's Hardware sites.
This was first published in March 2007