Is there life after Windows?

Linux is free, easy-to-use and is shedding its geeky image, thanks to fans who prefer it to Microsoft's mighty operating systems. But is it for everyone? Jamie Merrill asks four rookies to put it to the test

Once it was fair to say that Linux was the preserve of small coterie of computer nerds typing away in their parents' basements and spare rooms. This is no longer so, however, as the free and easy-to-use operating system with a reputation for rock-solid reliability is coming out of the shadows. It's shaking off its geeky reputation by getting some computing street cred as a fast web browsing and music platform.

Andrew Miller, technology journalist and founder of thinkabouttech.com is a self-avowed Linux devotee and typical of its supporters. "For 97 per cent of computer users, Linux is perfect. Nowadays pretty much everyone is living in the cloud – with all of our data storage based online – and Linux offers you absolutely everything you need. For work, you have OpenOffice, for music you have Spotify and for instant messaging you have Pigeon. So it's not just a case of it being as good as Windows, because for a large majority of things Linux is actually better," he says.

"If you talk to a lot of Windows users and ask them what they use, they say, 'I'm using Firefox and OpenOffice,' and if you boot up, say, Linux Ubuntu, a community-developed, Linux-based operating system created for laptops, desktops and servers, both those tools are there, so it's familiar territory, totally safe and free. So the question should 'why not use Linux?'".

Miller isn't alone in his enthusiasm. A recent survey of IT professionals showed that in the midst of recession, free open-source software such as Linux is gaining in popularity, especially with small business users. And while still dwarfed by Microsoft, Linux is holding its own in the netbook stakes, with some estimates suggesting that the system is running on more than 10 per cent of all models.

Linux's popularity isn't confined to bloggers, netbook users and software aficionados. In the past few years Ubuntu – one of Linux's most popular versions – has been adopted as the operating system of choice by institutions as varied as Google, Amazon, the French National Assembly and paramilitary police force, the entire South Korean government, DreamWorks film studio and the government of Mexico City. Later this year, the Vietnamese government will be the latest to ditch Microsoft in favour of a Linux-based operating system for all its computers

The battle between Linux and Windows has been raging for almost as long as there have been motherboards and wysiwig monitors, and even now, Linux is still light years away from even beginning to challenge Microsoft's software hegemony. But some computer experts are starting to suggest Linux has reached a "critical mass" and that its day has come.

So tech-savvy bloggers and IT professionals may be increasingly convinced of the virtues of Linux, but what about the average Windows user? To put Linux to the test, we set up four novices – from computer whizzes to self-confessed Luddities – with a new Toshiba netbook running the latest version of Linux Ubuntu to find out what they thought.

Merryl Lawrenson, 56

Community nurse from Ashford, Kent

I wouldn't say that I'm a big computer user as I generally only use them for work. However, I do some quite complicated tasks at work like writing on patients' records, so reliability is important to me.

The word processor and spreadsheet were all very similar to what I've used before as our home laptop runs the same version of OpenOffice. Menus were straightforward and the icons were very clear and easy to use. The layout was also very clear, so perhaps Ubuntu is a little easier for somebody like me when compared with a machine running hundreds of programs on Windows.

One gripe was that the red cross to close pages and programs was stuck away in a corner, but on the whole it all worked quite intuitively. Especially as it's free, I'd give serious thought to adopting Ubuntu if I were in the market to buy a new computer.

Tony Messenger, 55

Music technician from Farningham, Kent

I'm a music technician, so should know my stuff, but to be honest I really struggled with all the multimedia software that came as standard with Ubuntu. For the life of me, I couldn't get any of the sound or video elements to work online. I couldn't get it to play WAV files, I couldn't get it to play MP3s and it wouldn't play animated GIFs. I can only assume you have to download all the individual codecs [A computer program that lets you stream multimedia content] for each sound or video you want to run, which is a real pain. Nowadays, you need a good half a dozen or so codecs just to browse the internet and it didn't seem to come with any of these as standard.

This defeats the whole point of using Ubuntu as a fast web browser if you have to spend ages setting it up and finding all the codecs, and would almost certainly pose problems for a computer novice. Don't get me wrong; I'm not a Windows devotee and the rest of the built-in software and menu systems seemed fine, but once you've worked on a system, any rival has to excel to be worth switching over to. Ubuntu and Linux generally seem to be the domain of the real computer geeks out there. Everyone that I know who uses Linux tends to be a computer nerd or work in the industry. They enjoy playing around with the system and I don't know if they actually do any work – whereas I'm interested in actually getting things done.

Tim Blake, 23

Teaching assistant from Codicote, Hertfordshire

I'm a pretty dedicated Windows user so I wasn't necessarily expecting great things from Linux, but my first impressions were very good. I expected to struggle navigating the menu system, but found it pretty functional and easy to use. All the information and programs were easy to access and the layout was fairly intuitive. It also seemed fairly robust when it comes to viruses and surfing the web. Internet safety is always a concern, so that's certainly a good feature.

Personally, I'd prefer something a little more complex which allows me a greater choice of software. It might be great for an older generation of computer users who just want to browse the web easily and safely.

I'm training to be a teacher and am on a tight budget at the moment, so free software should be really attractive to me, but I'm just too heavily reliant on Microsoft Office and Windows to consider switching operating systems. I use Word and PowerPoint on a regular basis, both on my laptop and on machines at school, so it doesn't make any sense to switch to a system which won't run those programs. So I don't think Bill Gates and co need to worry about losing my custom just yet.

Androulla Polydorou, 26

Sales manager from Greenwich, London

The first thing that struck me about Ubuntu was the interface. It's just so bright, breezy and user-friendly. Everyone who's seen me using it has been very impressed and has wanted to have a go. I had a few problems at first, such as finding the right icon to turn up the volume. I think perhaps I'm so used to Windows that I'm not used to searching around for icons.

I don't have wireless internet and while I'm OK with computers I had to give in and ask my computer whizz partner for help after 40 minutes of trying to get a connection. That could have been more straightforward.

Overall, I found Ubuntu pretty simple to use and a nice change from Windows. It booted up very quickly and was speedy online. It had versions of all the basic programs, such as a word processor, as well as a really good selection of games. The Toshiba I tested it on had an inbuilt camera, so I played around with the photo-editing software, which was impressive. Being able to alter colour and lighting and move things about and erase things was really cool for someone like me who has no experience of photo editing but wants to have fun with their pictures

I wouldn't necessarily trust Ubuntu for work, as I wouldn't want to find I couldn't do everything I wanted to do. But as another system on my laptop to browse and listen to music I'd think about adopting it.

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