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Every few months, a pundit asks, "Is Linux ready for the desktop?" The implication, of course, is that it hasn't been -- at least, not until very recently. Yet those who actually use a GNU/Linux desktop know that the operating system has been ready for some years. Considering that much of the early design of desktops like KDE and GNOME were based on what was happening in Windows, that readiness is hardly surprising. In fact, development of the GNU/Linux desktop has reached the point today where it not only equals the Windows Vista desktop, but frequently surpasses it.
Of course, Vista has an advantage: it comes already installed on most systems. By contrast, pre-installations of GNU/Linux, such as Dell's Ubuntu systems, are still rare. However, that is not a feature of the operating systems so much as a marketing coup. Anyone who has tried to install a copy of Windows from scratch will find it no easier than installing a GNU/Linux distribution. Both Windows and GNU/Linux distributions now feature graphical install programs and first-time boot wizards with detailed instructions that any intermediate user can understand. Both, too, have the same basic level of success in recognizing hardware on workstations (laptops, with their wireless cards that have Windows-only drivers can still be a problem for GNU/Linux). At any rate, installation is such a small part of users' experience (assuming they experience it at all) that it can shouldn't be over-emphasized.
In addition, in making a comparison, you need to specify not only the GNU/Linux desktop -- there are several, in case you didn't know -- but also the distribution. There are hundreds. Also, to make the comparison meaningful, you need to choose a distribution aimed at the desktop, rather than one designed for users that may have a less fully-featured desktop.
These days, the comparison is often done with Ubuntu. However, other distributions hold up equally well. A case in point is Fedora 7, which defaults to a GNOME 2.18 desktop that has been customized for ease of use. Based on a wide array of criteria, an in-depth look reveals that (like a growing number of GNU/Linux distributions) Fedora 7 takes second place to nothing -- not even Windows Vista.
Fedora's and Vista's desktops are similar enough that average users should be able to switch from one to the other with a minimum of disorientation. Both include a menu and panels, and a central space for adding icons. Both desktops have a default file manager in which it is easier to move around a user's files and desktop rather than the overall directory system. Both desktops, too, show a proliferation of pop-up notifications that seem to appear at the most inconvenient times possible unless you turn them off.
Beyond these basics, the Fedora desktop features a number of innovations that demonstrate that it has moved beyond copying Windows. Instead of placing the menu in the bottom left -- an illogical positioning that begun solely to differentiate Windows 95 from the Mac desktop -- Fedora's GNOME desktop places the menu in the top left, where new users would start to scan for features. To make this menu more user-friendly, it lists only core programs, and tends to list them by function rather than by program name, so that you will find a listing, for instance, for Text Editor rather than Gedit. Unfortunately, this setup has the effect of hiding some programs from users -- although, if they are aware of a program, they can add it to the menu via the AlaCarte menu editor. Separate menus are also given for Places that users might want to move to, and for System, where customization, administration, and logout items are stored.
By contrast, the Vista menu remains resolutely down in the bottom left corner, where it is easy to overlook. By default, it lists nine recently used programs. If you want more, you either have to click the All Programs tab, which gives you a list of programs that requires scrolling, or use the Search field, which limits you to programs you already know about. Most users, I suspect, are happy to right-click the menu and revert to the Classical look that includes all the menus, but lists programs by names more often than functions. The default menu also includes settings similar to Fedora's Place and System menus, but is less well-organized and easier to overlook as you navigate the intricacies of the needlessly complicated default menu.
Fedora also has an advantage in its use of panels. Both Fedora and Vista feature have panels that can be moved or resized, although few Windows users are likely aware of the fact, since both operations are done in Vista via a mouse rather than a settings panel. Fedora features two -- one reserved for menus and icons for utilities and programs, and another used mostly as a taskbar for opened programs. This arrangement makes for much less cluttered panels, though even when all the functions are compacted on a single panel, GNOME's icons are much easier to read than Vista's.
Vista also features a side panel for applets, which was likely borrowed from GNU/Linux desktops. However, this panel is much less versatile than a panel in Fedora. For one thing, it takes up most of the extra space gained from using a wide screen monitor, with one-inch square icons. For another, it has less than a dozen applets -- or "gadgets" -- compared to the several dozen available with GNOME by default and the additional several dozen that you can install. Nor can the side panel be installed at the top or bottom of the screen, the way that GNOME's general purpose panels can.