A Day to Remember: 23 April, 2009

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Yesterday was a day to remember – and not just because it was Shakespeare's birthday. Yesterday saw the release of Jaunty Jackalope – version 9.04 of the Ubuntu GNU/Linux distro.

I've been using Ubuntu on test systems for many years, and it's been on my main work machines for the last two. There have been ups and downs with the various releases (let's not talk about Intrepid Ibex, which murdered all my network connections). I have to say that Jaunty is simply miles better than anything that's come before: it's incredibly fast, seems totally stable, and just works with all the hardware I've thrown at it. For anyone still teetering on the brink of trying out Ubuntu, the quality of this build really should be ample to push you over.

Of course, it would be premature to declare today as the day when desktop GNU/Linux finally came of age, not least because it's unlikely that its market share will shoot up dramatically as result of Jaunty. But I do think people will look back on the 9.04 release as a significant milestone in the rise of GNU/Linux there.

And there's another reason why yesterday was significant: Microsoft announced what are probably its worst quarter results ever:

Microsoft Corp. today announced revenue of $13.65 billion for the third quarter ended March 31, 2009, a 6% decline from the same period of the prior year. Operating income, net income and diluted earnings per share for the quarter were $4.44 billion, $2.98 billion and $0.33 per share, which represented an increase of 3% and declines of 32% and 30%, respectively, when compared with the prior year period.

Now, the global financial crisis certainly contributed to those figures, but I think there's a bigger underlying trend here, which is that the Microsoft money machine is faltering. In the past, it consistently turned in higher figures than analysts expected every quarter. That helped drive its share price, which, in turn, meant that employees benefited from share option schemes. No more. For the last year, Microsoft's share price has been declining, and is now hovering around half the peak post-dotcom crash value, which was at the end of 2007.

Financial problems aside, Microsoft is also grappling with continuing difficulties for its key Windows platform. The abject failure of Vista, and the growing indifference to Windows 7 suggest that Microsoft's dominance on the desktop, although still strong, can no longer be taken for granted in the way it could in the past. And its platform woes are linked to its money troubles precisely because of the rise of Ubuntu and other GNU/Linux solutions.

This is seen most clearly in the netbook market, where Microsoft made a U-turn on its stated intention to phase out Windows XP some years back. In order not to lose the fast-growing netbook market to open source alternatives, Microsoft has been forced to sell copies of Windows XP for a very low price. As market share figures show, this may have worked in terms of keeping GNU/Linux out of the hands of most general users, but the cost has been great - and not just financial terms.

Windows Vista's inability to run well on netbooks was probably its coup de grace, exposing as it did fundamental flaws in its programming model. And if Windows 7 is able to run on low-cost notebooks, it's at the price of needing to match GNU/Linux in terms of speed and small footprint. In other words, Microsoft has had to recognise that it is no longer leading, but following the agenda set by open source offerings.

The coincidence of Jaunty's powerful release and Microsoft's painful quarterly results on the same day can be viewed as nicely symbolic of the deeper underlying trends of ascent and descent in the world of computing. I'm sure Shakespeare would have approved of their dramatic juxtaposition in this way.

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