Tuesday, February 06, 2007

OS Wars

It seems that there is a never ending stream of the same articles written about operating systems. OSX gets beat up for being a "closed" environment when the truth is that Mac OS derives it's stability from closed hardware but has a very open history toward open source, shareware and non-apple software.

Windows has a reputation for being "easy" to use and inexpensive. Oddly quite the opposite is true in my experience. Do you know anyone that regularly uses Windows that doesn't gripe endlessly about it's shortcomings and many irritations like the blue screen of death? Also windows is anything but cheap. It may seem that way since it comes bundled with most computers these days, but anyone who has looked at the so called vista upgrade knows this is just an illusion.

Linux - the apple of my eye (or is that, vista) and the main subject of this article gets beat up for being hard to use and for geeks only. The one commonality between all of these is that most of the articles are written by people that either have not used the OS they are panning or have a one day exposure to base their opinions upon.

If you don't know me - I'm a 20 some odd year IT pro that works with all of the above. I can't say that I'm a daily user of Mac OS but I was at one time (long ago when Macs were little beige rectangles with 10 inch screens) and do have fairly regular contact with it still. Several of my co-workers are daily users. On my desk at work are two Linux systems and a dual monitor XP system. I started writing this posting on a Linux desktop in my home office and at a later point switched to a windows laptop so I could catch some of my favorite tv shows. I might yet borrow a co-worker's Mac to add some links and pull the publish trigger to prove my point. Before I begin with the meat of this posting I want to share one huge fact with you (if it isn't obvious yet) that all of the proponents of the various systems would rather you not know. The OS wars are over and the user has won!

The three major OS's all share pretty much the same desktop metaphor. They all have some version of an application dock - normally at the bottom of the screen. None of them are hard to use. One may do certain things better than another but swapping between them is hardly cause for the religious wars some industry writers would have you believe.

On to the Linux myths. I even see some of these posted on supposed open source hangouts like Slashdot. Tsk tsk.

1. Linux is hard to install. This one makes me laugh out loud! I've personally installed Linux on more than 100 systems. Starting in the days before the beautiful installers we have these days. Even in 1995 installing Linux was no more difficult than Windows/Dos. Today installing Suse, Mandriva, Ubuntu etc. consists of booting on a CD and answering about 4 questions. Mandriva even includes tips and advertisements to entertain you while you wait... Try installing Windows from scratch some time. Most people never do. Most get it pre-installed on whatever PC they purchase - and they tend to purchase whenever the Windows registry gets big and you have multiple versions of every .dll (and windows starts to run like a pig and crash). Basically windows users tend to replace hardware instead of fixing problems that could be solved with a re-install (this is actually recommended by MicroSoft). Ok by me - more basically free systems to feed my growing super computer in the basement.

2. You can't get hardware drivers for Linux and they are hard to install when you do. Let me regale you with my last two hardware purchases. The first was an off the shelf, brand name web cam. I plugged it into my then 6week old XP laptop which promptly blue screened. After scouring the internet I was directed to install the latest video drivers and the latest drivers for the webcam. After visiting multiple websites unpacking and installing - I plugged in the webcam. This time XP got to the point of almost allowing me to start a video chat before it blue screend. I have since upgraded my drivers twice and am now told that if I turn off the acceleration features of my video card it might work. Disgusted, I went to the pc in my home office that runs an old version of Linux. (When it was still called Mandrake...) Plugged in the cam - saw the cursor change for a moment and some drive activity. I launched a video chat application and there was my dangerously handsome face staring back at me. I never even inserted a CD.

Second hardware purchase was a brand name Bluetooth USB dongle. Pretty much the same story as before on my XP box(s). Websites, installs, crashes... I've never gotten this dongle to work on my laptop. After an entire afternoon of hacking I got it to work on my workstation at the office. I have plugged it into 3 Linux boxes - different hardware, different distributions, each immediately recognized the dongle and activated it. Damn! that was hard - on Windows!

3. Only geeks can use Linux. Only if that's true of Windows and Macs as well. Like I said the user interfaces are so similar it's silly. There are things I like about each interface but I must say that KDE has taken the lead with nice little things like multiple desktops, clipboard history and a lovely assortment of gadgets (widgets - whatever) for the dock. One does tend to miss his favorite tools when they are gone, so lately I find myself constantly tweaking XP trying to make it work more like KDE. So far success is limited.

In the ease of use arena try this comparison. On XP, launch windows explorer. Where do you start? Way down in the Windows/system tree right? Why? Try that on Gnome or KDE. Launch your file manager and you are in your home directory. Now - stick a floppy disk in your windows box. Nothing right? Do that on a KDE system and a floppy icon will appear on the desktop. Cut and paste on windows is great right? Now imagine if you had a history of the last 20 or so things you put on the clipboard to choose from and all you had to do to copy something was highlight it (no keys to press) and to paste you position your cursor and middle click. That's KDE.

4. There isn't any software for Linux. Maybe at WalMart this is true. This part is confusing for most people that are not familiar with open source. When software is free you don't sell it at a mega mart. You give it away (yes, free) on the Internet. Often there is an argument about this that goes like: "what if my mom were to purchase Quicken at Target and then discover she can't run it". Again, if we were talking about Mac you wouldn't ask this stupid question. When was the last time your mom did anything on her own with her computer besides forward you jokes. Be real, a person that calls you to make the most minor changes isn't going to purchase anything without talking to their personal geek first. By the way on Linux I'd recommend GnuCash - basically Quicken less the cost and drive to the mall.

5. There isn't any software - part deux. This usually comes from Windows users trying to use Linux for the first time. They poke around looking for MS-Office, Photo Shop, etc and declare that they can't use it to do any work. I find this really weird. Would they do the same on a Mac? Somehow I think not. My answer is: THIS IS NOT WINDOWS!!! Why do you expect to find Windows software? Almost without exception there are direct analogs between each OS to do the same job. There are exceptions as well. Between each OS. Yes there are things that can be done on Windows that you can't do on Linux. The reverse is also true and this is often left out of reviews / blogs / opinions. One of the big reasons I'm writing this.

For example, if I want to play Halo or use my GPS software - I use my XP notebook. If I need to administer one of the Unix / Linux systems at work or really multi-task (this means multiple applications on multiple desktops for me) I use Linux.

6. There aren't that many Linux desktops so we don't support it. This usually comes from software / hardware vendors. Most companies base this assumption on the number of sales or "shipments". Well, that's an interesting metric for a free OS that you obtain by downloading don't you think? This is difficult metric to come by because of this distribution method but a decent guess can be had by counting the number of hits from each OS to large websites. Depending on what website's statistics you use you will get varying numbers. On my personal sites (the ones that have nothing to do with computers) I see Mac's fluctuate in the 3 to 5 percent range, Linux in the 5 to 9 area and the rest - well I bet you can guess... This sounds to me like Linux and Macs are at least in a dead heat.

In summary - your data, your work, and your media are portable. A friend of mine has a metaphor (thanks Greg) - most adults in this country can sit down behind the wheel of any brand of automobile. Search around for a few minutes and then make use of it without issue. The car rental industry is proof of this. Why is the brand of OS such a barrier? Sure the headlight and wiper controls are on the other side of the steering wheel but it doesn't mean I can't drive.

The OS Wars are over! Haven't you heard? Pick the one that works for you. Maybe the next time your brand lets you down - look around at the other options. You might just find that "free and stable" beats out "unreliable and expensive"...

Looks like I'm not alone in these opinions. Apparently Caitlin Martin over at O'Reilly agrees and is similarly fed up. Her blog post "Performing Brain Surgery on Yourself" has a very similar feel.

I also like this one asserting that Windows users are in an abusive relationship.

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