In the 1980's and 1990's computer manufacturers competed not just on the basis of hardware superiority but also by providing better software. Most millennials are likely too young to remember the computer operating system battles that began in the early-to-mid 1980's and ran until some time around the mid 1990's. That was back when Apple and Microsoft were duking it out over who would control the desktop computer market. During that period, essentially every competitor that sold a computer with a different operating system either went out of business or switched to Windows. A few strange individuals (from the perspective of everyone else) chose to use different operating systems, like DR-DOS, FreeBSD, BeOS, AmigaOS, or OS/2, but most stuck with Apple or Microsoft operating systems. There were many operating systems that essentially no one remembers except those few who bought computers running them.
I'm getting a really nostalgic feeling right now as I write this. I remember my brother bought a Commodore 64 and tried his hand at game programming. My father ended up settling on a used Amiga some time around the year 1992, despite my strong attempts to persuade him not to buy a computer running a dead-end operating system.
Palm and other "hand-held" computers, as they were known then, appeared and flourished during the late 1990's and early 2000's. Along with them came the Palm OS, Windows CE, and Pocket PC operating systems. If these were not already falling out of favor by 2005, the nails were hammered into their coffins by cellphones running Palm OS, Blackberry OS, and then iPhone OS. I paid $15 in 2005 for a new Palm V hand-held computer, six years after it first came out selling for $700.
It seems like our new-found freedom on the Internet in the 1990's coincided with our freedom to choose from a variety of operating systems. I don't know if that was a coincidence, but it's looking more true all the time, as a hand-full of giant corporations control more of the Internet every day by corralling ever more people onto their platforms.
We don't seem to hear as much discussion these days about which operating system is the best. This is likely for one or more of three reasons. The first is that the majority of people have found their niches and are unlikely to move out of them any time soon. The second reason is that consumers who choose to limit themselves to either the smart phone or tablet categories of computing devices are more than likely locking themselves into a choice between two operating systems. Many younger people only use smart phones, so they are using Apple IOS or Google Android for the most part. The lock-in is so strong now that many people in their teens to mid twenties may never have had the opportunity to consciously choose an operating system.
People who have been around longer, who have a need, or are just more nerdy, use laptop or desktop computers. Most are now fairly set in their ways too, tending to stay with either Mac OS or Windows. A very small group of computer users (only a percent or two) prefer to use Linux, but many of these have to use Mac OS or Windows at work. I have been in both the Windows and Linux niches for years. In fact, I haven't used an Apple computer more than a hand-full of times since 1990, and I've explained why that is in a couple of my articles, namely this one. However, I am aware that many non-cheapskates love their Apple products.
The third reason we may not hear as much discussion about operating systems is that in about 2012, laptops and then cellphones and tablets began shipping with UEFI's and Secure Boot that lock them into the operating systems installed on the devices by their manufacturers. Although, there was really never much of an option to switch operating systems on cellphones and tablets, even before UEFI and Secure Boot came along. Ostensibly, the switch to UEFI and Secure Boot was to prevent boot-sector malware from being able to take control of devices. But, in my opinion, a very negative result of this is that as "security" has been locked down more and more over the years since 2012, we have had less and less ability to choose to run alternative operating systems. To me, one of the major benefits of owning a PC used to be that I had my choice of several operating systems. Now, that is mostly no longer true. Partly as a result, I have so far not bought a PC manufactured since 2012. Thanks to the death of Moore's law some years ago, this has not been much of a burden to me. But, it would still be nice to have the option of running whatever operating system I want on a new PC without having to buy either a Dell or some expensive specialty PC like a System76 PC.
I've decided to write this article, because the Internet appears to have less frank and easily-understood talk now about the pros and cons of the major operating systems. Much of the information that is available on the Internet seems to be superficial and designed for marketing purposes, rather than education. Clearly, I am biased toward laptop and desktop operating systems. However, I will try to clearly explain the pros and cons of today's major operating systems. I will spend more time talking about laptop and desktop operating systems than phone and tablet OS's, because fewer people in their teens and twenties seem to be familiar with them.
Apple IOS is the operating system that runs on iPhones and iPads. It is designed primarily to be easy-to-use and bug free. It succeeds at this for the most part. IOS apps are intuitive and easy to install. However, a worrying trend since the death of Steve Jobs in 2011 is the decline in quality of Apple products. It is rather well known that Steve was a perfectionist who often fired engineers who were unwilling or incapable of delivering high-quality hardware and software. In my opinion, this is why Apple products were so bug free and user friendly for so many years. This perspective comes from many years of working as an engineer for managers who couldn't have cared less about the quality of companies' products. As a result of my experiences with these managers, I know how crucial conscientious management can be to the quality of products. Since Steve's death we have seen numerous complaints among Apple fans about the many problems that have cropped up with new products, like for instance, the problems with Apple keyboards. There have also been general grumblings about increasingly common software bugs.
Another big plus of IOS is that it is secure, thanks in part to Apple's lock-down of software in the Apple App Store, but also thanks to Apple's efforts to encrypt iphones using software that does not contain backdoors. This, in my opinion, is the best benefit of IOS. Of course, only allowing Apple-approved software to run on IOS does have the big downside of limiting the number and variety of apps that can be run on it.
There are other downsides to IOS. Before IOS 9, IOS could only run one program at a time--not that one would necessarily be interested in running more than one program at a time on a 5 inch screen. IOS is also program-centric, rather than file-centric. This means that it is often difficult to transfer files to other devices, for example music files. Most likely, this difficulty in transferring files is intentional, because it tends to lock users into Apple services, like iTunes.
Like Apple IOS, Google's Android OS is designed to be easy to use. Like older versions of IOS, Android will only run one user program at a time. The higher-quality apps are intuitive and easy to install. I've been using Google Android on cellphones since about 2009 or 2010. I have used my cellphones, not as cellphones, but mostly as movie and music players and ebook readers. The only real problem I have with Android is that there seem to be many incompatibilities between software and the various versions of Android. Other than that, many Android apps seem to work just fine at providing basic functionality. Android users can watch videos, play music and games, and read ebooks in PDF, ePub, and various other formats. Many Android apps of obviously lower quality also exist that just don't work very well, or at all. Fortunately, there are a huge number of Android apps to choose from, many of which are free.
Adroid is not designed to be as secure as IOS. I could go so far as to say that Android is inherently insecure. This is partly due to the large number of insecure apps that are designed with the intent of collecting user's data. Not only this, but Android itself is notorious for collecting user's data. But, what would you expect from an operating system designed by Google?
Apple's Mac OS (originally called OS X) is the second major operating system created by Apple for its laptop and desktop computers. It can also be run on a PC, but this takes some effort. Mac OS was developed in 2001, and its roots go back to the Unix operating system and software developed at the NeXT company, founded by Steve Jobs. Mac OS is the next most popular desktop operating system after Microsoft Windows. Mac OS was designed to be stable, to embrace open software standards, and to be similar in user experience to the older Mac operating system.
While not as easy to use and maintain as Chrome OS, Mac OS is said by Mac users to be more bug-free and easier for beginners to use than Windows. Mac OS makes Apple laptop and desktop computers much more stable than Windows computers. Much of the maintenance that is required for Windows computers is not necessary on computers running Mac OS, including periodic disk defragmentation. Unfortunately, as I mentioned regarding Apple IOS, Mac OS quality has degraded noticeably since Steve Jobs' death.
One great benefit of being derived from Unix is that Mac OS is not nearly as prone to viruses as Windows. However, this may be changing, as more malware developers put more effort into compromising Mac OS.
As I have pointed out in previous articles, the major downside of Apple products is that they are designed to be incompatible with everything else. In this vain, Mac OS uses a unique file system, called Apple File System (APFS), that is incompatible with PC's running Windows or Linux without additional software and effort. So, files created on PC's cannot normally be transferred to Apple computers and vice-a-versa.
Chrome OS is the operating system that runs on Chromebooks. Developed by Google, Chrome OS was derived from the open-source Chromium operating system. It uses the Chrome browser as its "desktop", or main user interface. In addition to being able to run Chrome apps from the Chrome Web Store, which provides many free and paid apps, newer versions of Chrome OS can also run Android apps. Chrome OS was designed to be a user-friendly operating system on which all operating system maintenance and updates would be done automatically over the Internet by Google. Chrome has succeeded in doing this, lifting a significant burden from the users' shoulders. The result is that Chrome OS users have a very secure and easy-to-use operating system that does not require them to know anything about operating system upkeep or security. So, users have a worry-free platform on which to run programs and surf the Internet without the headaches associated with harder-to-use operating systems like Windows and Linux.
There are downsides to Chrome OS. The most significant is that since the primary user interface is the Chrome browser, this operating system has not historically been of much use when disconnected from the Internet. It was meant primary for users who wanted to use Google Docs and other Google online services to play movies, listen to music, read books, and browse the Internet. However, Google has been slowly adding offline functionality into Chrome OS (much of which unfortunately revolves around specific Google apps). Even with this increased offline functionality, Chrome OS is still light-years behind the capabilities of Windows and Linux. Despite this, many in the media who cover consumer computer news recommend Chrome OS to those who do not need the functionality of a more capable computer operating system.
Another downside to Chrome OS is that Google's support for Chromebooks normally only lasts for 5 years. That's 5 years after the Chromebook comes out, not 5 years from the date you buy it. After that, users are on their own. This can put novice computer users in the position of surfing the Internet without the latest security updates to their operating system, a dangerous position for them to be in.
For many of us, the major problem with Chrome OS is that Google uses it, as it appears to use all of its products, to spy on users. Chrome OS users can opt out of some surveillance, but since spying on users is part of Google's business model, it stands to reason that users may not be able to opt out of all surveillance. I hope I am wrong about this.
It's difficult to explain how I feel about Microsoft Windows without giving a rather long-winded explanation. I've been using the various versions of Windows at work since about 1993. I used an older version of DOS, DOS 4, on the first 286-based PC that I bought in 1992. I upgraded it in less than a year with a new motherboard and a 386 processor and then upgraded it again to a 486. I also upgraded its operating system to DOS 5, and then DOS 6.0, and then eventually to Windows '95. Beginning in the mid 1980's in school and through all of the 1990's at work, I also used mainframe computers. I have to say that I have never been very impressed with Windows when compared to Unix. For more than two decades I looked forward to the day when I could afford to run something like Unix on my own computer at home. That day did not come until a semi-usable operating system finally became available in the form of Linux Mint 7, some time around 2009.
The point I'm making is that Windows and I go way back, even though I've never particularly liked Windows as an operating system. For years it was the only general-purpose operating system available to individuals on a broad array of computers. So, for this reason, and because businesses became dependent on it, I have suffered with it for two-and-a-half decades.
The good thing about Windows is that it works. The bad thing is that it has never worked all that well, and probably will never will. Over decades, it has had all sorts of maddening problems associated with it, like running tons of CPU-power-consuming programs in the background that users have little or no control over, or locking the user out of his computer at critical times so it can perform one of it's many updates without asking for permission. You see, Microsoft believes that you are not the true owner of your PC. Microsoft is the true owner of your PC.
This just scratches the surface of the problems with Windows. Windows files can be corrupted when the power to the PC is unexpectedly cut or when a user just forgets to power it down the right way. This causes it to perhaps not be able to boot up again. The Windows registry gets corrupted and filled with trash, preventing programs from running or causing other problems. It fragments hard drives, causing them to run slower and slower until users finally discover what is wrong and correct it, or buy another computer and go through the same process all over again. Backups often fail to work. Windows is the equivalent of an open wound when it comes to viruses and other types of malware infections. I could go on and on. The bottom line is that the Windows operating system requires a lot of time and knowledge on the part of the user just to stay functional.
Then there is the other software that Microsoft sells. I stopped using Microsoft Excel around the year 2001, after an update completely redefined the user interface, for no good reason, for about the fourth time. Three or four years ago, I finally had enough of Microsoft Office and removed it from my laptop, after it demanded that I connect it to the Internet before it would allow me to see one of my documents that resided on my hard drive. This was a document I wrote!
So, you may be asking yourself, why would anyone put up with the Windows operating system? I think one major reason is simply that before Android, IOS, or Chrome OS came along, and aside from the locked-down environment on Apple computers, Windows was just what everyone used. It was the default operating system. In other words, people didn't know any better, so they got used to it. For decades it ran on most of the available hardware in the world, and most of the software in the world ran on it. Another reason people still use Windows is that, despite the many difficulties that it causes its users, it does get one thing right. It makes new software and hardware very easy to install. Also, Windows does not lock its users into running its approved software. It gives them more power and control than any of the operating systems previously mentioned. Users can install and run just about any type of software they want--including software for word processing, software development, business applications, and other types of software that are not available on some of the other operating systems designed for consumers.
I believe even Microsoft now realizes that Windows' days are numbered. I think that is why they no longer push people to buy Windows 10. Mostly, they have been giving it away lately for free to computer owners who have an earlier version of Windows already installed on their computers. But the most obvious evidence that Microsoft knows Windows' time is limited is that Microsoft has Linux running in Windows 10. I think this is an attempt to keep Windows relevant as more and more professionals begin to use Linux for their daily development tasks. And, as Linux continues to get easier to use, consumers will start to use it more.
This brings us to the final operating system that I would like to discuss. Linux is actually not one operating system. It is many. The varieties or versions of Linux are called "distributions". A few of the most popular Linux distributions are Linux Mint, Ubuntu, Debian, OpenSUSE, Fedora, and Arch Linux. Android and Chrome OS are also Linux distributions, even though Google does not attach the word "Linux" to their names. There are currently over 700 Linux distributions to choose from.
People who have used Windows should have no problem using the basic features of Linux. It's a point-and-click operating system, just like Windows. Depending on the distribution of Linux, it may look more like Mac OS, more like Windows, or more like something completely different. In fact, you can load different windows managers to make the Linux desktop look like just about whatever you want it to look like, something you definitely can't do with Windows.
People who have the opportunity to play around with Linux Mint will see something rather like Windows, but with a "Start" menu that has different programs that do many of the same things as Windows programs, often in similar ways. This means that there is a fairly small learning curve required to play movies, do some basic word processing, and surf the Internet.
More in-depth knowledge is required to install Linux programs from the command line, navigate though the Linux file system, create shell scripts, start and stop daemons, configure the firewall, perform operating system maintenance, install arbitrary packages, write ISO files to USB sticks, run programs automatically at certain times of the day, log on to remote computers, administer users accounts, set up and debug computer networks, load and configure web servers, compile source code, and install hardware drivers. But, many of these actions require more in-depth knowledge on Windows, as well.
I'll spare you an account of the history of Linux, except to say that it was created in the early 1990's by an individual who wanted to provide a free operating system for everyone. As a result of his and many other people's efforts, the software that comes with the various distributions of Linux today is free to use. This includes software for word processing, computer code development, playing movies and music, system utilities, Internet browsing, movie and image editing, some games, disk encryption, and pretty much anything else you can think of. At this point, Linux probably supports nearly as many of the important applications as are available on Windows.
In the past, the quality of most Linux software lagged far behind the quality of the software available for Windows, but I think this is well on its way to changing. Many well-known software development companies are beginning to create Linux versions of their software. For example, you can now get Skype for Linux. Other familiar software that now runs on Linux is Thunderbird, Firefox, Chrome, Opera, and Adobe Reader. You can even run Microsoft Office on a Windows emulator that runs on Linux, called Wine, although I don't know why you would do that at home, given Linuxes collection of excellent office suites. Many commercial software applications also run on Linux. And, some software originally developed for Linux, such as Audacity and VLC Media Player, now also runs on Windows.
I first tried Linux sometime in the mid-to-late 1990's. It was horrible. I remember trying a distribution called "Peanut Linux" in 1999. It took me days to get it installed to the point where it would run at all. Just about every application that came with it crashed almost immediately. Despite it's marketing promises, it was junk. For many years, Linuxes slogan has been, "Linux, it just works!" For years that was pure bologna. I tried several other Linux distributions and eventually gave up on all of them. The most valuable intelligence that I managed to gather about Linux in the mid 2000's was by going around to some of the Linux experts at work and asking if any of them had been able to use Linux to surf the Internet. The blank looks on their faces, followed by their shaking heads, told me everything I needed to know. So, I dropped Linux for a few more years.
Then, around 2009, a semi-usable version of Linux, Linux Mint 7, came along, and I actually used Linux for the first time in a real way. Linux Mint has improved over the years since. It is now so good that I use it as my primary operating system. The only time I use Windows is on rare occasions when I can't find a Linux version of a Windows program that I need to run. I also use another well-known Linux distribution, TAILS, when I want a high level of anonymity on the Internet. Occasionally I'll try another distribution of Linux for some specific purpose, but mostly I stick to Mint for its ease-of-use and the fact that it runs on a wide variety of machines. Mint seems to have hardware drivers for just about every machine that I try it on, so far mostly Dell and HP computers.
Until around 2006, a major problem with Linux was that it was very difficult to install software onto a Linux machine. This is mostly no longer true, especially with more well-known, main-stream applications--office suites, movie and music players, Internet browsers, etc. Two things have greatly improved the software installation experience. The first is software repositories. These are locations on the Internet where Linux software is archived that is specifically created to be compatible with particular Linux distributions. The second is that many Linux distributions now come with applications for downloading and installing compatible software. This includes both general software installers that are used on a wide variety of Linux distributions and software installers that are specific to the distribution you happen to be using.
As of today, the software installation program on Linux Mint, simply called "Software Manager", has 70826 software programs, called "packages", that can be installed directly from its repository on the Internet. These packages, while usually not the latest versions, do run on Linux Mint. The general software installer that comes with Linux Mint is the "apt" package. It can be used to install software from any compatible repository. Since Linux Mint was derived from Ubuntu, the Ubuntu repositories also contain much software that works with Linux Mint.
Although Linux is now usable as an every-day, multipurpose operating system, there are still bugs left in it. In my opinion, the biggest problem with Linux is that files are corrupted when it is not shut down correctly. And, so far, I have found no way of repairing corrupted files, except by re-installing the whole Linux operating system. This is especially exasperating when you consider that the current Linux Mint battery monitor doesn't work. So, when you configure your Linux Mint laptop to shut down or go to sleep automatically when the battery is down to say a 20% charge, it ignores you. The first indication you get that the battery has drained too far is when the power goes out completely on your laptop. And, you guessed it, one or more operating system files are corrupted as a result, so Linux now has to be re-installed. This behavior also shortens battery life. Hopefully some smart person will find a way to solve these problems soon. As it is, I end up having to reinstall Linux Mint about every other month. To help mitigate this problem, I've written a bash script to mostly automate the process of configuring my Linux laptop to my liking after each battery-draining accident.
I know this has been a long-winded article, but my hope in writing it has been to give those of you who are computer novices, or have only had experience with one operating system, some idea of what you are missing. If you are only interested in surfing the Internet, getting on Facebook, or playing movies and music, then staying with IOS, Android, or Chrome OS makes perfect sense. If you want to run more complicated software that lets you do more, you may want to consider upgrading your computer skills to include experience with Windows, Mac OS, or Linux. If you are fascinated by computers, Windows seems to be the past, and Linux looks strong for the future. Perhaps the biggest benefit of becoming moderate-to-exceptionally-computer-literate is that you become much more capable of extracting yourself from the enclosures built for you by the likes of Google, Microsoft, and Facebook, who no doubt see you as just another one of the millions of their serfs tied to their platforms.
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