To My Friends Who Use Computers: Choosing An Operating System


Basic Statement

The choices around modern computer systems are complex and confusing. My friends know that I am a fairly high-powered computer expert and often ask my advice. I would like to assist my friends in making good choices around what computer systems to buy and how to use them in order to best meet their needs. This is difficult because modern commercial computer systems are designed to only partially meet anyone's needs; instead they are designed to tease and ultimately frustrate us so that we are a good market for frequent upgrades which always promise to do better and always leave us wanting.

Quick Background

A computer system is a combination of computer hardware (electronic components) under the control of computer software (instructions telling the hardware how to behave). Computers systems offer us unlimited possibilities: Some are obvious, some obscure and the greatest possibilities remain to be discovered. In the early year this was well understood by practitioners. We designed our operating systems to empower ourselves and all users as participants in a grand adventure. Some experts revel in complexity, but good designers see unnecessary complexity as a flaw and work to minimize complexity while maximizing power and the satisfaction of all users. I was a designer and developer in those early years and I looked forward to a bright future as the state of our art improved.

The future has not turned out as we hoped and expected! The popular modern computer systems have standardized their hardware and software around some poor early design choices which reduce their usability and render them dangerously insecure. Computer system vendors have learned that they can maximize their profits by limiting and controlling the ways in which we, their customers, can use our own systems. Each new release advertises increased productivity and security while offering no real increase in power, no real protection from what external attackers can do with our systems while increasingly restricting what we ourselves can do. Consider that many home computers connected to the Internet are now part of sophisticated bot-nets whose power is sold on black markets and is used for a variety of criminal purposes. Can we, the legitimate users, with our glitzy Graphical User Interfaces (GUIs) do anything as creative and powerful as that?

My intention here is not to explore how computer systems SHOULD be designed, nor to present the relatively obscure modern systems which are best. I assume that most of my friends have a very limited tolerance for technical complexity and want a platform which lets them run popular applications, play all their media and have everything "just work". The only real contenders for most users are Microsoft Windows, Apple Macintoshes and some Gnu/Linux distributions.

Let me start with the bottom line: The best computer system for you depends on who you are and the nature of your friends and work environment. But read on for some details.

The Three Popular Operating Systems

1. Apple Macintosh

Why less-technical users often prefer the Apple Macintosh

The Macintosh system comes closest to being a system which "just works". It's the easiest to use. Everything feels better designed. There is a sense of quality and good taste. It's somewhat more secure against attack on the Internet than the market leader, Microsoft Windows.

Why you might not like a Macintosh

1. If no one else in your community use Macs - i.e. none of your friends or colleagues do, you may find yourself uncomfortably isolated.

2. Apple works hard to make their products control what you can do with them. What they want you to do will be easy. Anything else will be obscure or even, through DRM (Digital Rights Management), impossible.

3. You can only use the Macintosh Operating System on an Apple Macintosh computer. Again, Apple insists on controlling all aspects of your system. Apple Macintosh computers use the same technology as all other modern PCs, but they are more expensive up-front.

Why technical users often prefer the Apple Macintosh

The Macintosh operating system is built on top of a very powerful system called BSD. Although Apple carefully hides BSD from regular users, power users can freely download the rest of a BSD system, including an X Window System and a Korn Shell to get a truly first-class environment.

2. Gnu/Linux

The Free Software Foundation designed the Gnu Operating System to be as open as possible. They invented the concept of Free Software and the "Gnu Public LIcense" which guarantees the right of any user to

  1. Use the software for any purpose.
  2. Inspect how it works.
  3. Modify it any way they like.
  4. Redistribute it as long as the license is retained.
Although most individual users do not directly take advantage of these options, the community as a whole does, to everyone's benefit.

The Gnu Operating System is most often used with something called the Linux Kernel, a low-level part of the operating system which users never see. Many people use the term Linux to refer to any complete operating system which includes a Linux Kernel. The Free Software Foundation requests that we use the term Gnu/Linux for any complete system combining of Gnu and non-Gnu Free Software components including the Linux Kernel. I try to honor their request, especially in writing.

Gnu/Linux comes in many versions called "distributions". Each distribution customizes Gnu/Linux for a certain kind of computer system and particular usage. At the large scale: Most modern supercomputers (the most powerful computers which exist) run Gnu/Linux as do most of the computers called servers which provide most of the services on the Internet. At the small scale: Most new "smart phones" and most embedded network devices are based on Gnu/Linux. Commercial distributors try to rebrand Gnu/LInux as their own and often avoid using either the term Gnu or Linux!

Your desktop, laptop or netbook is well served by distributions like Ubuntu which balance ease of use with flexibility and power.

Why you might prefer Gnu/Linux

A friendly Gnu/Linux distribution like Ubuntu or Mint does everything which most computer users expect from a computer system. You can browse the web with Firefox, edit documents with LibreOffice, OpenOffice or Google Docs, listen to your music collection, watch DVDs, browse and retouch your photographs, etc. The graphical interfaces are easy to use and there are almost no limits on what you can do.

Gnu/Linux is the most secure of modern popular computer systems and the major distributions provide free security updates when flaws are found.

Gnu/Linux is designed to allow you the largest possible choice of how your computer system behaves. You can add to or replace any part of the system from a collection of tens of thousands of components using a sophisticated but easy-to-use packaging system which ensures the integrity of the whole system.

The Free Software License make it impossible for a company to use Gnu/Linux software to limit what you can do with it and because it is so open and well studied, security flaws and limitations are generally found and fixed very quickly.

Why you might not like a Gnu/Linux system

1. If no one else in your community uses Gnu/Linux - i.e. your friends colleagues, you may find yourself uncomfortably isolated.

2. If you want to play media encoded in patented and restricted formats, you may find downloading the needed codecs first to be bothersome, although the friendlier Gnu/Linux systems make this pretty easy. Some restricted media, e.g. Blu-Ray, have no legal codecs for open platforms like Gnu/Linux. Although there are generally workarounds for these problems, you may find them bothersome.

3. If Gnu/Linux does not have drivers for all of your devices. Many hardware vendors, for example NVidia and Broadcom try to keep the design of their devices a secret. Of course they provide drivers for Microsoft Windows, but without the "source code" it is impossible to tell if those device drivers have hidden flaws. Microsoft attributes most crashes of their operating system to flaws in these device drivers. Gnu/Linux developers have done an extraordinary job of writing drivers which allow Gnu/Linux to "just work" on most modern PCs, but not all features of all devices will work.

4. Some people are actually disturbed by all the choices which Gnu/Linux offers. Of course you can ignore all the choices and just go with what a simple distribution provides by default.

Gnu/Linux Bottom line

Gnu/Linux is excellent and free, you can (and should) check it out by booting from a "live CD" or USB thumbdrive - this allows you to try it out on your computer without installing it or othewise affecting your computer. You probably want to have friends who are familiar with Gnu/Linux available for support until you're used to it.

3. Microsoft Windows

Why you might prefer Microsoft Windows

If it's what you're used to, if it's what "everybody else" seems to be running, among your friends and at work. As a (convicted) monopoly controlling 90% of the desktop and laptop market, Microsoft's biggest asset is its familiarity, it's so-called "mindshare".

Hardware manufacturers have to provide drivers for Microsoft Windows if they want anyone to buy their products, therefore nearly all PC devices mostly work.

Why you might not like a Microsoft Windows system

Microsoft systems are bloated and inefficient - they require a more powerful CPU and more memory than Macintosh or Gnu/Linux systems for equivalent performance.

Unless you're already used to them, Microsoft's graphical user interface is harder to learn and to use than the other systems. It has a clumsy and chaotic design, especially when compared to the Apple Macintosh.

Microsoft filesystems, e.g. FAT and NTFS and their document formats, e.g. doc and xls are famously incompatible, not just with those of other systems, but across different versions of Microsoft Windows and Microsoft Office. Documents stored in Microsoft formats may well be unreadable a few years down the road.

Microsoft Windows systems are inherently insecure on the Internet. Microsoft came very late into the networking game. Bill Gates famously said "The Internet will never amount to anything". They designed their systems for small, completely controlled corporate networks. Microsoft systems tend to trust other systems on the network and are therefore very easy to subvert.

Microsoft and their products are easy (and fun) to criticize. Microsoft outspends the rest of the industry on lobbying and marketing. Most of their products and divisions actually lose money, but because of their dominant market position supplying operating systems and office software for PCs they are (at the time of this writing) the richest company in the industry. Enough said!

Can you use Microsoft Windows without getting into trouble?

Although it is impossible to secure an individual copy of Microsoft Windows, there is in fact a way to use it securely. An old mainframe technology called "Virtualization" has recently become possible on regular desktop and laptop computers. Virtualization allows you to run an unsafe operating system as a "guest" on top of a secure operating system which serves as the "host". The user of the computer only sees the guest operating system. When properly set up, the guest can be replaced with a fresh copy after every backup.

Virtualizing Microsoft Windows mitigates its security problems. Virtualization also allows you to move your Microsoft Windows environment from one computer to another without having to go through their registration process each time.

When you must use Microsoft Windows

  1. Never use Internet Explorer. Prefer Mozilla Firefox or Google Chrome.
  2. Prefer LibreOffice, OpenOffice or Google Docs over Microsoft Office
  3. Run Microsoft Windows as a guest on top of a Gnu/Linux host.

Last Words and Links

None of these choices are perfect. All of these systems contain bugs which occasionally cause erratic behavior. None of these systems is perfectly secure on the Internet. All modern computer users have to deal with complexity they shouldn't really have to and find ways to work around confusing user interfaces.

Check out all of your options. I especially recommend that you give Gnu/Linux a careful look and a serious trial. If you switch to a different kind of computer system, expect some awkwardness until you get used to it, and be sure to have some friendly people to call on for help.

Some Links

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