Thursday, November 15, 2007

A World Without Walls or Fences (pt.1) — An Introduction to Alternative Operating Systems

"In a world without walls or fences, who needs Windows or Gates?"

I've been running Windows Vista Business Edition since February of 2007. Unlike most people, I actually like it... at least once I turned off the unbelievably annoying User Account Control and downloaded new device drivers for a few components. The search-as-you-type feature in the Start menu and Windows Explorer windows is extremely handy, and the file structure is more elegant (e.g. "C:\Users\username" rather than the verbose "C:\Documents and Settings\username\My Documents"). And Vista is sexy... at least if your system has sufficient resources to run Aero without becoming as sluggish as ticket sales for Lions for Lambs.

But change is inevitable (except from vending machines). A few weeks ago I decided to abandon Windows as my primary operating system. Yes, there are operating systems out there other than the ubiquitous Windows and the Mac OS X operating system that you find on the iMac and MacBook. Most of these operating systems are derivatives of Unix, an operating system developed by AT&T Bell Labs in 1969 and used primarily for servers. The most common of these are BSD and Linux, and they're used daily by millions of people.

Let me toss out some statistics to make this seem a bit more respectable... More than 4 times as many Web servers run a Unix-like operating system. And according to the W3C (the people responsible for developing standards for the World Wide Web), Linux is the operating system of choice for 3.4% of people on the Internet. That may not sound like a lot, but it's approximately the same number of people that are currently using either Windows Vista or Mac OS X.

So Linux machines are as popular as Macs, they just don't have those funny commercials. Oh, wait a minute... maybe they do.

But why, you may ask, would anyone want to install a Unix-like operating system instead of Vista or Mac OS X? Hrm... Well, how about because it's free? That's right, most Linux and BSD distributions are 100% free. (Free to you, anyway... TANSTAAFL applies to open-source software just like everything else, but that's a post for another day.) Much of the software designed for these operating systems is also free (and incredibly simple to install, but more on that later). Or how about because it's more secure? Linux and BSD users don't worry about viruses or spyware, because they're virtually immune. True, part of this is because of the popularity of Windows -- viruses are naturally designed to target the largest possible audience to maximize the mayhem -- but it's also in no small part because the security of these operating systems is simply better.

But surely these operating systems are too arcane and complex to be usable by anyone but technophiles and geeks? Um... not really. Anyone familiar with Windows should be able to adjust to using a Unix-like operating system (or rather its desktop environment, but more about that later) in no time at all. In fact, the differences between Windows and Mac OS X tend to be quite a bit greater than those between Windows and the desktop environments of Unix-like operating systems.

If you're interested, Michael Horowitz has written an excellent and exhaustive non-biased comparison of Linux and Windows. Some of it is a bit outdated, but it is an excellent resource for anyone debating a change in operating systems. There are a few points on which I disagree. The first is the installation of software in Linux. I find installing software much easier on Linux than on Windows, but YMMV. The second is Linux's support of hardware devices, which has greatly improved in recent years. Third is his opinion whether Linux will become a serious competitor to Windows in the personal computer market. He says no, but an ever larger number of desktop users are turning to Linux. Already, as many people use Linux as use Mac OS X. While Linux isn't going to overtake Windows as the dominant operating system anytime soon, if at all, it is already a serious contender.

Next time: Choosing your operating system

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