If you think that a Linux advocate cannot make an objective analysis of desktop operating systems, then you need to read this report. You may find yourself surprised with some brutal honesty that leaves out the free software philosophy.
All three desktop operating systems have admirable qualities. Each has some weaknesses. Attending a recent User Group Fair, I had another chance to see them at work. Having used and programmed on each platform provides some unbiased insights.
I have owned several Macintosh computers. I had new world and old world bios machines including several older 6500s, 7600s, etc. that would not take OS X. I also had a blue and white, a beige workgroup server, Power Mac G4s, a Cube, iBook, etc. I remember making the transition from OS 9 to OS X. I liked it.
I used Microsoft from the DOS days to early Windows 2.0, 3.0, 3.11, Windows 95, 98, ME, NT3.51 - 4.0, 2000 and XP. I still have the licenses and media for everything since Windows 3.1. I managed large IBM networks with OS/2 on the desktop and LAN Server 3 as the server. I won’t get into my NetWare experience.
I used Solaris, AIX and Linux starting with Slackware 3x. I even ran Red Hat on Sun IPCs, Sparc 5 and 10 workstations. I’m now using SUSE SLES and Pro, RHEL, Fedora, Debian and Ubuntu for daily use on servers and workstations.
Each system has different programing architectures with OS X a little closer to Linux than Windows. OS X uses a UNIX architecture to run its internals. However, the OS X desktop interface does not resemble Linux or other UNICES which depend on X. You can use X on the Mac natively.
Windows has a completely different programing structure from OS X and Linux. Windows relies heavily on its user interface which has evolved over time. Programing involves using Windows shell extensions. XP uses the NT kernel to manage file systems, internals and communication with the graphical shell.
OS X and Linux use completely different schemes with kernel extensions and independent programs running inside the user interface shell. The UNIX shell runs independently in what kernel developers call userland.
UNIX and Linux programmers consider their programing methods preferable to Windows. Windows developers consider the interface extensions easier to use and providing for more rapid application development. Each have merit when you look at them objectively. Of course, Macintosh developers will say that since they moved to the UNIX method that they experience more stability.
I started with the first Mac configured as a desktop publishing machine. I remember liking it because it cut costs we otherwise spent on type setting and graphics, paste up ,etc. Then I started using the Mac as a production machine at a DoE lab.
For personal use, I used the Mac for graphics, audio productions and developing web sites. OS X made a huge difference since I didn’t have to reboot in the middle of working. I also knew my way around UNIX and that allowed me to use Internet applications I hadn’t used previously.
I found the developers tools useful. I enjoyed the interface. I found myself exploring more of the system when I purchased “OS X, the Missing Manual”. The same book helped me discover ways of using Windows and Linux I hadn’t known previously.
I recall using XP for three months without having to reboot it. I don’t remember that happening before. I started collecting Microsoft Certs when Windows 95 arrived. I had used Excel 5 and Access to develop financial tools. Later, I became a sysadmin and ran a couple of large NT networks.
XP appeared safe behind our firewall. After three months, my system became sluggish and prone to malware. I did maintenance on the system regularly including defraging the disk, deleting unnecessary files and checking the registry.
I liked XP better than any previous Microsoft OS and still have one workstation running in my lab. I programmed on XP when it first arrived to help build a plug-in or Exchange Client Extension for Outlook that allowed it to run on a Linux groupware server. The server peered with Exchange and used free software components like exim, apache, OpenLDAP, Cyrus IMAP, etc.
I have combined information from surveys, analysts reports and personal experience to prepare this comparison of each system. I have a personal bias for Free Software, but I’m wearing my certified analyst hat in an effort to remain objective.
For programming, administration, a replacement for an UNIX workstation and a moderately performing desktop Linux works well. Using key applications such as Openoffice.org productivity suite, Evolution for a mail client, GAIM for instant messaging, Firefox as a web browser, GIMP for graphics, CUPS for printing, Samba for interoperability, Linux has a lot going for it. It also uses less resources than other operating systems.
Ubuntu works fine for comparison purposes. Ubuntu has in excess of 25% of the Linux desktop market which compares to number two SUSE with 11.4% of the market. So, I’ll use Ubuntu to represent the Linux desktop in this report.
Like all Linux desktops, Ubuntu has limitations. It lacks applications such as Photoshop, Framemaker, Pagemaker, Visio, Access, Quickbooks, a PDF converter, legal DVD players and most importantly income tax preparation software. Without those applications ported directly to Linux, Ubuntu remains a mid-level desktop.
I use Ubuntu for 12 or more hours a day. So, I’m not complaining about the lack of those applications. I have found GIMP an adequate replacement for Photoshop and I just completed a 30 day testing period for the latest distribution of Photoshop.
The Linux desktop has many advantages over its counter parts for developers especially when it comes to programming web services, porting applications and engineering tasks. It runs on moderately priced hardware and takes less memory for graphic intensive software. I can use 512MB of RAM to perform the same jobs that require 1GB of RAM on other systems.
All in all, Ubuntu does an exceptional job replacing UNIX workstations and has a superior desktop. It fits mid-level desktop users and works for about 80 to 90% of enterprise users.
Home users find it a good operating system especially for stability, ease of use and for those who can legally use applications like Xine, Mplayer, etc. for audio and video software which only plays on the Mac and Windows in the US.
A modified Ubuntu will give the user all he or she might want with the exception of tax preparation software. With that in mind, you will find software preparation capabilities on-line at tax prep web sites.
For other applications, Codeweavers Crossover office provides an environment for using Windows applications in Linux. VMware and Win4Lin work for some users who need some Windows applications. TransGaming Technologies provides similar emulation for popular Windows Games.
XP provides an adequate operating system for hosting a number of applications. The large volume of sales seduces Independent Software vendors like Adobe, AutoDesk, Intuit, Corel, Cyberlink, RIM and others to primarily write to the Win32 API. Microsoft’s own applications run well under the XP environment.
Windows XP comes preinstalled on every computer manufacturers’ products with the exception of Apple. The lower cost of the software to OEMs versus the high cost to retail customers keeps XP on the vast majority of computers. The low cost to manufacturers like IBM, HP, Dell, Gateway and second tier or white box manufacturers allows them to modify their software and hardware to run XP.
Microsoft has improved Windows XP since its debut by adding numerous security patches and service packs. With the large number of systems deployed, Windows XP has vulnerabilities to malware. XP remains popular with the majority of PC users.
Windows XP does not compare favorably with Linux, Macintosh or UNIX variants as a development platform. Microsoft’s development tools work strictly on Windows and do not allow for interoperability amongst desktops such as the Mac, Linux or systems running non-Intel based processors. That doesn’t seem to bother XP users since their access to Microsoft Windows based applications remains abundant.
Windows installed base means many people already have training on the system as end users. That creates a barrier for adoption to other systems. A large number of Microsoft Certified System Engineers exits. Those engineers and product specialists can fix user problems quickly. They also see no need to move to a different platform.
Cost savings do not play to Microsoft’s advantage despite their attempt to convince people with their “Get the Facts” campaign.
Macintosh OS X
Macintosh OS X runs on a limited number of hardware devices which allows Apple Computers to offer a stable and high-performance product overall. Apple’s entry level products such as the Mac mini provides a low-cost, high-value multimedia platform.
Apple’s high-end desktops such as the Power Mac G5 with Dual and Quad dual-core PowerPC processors provides remarkable performance for the graphics and multimedia user. The Powerbook occupies a similar place for developers and authors. A number of people also use the high-end products as servers and for development.
Apple remains the major innovator in the PC space. Apple makes superior display units and peripherals. Users have shown they will pay more money for Apple’s products because of the high levels of performance and innovation.
While Apple has had critics in the past for its lack of software offerings much of that has changed. OS X provides more than just an adequate host for proprietary offerings such as Intuit financial products, the majority of Adobe offerings and Microsoft’s productivity suite. Apple also benefits from the Free Software offerings Linux users have become accustomed to seeing. Apple also provides a wide range of native applications such as DVD players and multimedia utilities.
Apple Macintosh does not fare well for mid-level PC users the way Linux might. The lack of operability on commodity hardware makes Apple a specialty product in the enterprise. People who can afford Apple products have a special devotion to the Mac and OS X.
A Closer Look
Macintosh with OS X and Microsoft Windows XP have an advantage over Linux in the area of education where curriculum demands exists for things such as foreign languages courses. The inability to provide for educational demand holds Linux back.
Until commodity hardware manufacturers and Independent Software Vendors make their products available for Linux, the demographics in the desktop area will remain fairly constant. The exception remains in the mid-level desktop area. Analysts will continue to tout Windows for enterprises until ISVs port their software offerings to Linux or until adequate replacements exist.
For both hardware and software manufacturers the prospects of creating offerings for Linux involve significant risks. For example, an ISV may not recover Research and Development costs since the Linux community prefers free software.
Secondly, the continuous development cycle concerns companies like Adobe and Intuit whose cost could increase with every release and upgrade of Linux. Ubuntu has a six month release cycle and replaces applications and libraries continuously. This scares ISVs.
If ISVs could come up with a solution to Linux’s continuous upgrade cycles, they still have unknowns with regard to whether Linux would take off as a desktop alternative to Microsoft. Possibly, the availability of Adobe and Intuit products could supercharge Linux.
Some companies have taken that risk with UNIX desktops and got burned badly. In the interim, Windows will remain the preferred desktop for the masses. Macintosh will remain the connoisseur’s choice of operating systems. Ubuntu will continue as a mid-level desktop and a popular platform for developers.