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Scott Arciszewski

Software, Privacy, Security, Innovation

Operating System Debates are a Waste of Time

August 1, 2014 8:32 PM • Opinion, Migrated

This was originally posted on a website I was developing over a year ago called Keenotes.

There's an oft-repeated argument among lower-level computer science students that I sometimes hear from the older, more experienced crowd, that is very stupid and pointless: Which operating system is the best?

One element that's always absent from these debates is a consistent definition of what "the best" OS would be. The most popular? The most commercially successful? The most secure? The one with all the newest kernel features without eschewing backwards-compatibility? The one with the most software support? The one that looks the prettiest? There's no consistency here.

Let's put an end to these petty wastes of time once and for all. Operating System quality is by-and-large a matter of personal preference. Don't believe me? Let's look at some of the common arguments for/against several operating systems.

Microsoft Windows

I would like to emphasize an important detail here: I don't call them "PCs". PC stands for Personal Computer, so as long as it's being used for personal or home office use, it's a personal computer. Even if it's an Apple product. The "PC" slang came from obnoxious "I'm a Mac," "and I'm a PC," commercials vomited out of Apple's marketing department en masse several years back, with little-to-no thought put behind them; except of course, "We don't want to get sued, so let's dodge calling Windows by its name and call them PCs instead. Then let's campaign against personal computers while billing ourself to be the everyman's solution." Makes perfect sense, if you have the brain activity of a coma victim.

What can be said about Windows? It's the most widely supported client machine operating system on the internet, with a substantial portion of the market share. It's a commercial success and even your most hardcore Unix/Linux/BSD/Solaris fanatics will know their way around it because it's what their friends and family use. It's not open source, it's proprietary (non-free), and it's not cheap, but odds are unless a piece of software was written specifically for another OS, it will run on Windows. Most computer games are Windows-exclusive and will not support Mac or Linux. (Although this is starting to change.)

If you ask me, I would probably say, "Windows is average. It's the baseline by which other OSes tend to compare and contrast themselves, intentionally or not." If you're an average computer user, this average operating system might suit your tastes.

There's nothing wrong with being a Windows user, just don't get arrogant about it.

Apple OS X

Are you a graphics designer, videographer, editor, photoshop specialist, audio engineer, digital artist, or musician? Do you have a very specialized talent that needs to be channeled into a product or service quickly and with a specific and unbroken workflow? Then you should probably at least learn how to use Apple computers because that's what everyone in those fields tend to favor. "It just works," they say.

But like Windows, OS X is proprietary (non-free), is not open source, and isn't cheap. Many public technology speakers (like Richard Stallman of the Free Software Foundation) criticize Apple for selling "Walled gardens" that offer no freedom to the end user.

Personally, I've often been told to switch to Mac OS X (back before they dropped "Mac" from the name) because, "It doesn't get viruses," implying that Apple has better security practices than Microsoft. But that's been shown to not be the case.

The reason there, historically, have been so few viruses for OS X is the same reason there are so few viruses for Dragonfly BSD: How many people use it? If you're going to write malicious software, you want it to hit as many people as possible. Apple wasn't a big enough of a fish for malware writers until recently because their market share didn't make it worth attacking. Ironically, the more people get duped into getting an Apple because it's perceived to be more secure, the more attackers will be motivated to attack it.

There's nothing wrong with being an OS X user, just don't get arrogant about it.

GNU/Linux

Genrally speaking, GNU/Linux refers to a diverse population of operating systems with names like Gentoo, Fedora, CentOS, Ubuntu, Arch, Debian, and Mint. Most varieties of GNU/Linux are free, open source software. This is an advantage because anyone who understands computer programming in the language they use (usually C) can look at their source code, find and report bugs, and see that it's doing exactly what it claims to be doing. Some people are turned off by the sheer variety of Linux distributions. If this sounds like you, your best bet is either Linux Mint or Ubuntu.

A new GNU/Linux user will be surprised to discover that there is no pain-in-the-ass mandatory Disk Defragmenter feature in their system tools. The reason for that is that Linux was designed from the ground up to be a multi-user operating system, so instead of cramming everything into as small of a space as possible like Windows does, Linux spaces files apart in such a way that fragmentation is usually a non-issue.

Most people have the idea that GNU/Linux is exclusively a computer geek operating system, used exclusively by programmers and hackers. While this has certain elements of truth (most webservers run Ubuntu Linux these days), consider the Steam For Linux initiative: Valve is porting video games to run on Linux, selling them through Steam, and cultivating an untapped market. One of the longstanding complaints about Linux computers was the lack of a serious video game market, and that's already changing.

Another poorly thought-out objection to Linux is, "There's no tech support for Linux." No? Have you tried to contact the developer? You can usually contact the person who wrote the piece of software you're having a problem with. They won't drive to your house and do all the work for you, but you're talking to the guy who wrote the code. Who would understand it better than its author? Some paid shill working for an outsourced company whose job mainly consists of trying to sell you services you don't need while searching Google for the answer? Not a chance.

Linux's biggest shortcoming is a lack of support for a lot of commercial, closed-source, proprietary software (like certain video games), and that can only be changed through market pressure. Market pressure that they currently don't have (but might in the near future).

There's nothing wrong with being a GNU/Linux user, just don't get arrogant about it.

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