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July 1st, 2007
Issue #4 – Operating Systems

Back after the lovely identity theft hiatus. Sorry for the delay.

Today I thought I’d talk a little about operating systems. Your operating system is the software that talks to your hardware and gives you and the programs you wish to run a way to interact with the hardware as well. The operating system is the great translator, really.

In order to be able to do this translation, the operating system you want to use has to speak the “native” language of the hardware you want to run it on. If you recall the recent big deal made about Apple moving to run on an Intel processor, part of that is because Windows can also run on Intel and that meant enterprising individuals (or those with much time and specific needs) can get a single computer system to run both Windows and the MacOS (though not simultaneously except via the workaround of running virtual pc).

Available Operating Systems
For personal computers, there are really three main operating system choices out there – Windows, MacOS and Unix. There are many versions of each of these with usually only the most recent one or two being available for easy purchase.

For an average user who doesn’t care to worry too much about updating things individually or learning somewhat esoteric computer knowledge, I’d highly recommend sticking to a version of MacOS or Windows.

    Windows is one of the front runners. The current version that is just out is called “Vista” and has some nice features. The version just prior to Vista was called Windows XP. One downside is that shopping for a new version of Windows can be a tad confusing because it’s being marketed in multiple sub-versions. Home Edition, Ultimate Edition, etc. What you need depends on what you do on your computer but most people don’t need more than the Home edition.
    The current edition of the MacOS is called OS X Tiger. The previous edition was called Panther and the upcoming one (due out late this year – October was the date I heard) is called Leopard. Because MacOS comes pretty much in a single “flavor”, shopping for it is pretty easy.
    Linux is the third major operating system and the most common used “flavor” is Red Hat. Linux is based on an open-source model where anyone can obtain the source code for the operating system and make changes, fix bugs or write new features. The operating system is free as well bet is less immediately user-friendly than either Windown or MacOS. While quite powerful, it does mean that you have the ability to shoot yourself in the foot as well.

    Linux users often use Windows emulators to run Windows programs that are not built to run natively on Unix/Linux.

    For most users who do not want to have the learning curve associated with Linux and/or don’t really need the additional power or transparency it provides, Linux is not the best choice. The downsides of having fewer native and familiar applications, fewer resources for help and needing to learn more are too compelling to write off.

Operating System Myths
There are quite a few myths I hear when people start to talk about their operating system choices. A few of the common ones are:

    Virus Vulnerability
    Any time someone says an operating system can’t get viruses or be affected by malware, they are either lying or are not well informed. The only way for any system to not be vulnerable is to be a closed system that is rigorously tested as well. The system would be able to take no input and interact with nothing else. Not terribly useful, really.

    The people who write and distribute malware are doing it for a reward of some sort – either reputation, data or money. It’s really a business for most of them. This means, like any good business plan, they aim to have the highest return for the least effort. Because Windows is the most common operating system, it makes the best target. Thus more malware is written aimed toward machines running the Windows operating system.

    There most certainly is malware out there aimed toward MacOS and Linux systems. It doesn’t receive as much news because it doesn’t affect as many systems overall and because it doesn’t hit as often. If one of those two operating systems become more popular, more malware will be written to affect them because it will make better business sense. If a group of users is complacent because they believe their operating system isn’t vulnerable, they will have an ugly awakening later.

    Everyone needs to run good anti-virus and anti-spyware software at all times and scan their systems regularly, no matter what operating system they use.

    Data Loss
    Just as no operating system is immune from malware, none are immune from data loss. The way the data loss is presented to users may be different but it can happen all the same. All important data should be regularly backed up so, if you experience data loss, you may be able to recover it.

    Ease of Use
    This is something each user has to judge for themselves. The trick is actually to find a balance between the control you want and the ease you need. In a way, it’s akin to a manual vs an automatic transmission car – an automatic does more work for you and tends to be easier to learn to drive but an automatic give you more control over exactly what the car is doing which some people may need or prefer.

    One of the things that makes some people say an operating system is “easy” or “hard” is how well their own thought processes and assumptions match that of the operating system from the get go. I find some “easy” software incredibly frustrating because they assumptions it makes are at odds to what I want – often because it’s automatically doing something that I don’t want it to do.

    Unfortunately, this is one of the things that is really only learned by experience.

My Advice
If you need to be able to run a particular application or applications, then you need to make sure that application is available on whatever operating system you prefer. That may make the decision very clear right off.

If you are thinking of switching and already run a set of applications, see what operating systems the manufacturer supports. It’s easier to switch if you can obtain the same applications for a different operating system. That would be one less thing you need to learn or relearn.

If you are choosing an operating system for the first time, then your best bet is probably to find a chance to play with at least a sample system using MacOS and one running Windows. Try to do this without someone hanging over you and telling you where to click or what to do. You’re trying to get a feel for how easy you find the system to understand and use and you probably will not have someone behind you to help you all the time. Look around the system. Open folders. Start applications. Try whatever you think you might want to do. Explore.

If you are thinking of switching operating systems, you should find a way to play with a system running the operating system you are considering switching to. Try to perform tasks you normally perform and see how easy or difficult you find it. See how different or similar it is to what you do now.

While you do this, take lots of notes so you can remember what you thought. It’s easy for it to turn into a big blur.

Then you need to sit down and decide what you think the right choice is for you and what you need to do with the system.

Remember that there’s nothing wrong with having several systems that run different operating systems for different reasons, if you need them. It’s also not a lifelong commitment. You can always change to another operating system later. Your goal should be to use an operating system that is not a such a source of frustration that you can’t stand to turn it on.

One comment to “Issue #4 – Operating Systems”

  1. [...] I finally have Issue #4 of my Newsletter up, talking about Operating Systems. [...]