OS Smackdown: Linux vs. Mac OS X vs. Vista vs. XP

Four experts defend their chosen operating systems in an opinionated free-for-all

Windows XP: The people's choice

The people have spoken. Windows XP rules.

Forget, for a moment, Mac OS X and Linux with their puny 8 per cent combined market share. First, just consider how the "upgrade" from XP to Windows Vista is going.

Microsoft gamely touts increasing Vista adoption, but the backlash against XP's successor is unprecedented. I would call it a near-disaster. When is the last time a petition was circulated that gathered more than 100,000 signatures to save an operating system?

Dell has caved in to customer demand and reversed its Vista-only policy for many of its computers. Earlier, Dell had pointed out to Microsoft several mistakes made with the Vista rollout, including confusing marketing, broken drivers, hardware compatibility issues and other problems, according to a class-action lawsuit about Vista marketing.

Internal documents brought to light in the lawsuit show that Microsoft officials themselves dissed Vista shortly after its release.

I could go on and on, listing articles about tests showing that XP is faster than Vista at some tasks, explaining to anxious users how to make XP last for seven more years and instructing frustrated Vista users how to downgrade from Vista. See a common thread there?

Security

Security has always been the favorite criticism of Microsoft operating systems in general, but Service Pack 2 vastly improved the safety of XP, with better network protection, memory protection, improved e-mail security and safer browsing.

And do you really think Mac OS and Linux will be any safer if they gain enough market share to become relevant and get the full attention of hackers?

All the features you need

Of course, Microsoft will eventually force the migration to Vista. But for right now, you will get several Vista features, such as Network Access Protection, in the upcoming XP Service Pack 3. Other Vista components available for XP include Media Center, Internet Explorer 7, Media Player 11 and Windows Defender.

And there are plenty of sites that tell you how to get or at least simulate other Vista features in XP.

Mac or Linux -- why bother?

I use Mac OS X occasionally and have dabbled in Linux, and I've found nothing that makes me want to switch to either. Even if I liked Macs, which I don't for mostly subjective reasons, there's got to be a good reason they have such a pathetic presence in the enterprise.

The operating system is OK, but as with most things from the Apple tree, it seems to be more about style than substance. Sure, it's cool when you hover over the little icons at the bottom of the screen and they get bigger. But take a look at those icons: iTunes, iPhoto, iDVD, Garage Band, etc. It's clear whom Apple is targeting, and it's not the run-of-the-mill cubicle stiff like me who's just trying to get work done.

The proprietary software/hardware marriage, the higher cost and the extra training needed all detract from the Mac's allure -- unless you have funky facial hair and say, "Dude!" a lot.

As for Linux, I've been hearing it's "ready for the desktop" for years now. Well, it's not ready. It's getting better (market share doubled recently -- to almost 1 per cent) but there are too many distros, packages, ISOs, GNUs, Gnomes, awks, GREPs, flavors, kernels, KDEs, licenses and modules.

In other words, it's still too techie. It might be fine if you're the type of person who used to type "debug" in the DOS command line to make hexadecimal changes to standard operating system messages just for fun, like I did long ago. But I don't have time for that anymore.

I recently installed Ubuntu Linux successfully, though I found the partitioning choices a bit confusing. But to simply play an MP3 file, I had to download and install a separate package. Wireless connectivity was a joke. Absolutely ridiculous. Others have had problems with Linux, too.

Bottom line

Like most people, I just want to do my work. I don't want to think about the operating system. The operating system should be like a referee -- invisible and anonymous -- and that's exactly what XP does. It provides all the features I need in an environment that is completely familiar and easy to use.

There will always be people who claim that a losing technology is technically better than a winning technology (Betamax vs. VHS, HD DVD vs. Blu-ray, and so on) but just lost out because of inferior marketing, political clout or some other reason. They view themselves as the enlightened few vainly railing against the ignorant masses.

Meanwhile, the masses are getting their work done.

-- David Ramel

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