Saturday, February 14, 2009

RT Article: The OS Wars

Computers are seemingly everywhere these days. They are a staple of our daily lives; a necessity for life in the 21st century. All personal computers run some form of operating system – a type of program that allows you to run software code on top of it.

Today, there are three dominate operating systems in the PC world. We will take a look at each of them and where they are going.


Linux was developed by Linus Toravaldes, a Finnish computer student, in 1991. The OS is based upon UNIX, an OS developed in the 1960's. Both systems can run the same programs, but their design is very different. Linux is almost in-arguably better. UNIX works in exactly the same way that Linux does. Thus, the following applies to both operating systems.

Linux is actually comprised of a few different “layers.” First, there's the kernel, which is the actual code known as “Linux.” This takes care of managing system resources, etc... If you ran the kernel by it self, you would be in a command line environment.

The next “layer” is the Graphical User Interface (GUI) engine. This layer renders all of the graphics, handles the input from your mouse, etc. On 99% of Linux installs, the GUI engine is the X Window System (better known simply as X). A few very specialized installs, such as iPod Linux, use a different engine.

After the X Window System comes the window manager (WM). This layer generates the actual desktop environment (window edges, taskbar, wallpaper, etc...). There are many different Window Managers, the two dominant ones being KDE and Gnome. There are dozens and dozens of others, some are designed to be very lightweight (simple), some integrate 3-D effects, and one WM, appropriately named Ratpoison, allows users to do everything with their keyboard, eliminating the need for a mouse.

In a Linux installation, you can install different Window Managers, so you can simply log into one, use it, log out, and use another.

Another prominent component of Linux and Unix systems are a thing called libraries. Libraries are collections of code that do a specific set of tasks. This makes it easy for developers to write programs, and many programs can use the same library (thus eliminating bloat). Most Linux programs depend on multiple libraries.

No one group manages all these projects and project releases are almost always on their own schedule.

While one could build his/her own Linux install, it is far easier to get a pre-built installation. There are many different choices, each has a specific use in mind or a particular design philosophy, or is designed for a particular platform. These pre-built installations are called distributions, or "distros". Almost all of them are free, or have a free version. Many distro groups have a “Live” CD that allows you to load Linux into the RAM, rather than installing it onto the hard drive.

Most all Linux and Unix software is open source – that means, the code is free to modify, use in other open source programs, etc. This means a lot. First, most open source code is very solid and bug free. Why? Because those involved in the project take plenty of time to de-bug it before final release. This is a result of not having set deadlines and other factors which tend to "rush" the production of commercial software. Secondly, passionate volunteers work on the project –
this could be computer science students, programmers who help in their spare time, or companies who have a vested interest in keeping the project going. (Government computer security experts have contributed to the Linux kernel, as they run Linux in many military and security applications.) Large tech corporations also often support open source projects, because they have an interest in seeing a project succeed, especially if it is integrated into their products.


Let's take a very typical Linux install – Ubuntu Linux running KDE 3.5.

Installation is usually easy and takes 20 minutes to ½ hr. This is significantly faster and easier than Windows (which can take an hour or longer).

The desktop environment is not that different from Windows (and certainly prettier). There's a start menu, a dock for programs, a notification area, clock, etc.. The desktop has icons not unlike those found in Windows or Mac. You'll find many useful programs pre-installed, many of which are part of the KDE suite. The pre-installed apps are much more complete that what you find on Windows or Mac. For example, Ubuntu includes two office suites, a full CD/DVD burning utility, a few different media players, a photo album application, an audio editor and plenty of cool games. Ubuntu has a software manager (Adept) that allows you to download and install multiple applications with one click. When you open the software manager, you can view an online list of programs – you simply select the ones you want, then click install, and they are installed! This manager will also automatically check and update all your programs. This is something that Mac and Windows can't do.

Linux has rock solid stability and security, and there's enough free software to fulfill most needs. However, there are certainly things it can't do. This is almost all due to the lack of commercial software written for it. Most Games, professional image editors, audio and video editing applications only run on Windows and Mac. The good news is, one can install a software eimulator or paralell processing application that allows one to run Windows applications in the Linux environment.

The best part about Linux, it's free, and just about every distribution is freely available to download off the Internet.

Mac OS

Believe it or not, Mac OS X is actually a fancy version of UNIX. A really fancy version of UNIX. But, Mac programs can only run on Mac OS, not other versions of UNIX or Linux. However, standard Linux/UNIX programs can run on a Mac (provided it has all the appropriate libraries). That being said, OS X is very tightly integrated. There are no “swappable components” like Linux. All the same, OS X's file manager (Finder) is actually a highly modified version of Konqueror, the KDE file browser. In return, Apple contributes a lot of bug fixes and performance improvement to the Konqueror project.


Mac OS is by far the “slickest” user experience of the three. Macs are extremely intuitive and easy to use. The Mac OS includes a number of basic applications (all written by Apple), which handle tasks such as playing music, organizing photos, editing audio and video, etc... Because the operating system and hardware are managed by the same company, Macs rarely, if ever have driver issues or stability problems related to hardware configurations. Apple has always had a dedicated following of users, primarily artists and musicians. As a result, many multimedia, video, audio, and image manipulation tools are written for this platform. Apple recently switched to PC based hardware, which allows users to install and run Windows on their Mac. As a result of this and lower hardware prices, Apple's sales figures have increased significantly in recent months. With the amount of commercial software available for the Mac, the platform has become a serious threat to Windows.


The first GUI based OS for the PC, Windows has become the defacto standard PC OS. It became extremely popular with the release of Windows 95, and is still the dominate OS on PCs. The OS itself has evolved to a very usable product. Apart from it's immense popularity, the OS it self is not all that great, notoriously unstable (resulting in many crashes), and prone to many security vulnerabilities. Microsoft had also gotten itself into a vicious cycle of releasing version after version of Windows with more features, but little improvement in security or stability (a major problem). After the release of Windows XP in 2001, the Windows development team undertook what became a five year development cycle re-writing much of the operating system. The result – Windows Vista. The result of all this work is surprisingly underwhelming. While Vista is certainly an improvement over XP, I see no compelling reason for XP users to upgrade.

Another version of Windows?:

While I doubt that Microsoft will shut its doors next week, one has to ask the obligatory question: What are their future plans? As of this writing, they have not announced their future plans as far as their operating system or Microsoft Office. Sales of Mac computers have skyrocketed to an all time high, and the number of computers running Linux are also increasing at surprising rates. The dominance of Microsoft Office is also slowly dying. With the introduction of Apple's iWork, free programs like, and web-based Google Documents, many people are discovering that these programs work just as well, and work flawlessly with Microsoft formats.


My personal feeling is that within 5 to 10 years, Windows will be just a distant memory. Dell's decision to pre-install Linux on desktop machines is just the beginning of a revolution. One day, in the none-too-distant future, you'll be able to walk into any electronics retailer and purchase a computer pre-installed with Linux. The result: computers will be less costly, more stable, more secure, and most of all.... they'll come pre-loaded with all the basic applications, instead of the junk/demoware that is pre-loaded on most Windows machines. As for Macs, they will certainly become more commonplace. Time will tell which of the two will become the standard, but one thing is for certain- Windows will be history.

1 comment:

Marlin said...

I would really like to believe your prediction on the future of Microsoft. I switched to a mac just over a year ago, and I will say that I will NEVER go back to windows.

The problem is that the masses are too scared of change for a mass exodus.