Just how important are computer operating systems, anyway?
We're going to get an indication. Yesterday, Microsoft Corp. launched Windows 7, the successor to the much-maligned
Windows Vista, and what many critics believe is the replacement for Windows XP that
Vista should have been. Oh, and XP is exactly eight years "old," as of next
Sunday, that is, and that's kind of old.
In late August, Apple Inc. launched Snow Leopard, which has had a good reception
among users and critics. I've reviewed Snow Leopard and shall review Windows 7 in
due course. My early impressions of Win7 are positive, however.
That said, I again ask the question: Just how important is the operating system?
For many of us, it's not that important: as long as one's computer boots up and
functions, and work can be done, we're happy. Adding new applications, or new
versions of older applications, can require an OS upgrade, but then again, many of
us find ourselves quite happy with one level of software and can stay there. (I
can't imagine that the late William F. Buckley, Jr., however much he enjoyed
computing, was hanging around Costco store waiting for the next release of either an
OS or a productivity suite.)
But just as Moore's Law notes that "the number of transistors that can be placed
inexpensively on an integrated circuit has doubled approximately every two years,"
as Wikipedia records it, operating systems and applications grow more capable every
year or so. And if you can do more with a computer, why wouldn't you want to?
All this bumps up against practical matters of cost, however. Windows 7 upgrades are
being advertised for as much as $199 a pop, depending on the version you buy. Snow
Leopard was a comparative bargain at $29.99 a copy, but it also runs only on Macs
that have Intel processors: if you have a somewhat older Mac, you were either out of
luck or off to buy a new machine.
Is there an alternative to all this? Quite possibly, and its name is Linux.
Specifically, Ubuntu Linux, of which a new release, version 9.10, is expected on
Oct. 29. The nice thing about Ubuntu is that it's really free: just download a
disc image at www.ubuntu.com, burn a CD or DVD, and you're ready to install it on
a computer near you. (Ubuntu will work on Intel-based computers; PowerPC-based
machines can find some new life with a Linux distribution called Debian, available
I've not played with 9.10 yet, but I have used the most recent "stable"
release, Ubuntu 9.04. It's a very nice operating system: graphical, easy to learn,
and equipped, out of the gate, with a Web browser, e-mail client, productivity
suite, and similar items. It loaded - in a virtualization mode - on my system
without crashing the main OS, and it ran well. I could connect to the Internet
without hassle, and thus had a world of options open to me.
The "rub" here is whether and how something such as Ubuntu and its related
applications will coexist in a Windows world. My sense is they would work quite
well: the productivity suite is OpenOffice.org's "clone" of Microsoft Office,
and OpenOffice lets you "write" files in Microsoft formats. On the net, you
might not have every bell and whistle, but Linux advocate Shannon VanWagner of
ubuntuguide.com and similar Web sites, notes that a Ubuntu player for Hulu's video
streaming service is now available, which is a nice plus.
Those who are devoted to Apple's iTunes, however, will face a more daunting
challenge: to use iTunes under Linux, you need to install a "virtual" Windows XP
system on your computer, or operate in a dual-boot mode where you have both Windows
and Ubuntu running separately. For many, that could be a drawback.
But for straight business applications, Ubuntu as an operating environment is more
than adequate. You can't beat the price, especially in these cost-conscious days!
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JWR contributor Mark Kellner has reported on technology for industry newspapers and magazines since 1983, and has been the computer columnist for The Washington Times since 1991.Comment by clicking here.