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Windows 7, Mac OS X and Ubuntu: A Tale of Three Operating Systems

Joe Wilcox picks up on a comment that I made on his post about Windows 7 and its relationship to the Mac:

“As you know, Joe, I’m a Mac to Linux switcher (with over 20 years Mac use under my belt). But I’m also a tinkerer who’s curious about OS’s, so I’ve been running Windows 7 as my main system for a month or two. Count me amongst the impressed. Microsoft has actually applied some real serious effort to the user interface design, taken some of Apple’s ideas, and made them better. That it’s much, much faster than Vista is a bonus.

Mac fans should take a serious look at 7—not because it will persuade them to switch, but because it’s the first serious competition from Microsoft in quite some time.”

Joe’s timing is impeccable, as in a couple of weeks I’ll be switching my main computer back to Ubuntu from Windows 7. But the reason isn’t exasperation with Windows 7, and it’s not one that should give Mac fans hoping that the new Microsoft OS will be a failure any kind of comfort.

The reason that I’m switching back to Ubuntu is simple: I’m in favour of open systems, open formats, and open source software in general. These are all the reasons that I switched from the Mac in the first place (find out more about that decision here). Long term, Ubuntu is the right choice for me.

Having used Windows 7 for a couple of months, I’ve dug deep enough into it to talk about its pros and cons with some authority, which was the aim of installing it in the first place.

And there’s another reason I can safely go back to Ubuntu on my main machine. To see how well it runs on low-power laptops, I installed it on my Advent 4211, a rebadged version of the MSI Wind U100 netbook. This means I still have a Windows 7 machine to play with.

If anything, I’m even more impressed with how Windows 7 performs on the netbook than on my larger, much more powerful Dell. Subjectively, performance is actually noticeably better than Windows XP, and the OS itself is more powerful, easier to use, and more secure.

So while I’m going to be going back to Ubuntu (on the release of Ubuntu 9.04 on 24th April), this doesn’t represent any kind of dissatisfaction with how Windows 7 has performed. Were it not for seeking to avoid closed systems where I can, I’d be more than happy to stick with Windows 7.

Mac OS X or Windows 7?

Suppose, though, that we took Ubuntu out of the equation. Would Windows 7 be enough, on its own, to have got me to switch away from the Mac?

This is a very tough question to answer, but if all other things were equal, the answer is probably “no”. Windows 7 brings Microsoft’s OS up to the level of OS X in terms of usability. In some areas (the behaviour of the task bar, for example) I think it’s ahead of OS X, while in others (networking, which is vastly improved but a bit more painful than the Mac) it still lags behind.

If all other things were equal, my advice to Mac users who are happy with the hardware they can get from Apple would be that there’s no compelling reason to switch to Windows, even with all the improvements in 7. But for for Windows users, my advice would be similar: Windows 7 is good enough to effectively remove some of the practical reasons to switch to the Mac.

But there are a couple of other considerations which mean that all things are not quite equal. One pushes the result towards the Mac; the other, towards Windows.

The “Mac tax”

There’s probably more controversy over whether Macs are more expensive than Windows-based PCs than any other part of the debate over which one is a better choice. Microsoft has, of course, recently been beating Apple over the head about price, something that’s had Mac fans in a lather and Windows promoters cheering from the sidelines.

As I’ve written before on several occasions, the truth is that the pricing differential is complex. Apple tends to price its machines at launch so they are close to equivalently specified Windows PCs – and, occasionally, actually cheaper.

However, Apple’s prices also tend to remain static over the whole lifespan of a model. In the Windows world, that doesn’t happen: machines are discounted or upgraded quickly, sometimes within weeks of being launched.

This means that within a couple of months of launching, Apple’s machines are no longer price competitive with equivalently-specified Windows PCs. And, when a model is close to the point of being updated by Apple, it is usually significantly underpowered compared to computers you could buy for the same price running Windows. That’s why the best time to buy a new Mac is usually just after launch, if getting the most bang for your buck is important to you.

Microsoft’s current ads, though, highlight another “value” issue, and one which I have direct experience of. The number of Mac models is limited (rightly, in my view), which can easily lead to customers paying for features that they simply don’t need – and if you don’t need a feature, it doesn’t represent any kind of value.

In my case, I needed a 15in screen and plenty of power – but not as much power as the twin-graphics equipped MacBook Pro delivers. I could have chosen a MacBook, but 13in screen is too small for me. For my needs, paying £1,600 for a MacBook Pro when I could buy exactly the hardware configuration I wanted from Dell for £899 would have made no sense. Although the MacBook Pro offers a good specification for its price, it would have been poor value for me given my needs.

Calling this a “Mac tax” is a bit disingenuous. It’s an inevitable consequence of having a relatively limited range of models. But being able to get exactly the hardware that meets your needs is a key advantage of Windows, and it’s not something that Apple can get around at present.

The elephant in the room: security and safety

If choice is a major plus point for Microsoft, then safety remains one of the key strengths of the Mac, at least for now.

Windows Vista made massive strides forward in terms of writing a more secure operating system. In fact, by most objective measures, Windows Vista (and thus 7) is a more secure operating system than the current version of OS X.

But – and it’s a massive “but” – Windows remains a less safe computing environment, and that’s not something that’s going to change in the near future. All operating systems have security flaws, and whether those flaws are discovered and exploited depends on the number of skilled people attempting to exploit them. As the biggest computing platform around, Windows remains the biggest target for malware writers.

And there is very little that Microsoft can do about this. It has already adopted software development processes which should minimise the number of future security holes in the system (something that Apple has yet to do). It patches serious holes promptly, and has bolted on a permissions and user notification system which matches OS X.

But no software is perfect, and the biggest, most profitable target will always attract the biggest share of attempts to crack it. Thus, for the foreseeable future, Windows will remain the malware writer’s target of choice – and so be the least-safe computing environment.

Choices, choices

Anyone who tells you with absolute certainty which operating system is “the best” without knowing your individual needs is probably going to be wrong – and I include myself in this. The right choice for you may be Linux, or it may be Mac, or it may be Windows. Choosing is a complex dance between hardware needs, price, aesthetic preferences, application requirements, technical competence, and even “what my friends use”.

I think the best piece of advice that I can give, though, is this: if you are considering switching platform, don’t expect “the other side” to be the land of milk and honey forever. Every computing platform has its pros and cons, and once the honeymoon period is over, you’ll run into them.

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  • David G,

    Excellent article and fair. I too am a Ubuntu user (Kubuntu more specifically), and i probably won't ever go back to Windows…not that i hate it…but Linux meets my needs. I recently had a friend who complained an awful lot of viruses and spyware. His computer was totally taken down by the problems. I installed Kubuntu and have spent much time teaching him the system. He has had no major problems. I did however have someone come to me and i talked to him about Linux. I found out he was a gamer, and i immediately directed him back to Windows. I'm not one for, “One operating system fits all.” It's not true. If anyone thinks so, they have their head in the sand.

  • http://www.charlesfrith.com charlesfrith

    Agreed. Context is everything.

  • http://www.opensource.typepad.com Replayzero

    Personally, its a cultural thing. I don't like the Microsoft way of doing things.

  • doug

    I liked your article. I think that while you're considering the future, you might as well throw in the web browser topic. As far as choice, each OS (windows, mac os x, and gnu/linux) is on a fairly level playing field. Sure, only windows has IE, but I doubt mac or linux cares. Linux doesn't have safari, but I doubt linux users care. Right now Windows has the slight edge mainly because of chrome; an edge that will disappear in the second half of the year.

    My point: as the internet becomes the dominating platform, the security model of browsers and how they integrate into the underlying OS will become paramount. The internet topic also implies that eventually features (apps) on mac os x and windows may easily be available for gnu/linux; the lack of some commercial apps has obviously been a con for linux thus far, although it doesn't really bother me.

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  • http://windowsrefund.info Adam

    This is ridiculous. Anyone who even bothers to muck around with Microsoft's latest and Mac (I guess we're talking OSX here) really has no credibility to begin with. This is the problem with the pragmatic approach of the Open Source movement since people are encouraged to measure their tools using subjective and moving targets like features, price, and security. Of course, each of those bullets points is subject to varying degrees of manipulation and spin depending on who's wares we're talking about. That said, there's something that Mac's OSX (hijacked Free Software) and Microsoft's products can never provide; freedom.

    GNU/Linux was created and exists for the sole purpose of respecting your freedoms 0-3. If you don't know what freedoms 0-3 are, you missed the entire point because the Open Source movement doesn't bother discussing them.

    That said, anyone who bothers to compare freedom restricting computing silos of Windows and OSX with GNU/Linux ends up just looking foolish. I know this blogger thinks they're reporting on the bleeding edge of what's what but the truth is, the article just comes across as foolish and I'm left to consider this looping image of someone who's constantly trying to figure out how to go about using their computer.

    Enough already… it's 2009 not 1992. I'd strongly recommend taking a firm stance to respect and protect GNU/Linux and other freedom granting wares and start actually *using* your computer (in freedom).

    Good luck

  • http://www.technovia.co.uk ianbetteridge

    That's a good point, although I'd expect both Microsoft and Firefox to adopt many of Chrome's security features as time goes on (it's one of the aims of the Chrome project – push browser development generally, not just be the best browser).

  • http://www.technovia.co.uk ianbetteridge

    I'm sorry, but there are just fundamental points that we don't agree on – and, I think, never will. I strongly believe that a diverse software ecosystem, featuring both closed and open source projects, provides the most competition and innovation for everyone.

    And, to tweak your tail a little: yes, it is 2009 and not 1992: So isn't it about time that Gnu/Linux started having a user interface that isn't fundamentally no more advanced than Windows 3.1? :)

  • Omar

    Well guess what, I do think so, and guess what else? I'm not having my head in the sand, you are, and here's why..

    Can any program that was made for a certain platform ever work for another different platform? Try stashing an XBox 360 game in a PS3, just see if it will ever work for you..

    “Well then, who else should we blame?!”, you'll ask.
    And the answer is easy, instead of blaming Linux for not being able to play your favorite “Proprietary” games, you should blame the makers of those games for not releasing Linux versions of those games..

    Plus, there are lots of gamers who are Linux gurus, and all their gaming is on Linux!

    So, do your homework before you come out acting like a gunius..! -_-

  • http://www.ubuntu-fl.org/ spartan2276

    I know your saying that you are an Ubuntu user but this seems more like an article promoting Windows 7 to me, are you trying to avoid the Linux Fans getting all crazy? Seems like it to me. Listen I agree with you to some extend about the software eco system, but this just cannot be applied to GNU no matter how you paint it. The GPL just does not allow this to be so, because once it does happen then it is no longer the GPL. The only way to achieve what you are suggesting is basing all software on Open Standards such as ODF instead of OOXML.

    As far as your OS purpose claim Ubuntu pretty much gives you everything you need out of the box except for gaming which is the games developers fault not Ubuntu, one can't run an app if it is not available for the OS right. So if you need a special software and their is no alternative in Ubuntu/Linux in general then yes I would agree. Take me for instance, I used to be a Photoshop guy back when I ran windows. Now I'm a GIMP guy and can still do many of the things I used to do in Photoshop, so I had to re-learn how to do certain things, but guess what; I now can use GIMP and photoshop hope you'll get the point.

  • http://www.technovia.co.uk ianbetteridge

    I don't really get too many Linux fans heading this way, to be honest! :)

    You're right to highlight open standards as the core of what concerns me (read my original article on why I switched to Linux – it's linked near the top of this article). Data lock in and undocumented formats, which are all too common in everything from Apple, were my biggest reason for switching from the Mac. GNU/Linux has the additional advantage of being open source, and I like to support open source projects.

    I'm not, though, and never have been exclusive about using only open source. On Ubuntu, I use non-free drivers. And both open and closed-source methodologies have things to contribute, as I mentioned.

    Unfortunately, though, your claim that Ubuntu gives you pretty much everything out of the box isn't true. My experience with Ubuntu is that getting it to do all the things you want can mean jumping through hoops, or accepting that you simply can't do some things.

    Case in point: Support for the iPhone. Now this isn't the fault of Ubuntu – Apple has deliberately decided that it's going to try and lock the iPhone to iTunes, and that is of course reprehensible. It's that kind of thing that I jumped from the Mac to avoid.

    There are plenty of other cases, too. Slightly obscure bits of software for which there are no GNU/Linux alternatives. Things which work, but take some tweaking to do. For me, that's no problem – as I said at the top of the article here, I like tweaking.

    And the pay-off is that I can do things easily with GNU/Linux that would take a lot of hoop-jumping – or closed-source, expensive software – to do. Ubuntu continues to surprise and delight me, every time I use it.

    Am I promoting Windows 7? I'm certainly promoting certain features of it, features that I'd like to see open source developers build into GNU/Linux. Those are mostly around the user interface, but there's others too.

    If you're a Windows user, and you can't jump to Ubuntu or just don't like the way it works, Windows 7 is the best version of Windows yet. Microsoft has done a good job on it – and refusing to recognise that it's upped its game significantly isn't, to my mind, “promoting” it. I'll recognise good work no matter who comes up with it.

    BTW, Photoshop is hateful – even if I stuck with Windows, I wouldn't touch it with a barge-pole. It's a great example of how closed source application development can go horribly, terribly wrong. :)

  • http://www.10goto10.org Jacob Davies

    “diverse software ecosystem, featuring both closed and open source projects, provides the most competition and innovation for everyone”

    Well said.

    I use Windows mostly because I work on software for corporate IT and they all use Windows and IE, so it is important that I be able to immediately check that what I'm doing looks okay under IE. (Yes, I know about VMWare, etc.)

    I believe in open source software very strongly, and I hope one day all software is open source. But we haven't yet figured out how to pay for it in such a way that open-ended, *expensive* innovation of the type that Apple and – like it or not – Microsoft have been able to do, and that expensive innovation is what has been driving the state of the art forward in recent years.

    I admire open source for keeping up. I may start over with Ubuntu on my next computer. But I'm not going to feel guilty for using XP on this one, since XP is actually an extremely secure operating system as long as you're not a total idiot. I have had zero viruses, zero spyware, zero problems with XP SP 2, and it is a fast operating system.

    Most importantly for me, as a mouse-hater, is that it has by far the best support for keyboard shortcuts. (At least, that was the case last time I tried to use KDE or Gnome.)

    It's also fast, slick, and reliable. I'm not going to feel guilty for this. Microsoft is not actually evil – at least not anymore – and it is childish to continue to treat them as if they are. It is rah-rah sports-team supporter behaviour and last time I checked I valued rational decision-making over that kind of nonsense.

  • rantingfornothing

    I have to pick up ona point everyone seems to be missnig slightly. Just to cover the basics, my recording studio runs on Mac, my I.T. business runs on Windows, my home computer (really just browsing and email) is Ubuntu. Scratch that, it's been GOS for a bit now, not sure why, I just really like it!

    Fact: If all software is free everyone who writes software will also have to have a day job to pay the mortgage. Take Guitar Rig. Mac and Windows only. Without the funding from people buying the product, it wouldn't exist, and I would be without a brilliant tool. Reason is the same. It's all good and well jumping up and down about software being free, but it don't pay the bills. Look on SourceForge – how many projects (good projects many of them) have shut down simply because the developers had to go and earn a living?

    As an aside, I paid for SkyOS so maybe the poor guys (and maybe gals) wrking on it might continue and produce something brilliant, but they are stopping bcause they have to have real work. On the posts on their site, 90% of people are urging them to continue developing the operating system, but to make it opensource and free. In basic terms, they are asking for people to work all hours and get nothing but kudos for it. It's like expecting a Ferrari for free. You want a free car? Well, just ont going to happen, and yes I know the argument that the car takes materials which cost whereas this is 'just code', but time costs too, and bread costs, and complaining ex-wives cost as well … a lot”

    It's like pirate software. Woohoo, I got this great game hacked and free. However, you enjoy it, you love the graphics, and you expect someone to put that work in for you to take it for free. Grow up, does not and should not work like that.

    So, this was about operating system, and I think the article got it spot on. I have now been using Windows7 for a while, and it took a bit to let go of my Microsoft hate, especially because of that thing they called 'Vista', but Windows 7 is good, and I'll pay for it when it comes out. Linux I see on a different shelf. I convinced a friend (non IT) to move to Ubuntu and he's hated me ever since. It's still not good enough for someone who knows nothing about computing. They buy a new webcam, and they have to spend hours googling to find a driver, and then spend an evening trying to make it work before they phone their IT friend. When Windows 7 comes out, I'll tell him to use that, with decent protection on it, then the calls will stop.

    Mac I love. Really do. Why Windows 7 could not have have an Expose built in I don't understand, but it's getting to be a thin line. I often wonder, if all these operating systems had the same games/programs/third party hardware available which would I go for? I think Linux would run my servers, Windows my 'pleasure boxes' and Mac my business. Not sure I can justify that!

    On phones I think it's much easier – Windows Mobile is just terrible, Palm is shocking now days, Blackberry … I mean really! Nokia have lost the plot. The iPhone and Android are the future of phones …

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  • David Sellars

    what my view is that windows although a big platform suck (Xbox good lol) any way ubuntu is a better souloution but mac just tops them all