An overview of Operating Systems
from a standpoint of an average consumer


My story on how I came to be a Mac addict

[MacOS 8.1]


Don't get me wrong. I am NOT a computer illiterate person and I have no fear of technology. In fact, I used to work for a small shop assembling PC clones and I can still remember some tricks for setting jumpers on a motherboard. I know a half dozen programming languages and have used all kinds of computers (more on that later). I've done professional software development and support, Web publishing and even some system administration. Lets face it - I am a geek :)

It seems like I've tried it all. I started on an Atari 800XL with 64 K of memory and built-in BASIC interpreter. I even wrote a couple of games for it (a Tetris and a Snake). Later on I have used IBM Mainframe computers, VAX terminals, MSX's and Apple II's. That was in the stone age of computing.

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Run DOS run ... please ...

Then I got into that whole IBM PC thing. I have struggled with MS-DOS versions 3.3, 5.0, 6.0 and 6.22 just like all those millions of people. I used to know everything about memory allocation and how to configure extended and expanded memory. I even found some very creative ways to assign those 8 character names so I could remember what they meant a week later. The simplistic text-based interface was very limited, but combined with such excellent tools as Norton Commander plus with all the cool games written for it, DOS wasn't that bad.

I also used to have Windows 3.1 and at the time it was marketed as a God-given state-of-the-art ultra fast and super efficient multitasking environment. In reality it was ugly, hard to use and inconsistent. Half the time I had to spend just trying to make it run. It crashed way too often. Worst of all, it had those pathetic folders that couldn't even contain other folders. But then again, Norton Desktop and Starfish Dashboard were the saving grace for those of us who dared to differ.

At that time I was very proud of my "high-end" 66 MHz 486-DX2 based computer with VESA local bus, a "huge" 420 Meg hard drive and "whopping" 8 Megs of RAM. Over the years I added a modem, a sound card, a CD-ROM drive and a memory upgrade. And as strange as it sounds, spending two days installing device drivers and solving hardware conflicts between my SoundBlaster and the CD-ROM drive is still one of my most treasured memories!

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[OS/2 Warp] "Better DOS than DOS"
"Better Windows than Windows"

Eventually I discovered IBM OS/2 and fell in love with it. First and foremost, I could actually change folder icons ... and window backgrounds ... and cursors ... and various other stuff. I could also run tons of programs at the same time without getting those annoying Out of Memory messages. That was the first time I've heard of multi-threading, memory protection and object oriented interface design. Those were precisely the things that Microsoft tried to implement into Windows 95 years later.

I have followed the life story of OS/2 from fairly slow version 2.0 to much improved 2.1 to absolutely incredible multimedia oriented 3.0 Warp. I never upgraded to version 4.0 for a variety of reasons, primarily because my PC was way to slow for it. Over the years, OS/2 have evolved into a wonderful, polished and stable operating systems with such features as integrated voice navigation and dictation, native Java support and intelligent adaptive help system (if you pray hard enough maybe Windows 2010 will have all that!). If not for bone headed IBM marketing OS/2 Warp could have been the industry standard. It's a fine product nowadays but who cares?

Besides, OS/2 still shares a lot of the same problems that Windows has. Especially in the earlier versions, it had some serious interface flaws. Hardware recognition and support are still very limited. And sadly, finding good applications for OS/2 is becoming increasingly difficult, to the point when IBM owned Lotus doesn't deliver its software for OS/2 for over a year after the Windows version becomes available. To make matters worse, IBM wouldn't even sell you a computer with OS/2 Warp preinstalled, but rather labels all their boxes as Designed for Windows 95/NT. OS/2 is basically dead now. And I am moving on.

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Windows 95

So much ink and bandwidth have been wasted on this subject that I dare not to devour much of your time talking about the most overhyped product in computer history (and, arguably, the biggest disappointment of all time). Instead, I will invite you to read an article called Beyond the Hype by Douglas Adams (the author of The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy) published in The Guardian on August 25, 1995. Enjoy!

I only have a minor point to add to that. It took IBM no less than 4 major revisions of OS/2 to get it right for the most part. Apple have used the 14 years of experience with Macintosh to improve upon what was already a good thing in 1984 and the current revision of MacOS is version 8.1. UNIX have existed for decades and still people find room for improvement. On the contrary, Windows 95 is basically a new operating system all together (for it is vastly different from Windows 3.1) and any product in version 1.0, especially something as complex as a modern operating system, cannot possibly be even close to perfect. To make the matters worse, Microsoft is known to care more about sales volumes than quality of their software. If you still expect Windows 95 to be as solid and polished as any of the above mentioned operating systems, you might be fooling yourself. Enough said.

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UNIX rules! ... but so what?

Naturally, after years of using a PC and while being a graduate student at the University of Illinois, a school known for its Computer Science program and UNIX orientation, I couldn't help but wonder if I should become a UNIX person (that is a 100% geek) after all. Over the years, I have had access to Silicon Graphics, IBM and HP workstations, dial-up accounts on AIX, Solaris, HP-UX and Digital UNIX. I have done some fairly advanced scientific programming in Fortran and have come to love the vi editor and pine e-mail program. So, I thought I should try installing Linux at home.

I got Slackware 3.1 distribution and a couple of good UNIX books. Then I spent a few sleepless nights repartitioning my hard drive and installing Linux on my PC. With luck and help from some nice (but very arrogant) people from the Linux newsgroups I got it up and running! For the first time ever I had root access privileges, and that was an experience in itself. It made me feel like the King of the World and the Master of the Entire Universe (so, now I understand why system administrators look down on us mere mortals).

I could now change the shell parameters all I wanted and I could give myself a dozen accounts with different access privileges. After I have done enough fooling around, I started wondering what else was Linux good for? I posted on the newsgroups again asking this very question. So, people told me that I could set up a Web server or do some serious software development. The former wasn't such a good idea over a 14.4 Kbps modem and, as for the latter, umm ... why would I take my work home?

Yes, UNIX provides extreme power and has tons of great system utilities but it still lacks even basic productivity applications. The Command Line Interface (CLI) interface is, to put it mildly, antique. I admit, generally there are some advantages to a good CLI, such as flexibility, low hardware requirements and stability. But, Come on People, UNIX was developed at AT&T before I was even born and it still looks almost the same as then. For one thing, the learning curve is 10 times that of the worst Graphical User Interface (GUI). Yes, there were attempts at creating GUI's for UNIX, such as X Windows, but why do you still have to manually configure every single detail before you can use it? That simply misses the whole idea of the point-and-click nature of a GUI.

I have a theory though. UNIX is maintained by people who like to create problems for themselves and then solve them. To them it's like a game. But what's more important, they have convinced the World that they should be paid a lot of money for playing their game. Then they have proceeded to develop a variety of mostly incompatible standards, just to make playing their game more fun. And ever since it became a matter of their job security to maintain the status quo. Just a crazy thought, of course :)

Back to my story. Needless to say I wasn't paid for playing that game and, honestly, I got tired of dealing with hundreds of configuration files. I had Linux just sitting on my PC for about a year, up until the time when I reformatted my hard drive and gave the computer to my parents. At that point, I have concluded that even though I liked UNIX, it would never become my primary computing platform.

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[Small Apple Logo] The Mac enlightenment

Then a miracle happened. I got a chance to use a totally different kind of machine. It was an 8 year old Macintosh IIfx that I "inherited" when I started my research assistantship work at the University of Illinois. While it was painfully slow at times, it was such a pleasure to use that it forever changed the way I look at personal computing. And, as the story goes, after two weeks I was ready to swear that as long as Apple is alive I will use their products and their products only.

Now get this, the machine mentioned above survived from the time when 286-based computers were still commonplace and it still runs most of the modern software. No wonder Apple isn't doing that well these days - their computers seem to last 3 times longer than Intel-based PC's, and few people feel the need to upgrade them every couple of years, like IBM-compatibles.

In addition to that, Apple consistently has the highest overall reliability and best rated support of any major personal computer manufacturer (even PC Magazine will tell you so!). What that means is that they not only don't get much money from hardware repairs, but their support costs are the highest in the industry. Once again - it's a wonder a company like Apple, who just happens to care about their customers, is still in business!

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A few Mac advantages

Aside from their unrivaled longevity, reliability and support, what's so great about Macintosh computers? Well, the first thing that comes to mind is seamless hardware and software integration. Plug it in and click a button. Never seems to fail. It's just the kind of magic that Microsoft promised with Plug-and-Play but never fully realized.

The MacOS interface is also intuitive and I'll just give you one simple example to demonstrate what I mean by that. To quit a program on a Macintosh you press Command-Q or else Command-W to close a window. To exit a program in Windows you have to remember to use Alt-F4. Which one, do you think, makes more sense?

Then there is drag-and-drop. I mean real drag-and-drop. Want to install an application? Drag a folder to your hard drive. Want to add a new Control Panel, a couple of system enhancements (referred to as Extensions) and a few new fonts? No problem. Just drag them to the System Folder and MacOS will put them all where they belong. Want to remove any of the above? Just drag them to Trash. It's that simple! It's hard to believe that there is no need to manually edit AUTOEXEC.BAT and the numerous *.INI files. Better yet, you don't have to learn how to deal with the Registry. A Mac will maintain an applications database for you. It just works.

By the way, MacOS also knows exactly where each file came from and writes information about the creator inside the file, so you don't need those stupid file extensions. And yes, long file names - they were there for as long as Macintosh has existed!

I could talk about ease of use for hours. But, instead, let me refer you to a real life example. My roommate is a CS major with over 5 years of experience with PC compatibles and some system administration background. Recently he bought a new Windows 95 laptop and it took him no less than two months to figure out how to setup a parallel port connection with his old desktop computer. Now, let me get it straight, I have only used Macs for less than two years and I am not even a CS major. Nevertheless, when a friend of mine brought her Apple PowerBook for me to show her a few tricks on how to use it, it took me less than 20 minutes to setup an AppleTalk network connection with my computer. What's even more amazing, another friend of mine, who is a long time Mac user, was really surprised that it took me "that long!"

There is also that backwards compatibility issue that PC users dread more than anything else. But not me. On my new PowerPC I can still play all those games written in late 80's (of course, I don't - there are thousands of new games, but just to prove a point :) And yes, even though Apple has undergone a complete change from the 68000 series processor architecture to PowerPC (a kind of transition that Intel plans to do sometime in 1999), the operating system was written in such a way that every legacy application that I am aware of still runs on newer computers. And, let me tell you, the 68K processor emulation is nothing short of amazing!

Like I have already noted, MacOS is a mature operating system. What do you think was the biggest complain of the customers that bought the system upgrade version 8.0 last summer? You know, the one that introduced an all-new platinum appearance and spring-loaded folders, among other things. It was the fact that the "zero" in the default system font now has a line crossing it, so from a distance it might resemble the number "eight." Have you ever heard a Windows (or any other) user complain about a peculiarity of the system font? Probably not, because they are more concerned with just making their systems work properly.

While I am at it, lets talk about default settings, such as, say, fonts. Once I have tried to select the best font for the pop-up menus in MacOS. After wasting half an hour and going through dozens of choices I have selected two that I liked the most - "Chicago," the MacOS 8.X default font, and "Charcoal," the MacOS 7.X default. I guess interface designers at Apple have worked overtime to find just the right font for the job. That is exactly why with the same size monitor on a Mac I can select a higher graphics resolution than I can with Windows and still be able to read the screen without straining my eyes that much.

All in all, Macintoshes are just better designed computers inside out. For example, unlike the "award-winning" Dell machines, one of which we got at work not so long ago, Macs come with decent keyboards, that also match the color of their CPU boxes. Dell Computer might be a Fortune 500 corporation, but why do their PC's still look as if they were put together in the same dorm room where Michael Dell started his company?

So, you might ask - are Macintoshes perfect? No, just like any other computers they can crash and occasionally the hardware can fail. Sometimes you even need to do a little troubleshooting exercise. Nothing like trying to figure out if two devices are using the same IRQ, you know. But, here are a few real life examples again:

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"Apples" to Oranges ...
(In their own words)

These days you often hear that, although Macintosh was ahead of its time when it came out, Intel-based machines have already caught up. This is a myth.

Let's look at a Windows user's wish list. Michael Miller, the editor-in-chief of PC Magazine while writing about the Windows 98 beta wishes that it would do the following - "I'd like to take all of my Windows settings (such as icon positions, backgrounds, and screen-saver settings) and back them up on a floppy disk in a simple manner. Then I want to install that disk on a new machine and apply my settings. It would be even better if this also worked for my applications". Well, Microsoft is not planning on granting his wish so he can just dream on... But, believe it or not, that's exactly what I did when I got my new PowerPC. On a Mac there is a file called Finder preferences that contains exactly the information he is looking for. Similarly, every application has its own Preferences file which can be easily copied to another machine.

But things are not that bad for Windows devotees. This is how Windows Sources magazine describes a Windows 98 feature that Mac users have been taking for granted since the beginning of time - "[Desktop Update] gives you a more accurate file-copy progress bar, which finally shows the progress of the entire group of files you're copying, not just of each one". Windows users, rejoice!

Then there is that "new" development that my roommate is all excited about called Universal Serial Bus (USB). He likes the idea that he would be able to get a monitor that has a variety of multimedia inputs and outputs and he wouldn't have to reach all those ports on the back of the tower case under his desk. So, I showed him my 5 year old Apple monitor that has two keyboard/mouse inputs, a microphone input and a speaker output. Hey, maybe in another 5 years PC's will have a power button on the keyboard!

Here is another curious comment from PC Computing magazine'sHall of Shame - "Almost everyone's made the mistake of pushing the Reset button instead of the floppy-eject button. Sure, you should've been looking, but we'd rather blame the idiot who came up with this fatal design flaw." Well, not on a Mac. For one thing, there is no eject button to start with because the floppy ejects automatically. Neither do you need to use those archaic letter associations like A: or C: for your drives. Finally, Macintosh knows whether there is a disk in the drive and never gives you a Disk not found message.

This quote from CNET's editor Sue Plumley sums up how a lot of people feel about Windows 95 - "Some days, it's hard to remember why we use PCs. Some days, it seems the major design goal of Windows 95 is to drive us crazy." That's why CNET kindly wrote a Making Windows 95 work online guide. Unfortunately, they could not fix what Microsoft broke. For instance, when answering a popular question - "Is there a way to cancel a command?" CNET experts just wished - "If only there were. Unlike the Macintosh operating system, Windows 95 provides no keyboard shortcuts to stop a program from opening after you have double-clicked the icon, no matter how long it takes to launch." Oh, well...

Just when I though that I've collected enough evidence on Windows 95, I happened to read the March '98 issue of PC World. This is what a magazine that is traditionally a Microsoft-friendly publication had to say on the subject - "Despite the rosy promises (and many service releases, bug fixes, and updates), many "features" in Windows 95 still leave us gritting our teeth and reaching for a bottle of aspirin (or scotch). These aren't necessarily catastrophes that will wipe out your data, just everyday glitches that annoy and irritate - enough to make you want to stick pins in your Bill Gates doll." They readily provide a list of those "everyday glitches" and, not surprisingly, it is anything but short. Below are a few notable items from their colossal list of Windows 95 greatest failures:

I think you get the point. Macintosh is still light years ahead of its time. And while Microsoft is desperately copying what Apple users have enjoyed for years, MacOS is steadily improving. In fact, since Windows 95 was released, Apple have given us MacOS 7.6, 8.0 and 8.1. All I can say is - good luck catching up, Mr. Gates!

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What does the future hold?

Life goes on. While some of the most promising computer technologies vanish into oblivion, new ones appear to take their place and fill the void. Below are a couple of operating system related examples.

After all, Microsoft is not gonna be the king of the hill forever. At least I hope not.

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Special Thanks

I would like to express my deepest thanks to Alex Warshavsky, Nancy Fosdick and Chelsea Oller for their helpful suggestions. I am also grateful to Igor Matlin, Mateus Andrade and Mark Stein whose insightful Microsoft advocacy inspired me to put my own thoughts in perspective and write this article.

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* Disclaimer: I speak from my own experience, however incomplete and biased.

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[Made with Macintosh]

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