Which OS is Best? That is a Trick Question

Which OS is Best? That is a Trick QuestionHow do we decide which operating system is best? That is a trick question. I do not think anyone actually makes such a decision — at least not based strictly on ease of computing. After all, many parameters go into deciding what is best. And strange to say, we often are not aware of just what it is that we are optimizing when we choose the “best” OS for our own use.

For simplicity, consider only the choice between the latest Windows OS, the latest Apple OS, and the latest Linux distro. Which is best? Well, all of them are. It just depends. The vast majority of my clients and friends use Windows, so if I am to help them with any problems they might have, then Windows is obviously the best OS for me to know and have more than average expertise in. I might prefer to use Linux for my own purposes, but that does not help me service my clients. For business and tutoring, Windows is the best OS for me.

If I want to have a cool system, then Apple wins hands down. Say what you want about Apple products, but they are cool. How does the company do it? Everything it turns out is cool. If I were not averse to paying an Apple premium for a cool, jewel-like laptop, I would likely convert. If I were a professional graphics artist, I would convert, not because Apple is better at graphics (although it might be), but because that is what most professionals use and my clients would expect me to fit into that mold regardless of any functional difference between Apple and anything else. Without further consideration, Apple is best for graphics artists to use simply because others in the profession use it. There might be good reasons why that trend started in the first place, but if you are a budding artist, I would advise not spending a lot of time shopping for the best OS — just go with the latest from Apple. You can consider alternatives after you have established yourself.

So why do I like Linux the best? Maybe because it is free in both senses: “free” as in free beer, and “free” as in free speech. From a standing start, you can access a number of sites and download a complete OS, probably with a free office suite, and be surfing within minutes. If you do not like some aspect of the distro you downloaded, with some effort and training, you can probably modify it. Try that with Apple. That is what I mean by “free” as in free speech. The distros have evolved quickly and morphed from something only committed enthusiasts raved about to systems that are intuitive and easy to use. That does not mean I hate Microsoft products. They are great. I see no reason to throw stones just because Microsoft is the biggest. But for fun and learning, I value the ability to be able to get into the “works” of an OS even if I never do go beyond normal usage.

None of these considerations tell me the functionality of the various operating systems. Assume all of them have about the same functionality that meets your minimum standards of performance. These considerations of which OS is best indicates preferences, not functionality, and the point is that if an operating system meets certain minimum expectations of functionality, then other considerations determine whether it is “best” for that person or that application.

Which is best? Some years ago I read an interview that had been done with Hershey, of chocolate fame. He was asked by a snarky reporter what he thought of the competition from the “better” chocolates from Belgium. Hershey thought a moment and then answered, “In many ways, the chocolate that sells the most is the best.” (At least that is how I remember it.) This answer contains many grains of truth. Bill Gates might well say, “The best operating system is the one that sells the most.”

But chocolate from Belgium and Apple and even Linux still compete against the leaders, and so some people must think they are better than the alternatives. Chocolate and operating systems are judged on several variables and different people weigh these variables differently. Therefore it is not surprising they come up with different choices.

Some applications put unexpected requirements on the best operating system. What do you use an OS for? If you are a large corporation with a lot of money tied up in servers running XP, were you willing to upgrade when Vista came out? How about when Windows 7 came out? Would you wait for Windows 8? I know some people who bought servers and paid extra to have them downgraded to XP. If you think Windows 7 is better, downgrading makes no sense at all, but it made sense to them because the new computers were to become part of an existing system, and likely they would be obsolete before the OS became useless.

So when a client asks me which computer is best to buy, unless they have special needs, I suggest they look at name brand PCs running the latest Windows. But when I am given — or find — an older computer with XP or even an earlier OS on it, I have no problem re-formatting the HD and installing Linux to make a gift for someone who cannot afford more power. An older computer running Ubuntu with Skype can enable loved ones to communicate and share when thousands of miles away — like if one of them is in the military.

That being said, my son and his family are committed to Apples of various types and my grandchildren benefit greatly from their experiences with iPads. One wonders about their world view. As qwerty begins to fade as the primary input mechanism, what will be the future answer to “Which is the best operating system?” I doubt that Windows 8 will be the unanimous response.