Before I even get started on this, allow to me disclose the following. First, my home is filled with Microsoft, Apple, and Linux powered devices. My wife is the Mac user, I use Linux, and we both have occasions where Windows figures into the mix. So needless to say, we’re well rounded.

Every once in a blue moon, the opportunity to re-evaluate exactly what OS is best for a given user comes along. And this can come into play through a number of factors: broken/new computer time, easily confused with existing option, or unable to avoid malware despite best efforts. Sometimes this means going from OS X to something else, from Windows to something else, or even Linux back to something else. This is simply not a black and white situation. Remember, what is annoying and unusable to you could fit like a glove for someone else. So please remember this before expressing extreme dislike for any platform in front of non-geeks.

OS X advantages

Macs are said to be easier. At least this is what my wife would say about them, as this is her preferred platform. And with the abundance of software and resources available from Apple these days, I’d say there is a lot of truth to this. For the most part I think that we can all agree that using a Mac is “different.” Whether or not this is a good thing really depends on the individual. In some cases, it’s a natural fit as you can get an all-inclusive iMac, where everything one might need comes in one box. Well, perhaps minus the printer. Even if the individual is just looking for something with a bit of a minimalist appeal, maybe the Mac is a good fit.

In the past, a big selling point was the fact that Macs really were unaffected by malware problems that are common to Windows. Note, I did not state that there isn’t malware available on the OS X platform, because this is nonsense; there is indeed malware (and it’s growing) plaguing users of this platform. But thus far, security software for OS X hasn’t really proven itself necessary to most users. However, if the user is someone who downloads and installs everything emailed, Googled, and so forth without a second thought… then I would say the bundle of switching to Mac with security software might be a good idea. Yes, say it with me — Macs and Linux both can be affected by malware. Understand this.

Yes, there are other advantages as well such as the work flow for designers, etc., but I’ll leave this to the commenters as they’d know more about it than I would.

When Is It Time To Switch Operating Systems?
Photo by Udo Herzog

Who’s it best for?

Folks who need to limit the malware threat a couple of notches. Also, it’s fantastic for those who need access to plenty of mainstream software from companies such as Adobe, Microsoft (Office), and others.

Windows advantages

Familiarity is a pain. I can count equal people I have had to switch BACK to Windows from both OS X and Linux, because of the fact that nothing worked as they expected. Then there was the fact that they had a couple of hundred dollars’ worth of software that was near useless on the other two platforms as well. Generally speaking, Windows needs fall into one or two of the following categories.

1. Enterprise software compatibility. This means the software at work needs to work at home, too. MS Office and other legacy stuff that just isn’t going to be cutting it with alternative software on other operating systems are examples.

2. It’s what they know. I cannot stress just how powerful this can be. Mac, Linux, I don’t care; I have seen plenty of instances of “what the heck” on the faces of people trying to switch away from this platform simply because of its familiarity factor.

3. Gaming. While not something I bother with anymore (I have other hobbies now), gaming is a huge driving force for the Windows platform. Mac and Linux don’t even remotely touch this. Not even close. Windows owns the market here, period.

Who’s it best for?

I’d say anyone with the needs described above. But I’d also bundle this need with the ability to keep software running like Microsoft Essentials, not installing software without a little common sense, and opening up stuff in email like “MyNekedPhoto.exe.” I mean, come on, that last point is not even a conversation. If this cannot be avoided, you, in my opinion, lose the right to choose your OS. Sorry! There, I said it.

Linux advantages

Is Linux really harder? Well, for a Windows user trying to switch a friend or relative… my goodness, yes. If I blasted back to early 2003 and tried to switch people over to Linux with the understanding I had back then, it would have been a mess. But like being the “support guy” for any family or group of friends, it can work and most definitely has its place. The key is to be the support guy who knows how to use it in the first place. You know, much like Windows or OS X.

Best usage cases are for those with compatible hardware, are unwilling or unable to go OS X, while being in position to move away from Windows. The reason to switch to Linux is different for the folks you’d be helping than it would be for you. For those other folks, it’s about avoiding malware (although some still exists, be it limited), making software available in a freely available container without fear of them breaking something, or perhaps it’s to be installed on an old XP box not really best suited for Windows 7.

I’d say 95% of you are in no position to suggest this option though. Remember, you need to understand what you’re doing! I mean, would you start offering health advice like a doctor without your MD? I tend to doubt it and the same applies for tech advice. Become proficient in it or stick to the platforms you understand. It’s really simple. But for those 5% who have been using Linux for at least a year full time, understand that there is a reason why Flash and DVD Codecs are not provided out of the box and that if the sticker on the box says “Made for Windows,” there might be a reason behind that sticker. You could be in a position to suggest and support this option.

Who’s it best for?

Assuming you meet the criteria above, I have found Linux is a brain-dead fit for small businesses needing a kiosk computer, completely locked down so folks can use software/surf/work on office docs, without installing tons of malware. Another good situation is like I suggested above, with the user who has a compatible machine, but does not want/need to go OS X. As with any OS, a good idea is to sit them down and show them the basics. From there, let them surprise you. And by the way, I’ve done this in retirement communities. With limited computer experience, they took to it in less than 20 minutes. Apparently supported by outside help, it’s viable enough for people/places on a budget.

Dispelling myths across the board

Windows is a virus magnet – False. Malware creators are simply looking for maximum impact with as many users as possible. The market dictates Windows. OS X has recently begun showing signs of malware infestation and as Linux adoption grows, the same applies there. The fact is that if the end user either opts to run as a limited user or simply uses some sense when running their computer, malware can largely be avoided.

Macs are for “creative types” only, and there are no good software titles available – False. Truth be told, since the move to the Intel CPU, Apple computers have countless software titles available. And due to the success of Apple’s mobile devices, the concept of the software store is coming to Mac to further illustrate this point. The buttons on the keyboard may be different and installation and uninstallation of software is different, but the quantity of great software is definitely not lacking at all.

Linux has terrible hardware support – Mostly false. To give the best example possible, let me say that brand is everything with peripherals. Here is a partial list of what I have that works out of the box with zero configuration from me. Two brand new Logitech HD webcams, one HP all-in-one printer, a Wii guitar, USB headphones with noise canceling, USB speakers for secondary audio, USB DVD burner, three new external hard drives, one video FireWire capture card (in PC), five USB 802.11g dongles, two reasonably new digital cameras, and one no-name Bluetooth dongle. I am likely forgetting some stuff, but you get the idea.

As for the “mostly” part of this equation, I also own an iPhone 4 and one 802.11n wireless adapter. The iPhone 4 has a project that works like mad to ensure compatibility… unfortunately, Apple has other plans every time it releases an “update” for the phone… leaving the development team to start completely over.

Despite Apple’s update hassles with the ability to write to the music database, I can add/remove pictures/video from my iPhone simply by plugging it in. The 802.11n dongle had drivers installed, but they were not working and had to be redone by me. Best bet is to buy Linux pre-installed as you can be assured of working 802.11n Intel Wi-Fi.

Now the Linux networking stack is very strong. Sadly though, dongle manufacturers are caught up with something called “revision numbers.” This means one model may have one chipset, while another has something completely different. No biggie for Windows users… they have the driver CD. Mac has its own Broadcom wireless built in to most of its machines. And due to the diverse nature of the Linux universe, a solid working list of Wi-Fi devices is a joke. Dated, flat wrong, or otherwise broken best describes it. This said, distributions like Ubuntu have limited this problem by providing two options: tons of support for natively supported chipsets and a Windows driver tool that detects the device, installing the Windows driver using a special tool with about three mouse clicks.

Which software is best?

These days, Windows and OS X tend to provide the best looking stuff. Selection is becoming transparent across the board, but Linux lacks proprietary titles. For most things, I think OS X has a great model of how software should look. But many open source apps I use on OS X or Windows run like snot, while running very well on Linux.

The takeaway for each of you is this. When finding a new OS for someone, it’s not what you prefer. Stop that right there, open your eyes, and accept that, despite your feelings about the alternatives out there, thousands are making use of these options each day. You may as well give others a chance to experience these alternatives themselves.