Saturday, 17 November 2012

On new-fangled operating systems

Forty seconds to boot from cold! That's all it takes for Ubuntu 12.04 with Unity interface. Even with my Grumpy socks on, I'm impressed.

The machine in question is a low-budget Samsung Series 3 laptop (6GB RAM, 1TB hard drive, Quad core AMD CPU - how do they do it?). It came with Windows 8 pre-loaded. Intrigued by the obviously tablet-oriented interface, I gave that a whirl. Notably, it has the more conventional task-bar style screen as an option too.

Perhaps I should explain at this point that my job is to support computer users. Being "in the trade" I am often asked for advice, which I give, trying to tailor responses to perceived requirements pitched at the right level of detail.

Now, the big question about operating systems for me is "how usable is it?". Very subjective. After the success of Windows XP, Vista was a huge disppointment to many. Windows 7 was the cure for Vista woes, but Microsoft killed its development after belatedly noticing how far behind it was in the tablet/palmtop/laptop/desktop interoperability stakes. Windows 8 is the big catch-up as far as that company is concerned.

In common with most people, I like operating systems to be intuitive, giving usable functionality without constantly going for the manual or help pages. Some offerings leave me struggling, some are a breeze, but even in the latter group I can miss the obvious. Windows 8 lasted 2 hours before I was scrabbling around for the Ubuntu installation disc.

For many years, GNU/Linux, in one distribution or another, has been my operating system of choice, and I now use the Ubuntu distribution with the latest Unity interface. But it often comes down to "horses for courses". At Argyll FM, where I am a radio presenter, we use Windows XP because the excellent OTSAVDJ playout system runs on that. In my day job, most users also use Windows XP as our employer historically insisted on it. For mobile use, I tend to favour Apple products, even with knowledge of the excellent Android tablets and smart-phones currently available. Apple iOS and the applications (Apps) available for it are amazing. For home use, it is hard to beat an Apple Mac running OS-X. Audio, video and many other professionals tend to use Macs too, in both desktop or laptop incarnations. The quality and style of the Apple hardware is second to none. But I still prefer Ubuntu running on budget hardware.

I am a proponent of open source software, free as in "speech" but not as in "lunch", and I don't have shares in any computer company, but I will not hesitate to recommend proprietary products that produce great user experiences. Take a look at some application choices: for office productivity, I say Open Office; for web browsing, Google's Chrome or Mozilla Firefox; for DJ-ing, use OTSAVDJ; for music production, try Ableton and Audacity; for graphics, it's got to be GIMP. And so on.

Operating systems are the rock upon which applications rest, and hardware underlies both. In choosing operating systems, as with hardware and applications, reliability and usability are key. Unix provided the groundwork here, using small, highly configurable and exhaustively-tested software building blocks. Google's Android, Apple's OS-X and all GNU/Linux flavours draw on a common Unix heritage.

So, what to choose? For me, having made sure my intended applications are available on the platform, I choose from GNU/Linux, Apple OS-X and Apple iOS, in turn dependent on hardware choice. If my intended applicaton is only available on Windows, I'll grudgingly use it. Sigh. I've lost count of the times I've used the words "not", "reliable" and "system" in the same sentence.

20th. Century Unix was so reliable. Thank goodness for its Linux, Android and OS-X descendants,

Trevor Oxborrow
(A systems analyst with a hardware engineering background)