Mac vs. Windows: Does it even matter?

I know the question in the headline of this post might seem like anathema to a whole host of Mac and Windows fans, who treat their operating systems the same way some people treat their religious beliefs (namely, as something to argue incessantly about). But C.K. Sample asked the question over at the O’Reilly blog, and it’s one that has occurred to me more than once over the past year. There will likely always be people who need a specific operating system, because certain software or tools they use at work will only function with that OS, and there will always be people who prefer one over the other. But for my own purposes, the operating system has become almost irrelevant.

I used to use a Mac for work years ago, then switched to Windows (and before either of those, I used an Atari 1040ST). At home, I used Windows up until a year or so ago, when I switched to Ubuntu. I have a box running Ubuntu and one running XP side-by-side, just in case there’s an app I want to try that only runs on Windows. And if I could convince my chief financial officer to approve it, I would probably buy a Macbook and run Parallels, so I could have two operating systems side-by-side. But in the long run, it doesn’t really matter to me what the OS is, since virtually everything I do involves the Web.

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Windows 7: I couldn’t care less

So some “top secret” screenshots have been making the rounds of various gadget blogs, purporting to be leaked demos of Windows 7 — except they probably aren’t, according to some. And tonight at the All Things D conference (which I kind of wish I had been able to go to) Bill Gates and Steve “Monkeyboy” Ballmer will be showing some highlights of the new operating system. A writer at Ars Technica says he is “pumped” about this news. Personally, I couldn’t care less. Vista was effectively a non-existent event for me, and Windows 7 isn’t likely to change that.

I’m not one of those Mac fanboys you see around the blogosphere, mind you. I like the Mac interface a lot, and I would happily use a Macbook Pro if someone wanted to donate one, but at the moment I’m using a bog-standard black box that I bought for $350 at a local computer outlet. It doesn’t run Windows though — it’s running Ubuntu with the KDE desktop, which provides all kinds of icons and toolbars and touchy-feely GUI stuff that Windows users (and Mac users) like. I switched to Ubuntu about a year ago and haven’t looked back.

I still have a Windows machine on my desk as well, but I’m running XP. Why? The same reason I suggest to all of my friends that they do the same: there simply isn’t any compelling reason to switch to Vista, period. When I moved to XP it made a lot of sense — there was multi-user switching (great if you have a family) and better networking support. Vista, as far as I can tell, has a bunch of eye-candy interface stuff that does absolutely nothing apart from hogging a lot of RAM. I use the Windows machine for things that I can only do on Windows, and that’s mostly work-related (Outlook, etc.).

But doesn’t Ubuntu take a lot of fiddling? Sometimes. I’ve had to look some things up on the Internet to figure them out. But then, I had to do that with Windows too (and with a Mac, to be honest). And Ubuntu has come a long, long way from the earlier versions of Linux I played around with — it is almost plug-and-play with just about everything, including printers, wireless, cameras and USB devices (although it’s not so good with webcams). And it handles my iPod better than a Windows machine with iTunes ever did. Windows is now like that crazy old uncle I tolerate, but don’t really pay much attention to.

Andreessen: MSFT did us a favour

I don’t normally like to praise Microsoft for things. Not only am I not a Microsoft fan-boy, but I think some of the ways that the software company has done business in the past have been — well, bordering on unethical. I also think many of its products suck in terms of useability, and give new meaning to the word bloat-ware. But I’m glad that Marc Andreessen (of all people) said something that I’ve often said in the past, which is that love them or hate them, at least Microsoft standardized the operating-system market around something.

Maybe it wasn’t the best something — maybe DR-DOS was better, or whichever flavour you happened to like if you are old enough to remember those days (and yes, I am; thanks for asking), or IBM’s various tries at recapturing its lost glory. But that doesn’t really matter. You may think DOS was bad and Windows was worse, but at least Microsoft stabilized what was a fragmented and chaotic market, and that arguably pushed us further ahead faster. If they hadn’t done it, someone else would have had to, and it might have taken longer and been even worse. More from Marc Andreessen’s chat with John Battelle here.

A Windows error on a gas pump

Those of you who subscribe to my Twitter feed will have seen this already, but I just had to blog about something that happened on Friday on the way up to a friend’s cottage in northern Ontario — we stopped for gas at the local Esso station and here is what I saw (click the image below for the full-sized version):

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It’s a Windows XP error that says: “The file or directory C:\\XPE_ROOT\system32 is corrupt and unreadable. Please run the Chkdsk utility.” Luckily, I was still able to get gas 🙂

A quick check of Flickr shows that there is a universe of similar shots, including this one and this one and this one — and for some Canadian content, this one.

Will Jobs let Mac OS run on Intel boxes?

An interesting development, tucked away in an article at Fortune magazine about the company behind the Parallels software program, which allows Mac users to run Windows in a virtual machine and switch back and forth (relatively) seamlessly. For all the hiccups and lag that some users have reported, it is still an amazing feat — and I would wager it is making MacIntel boxes more appealing for people who still need to use Windows. No rebooting, no emulation. Two OSes side by side.

Now, it seems that the company that makes Parallels is working on an upgrade to the software that will let Windows users theoretically run Mac OS X side-by-side with Windows on their cheapo Dell boxes, which Dell would be happy to do. Heresy! The only problem with that, as the article and others are more than happy to point out, is that Steve Jobs likes that idea about as much as Bill Gates likes the idea of open-sourcing Windows code.

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According to Engadget, “VMware’s own upcoming virtualization software for the Mac has been hamstrung by the trouble VMware has gone through trying to get Apple’s blessing, and SWsoft’s Parallels has been “crippled” in particular ways to make it more difficult to get Mac OS onto a non-Apple machine.” But as the site points out, the pressure on Steve Jobs to set the Mac OS free is only likely to increase. It will likely happen thanks to hackers anyway, but will he eventually allow it? I for one hope that he does.

Obviously, as more than one person has pointed out during the whole “iPhone/closed system” debate of a week or so ago, part of the Mac OS experience comes from the fact that software and hardware are all one harmonious whole, working flawlessly together, etc., etc. But why not let people who can’t afford those gleaming white boxes get a taste of the Mac magic?