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Every OS has its niche

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  Authored by: "Sean R" 

Every OS has its niche

...the problem is, people don't seem to realize this. They expect one OS - to
which they zealously cling - to do *.*. Not that there's anything wrong with
that, many operating systems are perfectly well suited to a wide variety of
tasks. Being an "evangelist" for a platform is definitely desirable -- there are
far too many underrated operating systems that need to be brought to the
attention of the mainstream. With this said, let me get on with what I've to say.

Recently, there's been quite a lot of attention devoted to open source and free
operating systems such as Linux and various FreeBSD derivatives. "Free" in this
case does not refer to the price, it refers to the freedom of the user modifying
the operating system. One is "free" to use and redistribute the OS according to
allowances or limitations made within the particular system's licensing agreement
- frequently the GNU (GNU is Not UNIX) GPL (General Public License) although
various others exist. The user is also free to resell the operating system and
any modifications made. This is the attraction of the free operating system. You
can optimize them on the lowest level (the kernel) for your specific task. That
is the way software, (for high end systems anyway), should/could/ought to be.

Thus, Linux, FreeBSD, NetBSD, etc. are well suited to embedded applications and
server tasks. Particularly the Internet. Unices were the original network
operating systems, and no other OS to date takes quite the same approach to
networking, especially in the way of TCP/IP and the Internet. This is why the
vast majority of web servers, and other systems serving various purposes are
running some kind of UNIX derivative. Fully 20% of those (accord to Netcraft [1])
are running a free UNIX derivative. Over 70% of web servers run the open source
Apache web server, which continues to express far more rapid growth than NT and
Microsoft IIS (see Netcraft reference).

Moving now to high-end workstations and midrange servers we find operating
systems such as IBM OS/2, Windows NT, Mac OS X, and hopefully soon BeOS. I'll
address BeOS first, as it is the most "buzz-worthy" system in this category at
the moment. I have used BeOS PR2, R3, and R4 for PowerPC, and R4 on x86. May I
say, that for all the attention it's getting, people don't realize that it's not
ready for prime-time. Be, Inc. was founded by former Apple engineering chief
Jean-Louis Gasse. Whilst at Apple, this man steadfastly refused to allow
licensing of the Mac OS and Apple proprietary ROMs while keeping Macintosh prices
at a great premium. After his departure, he formed Be, Inc. and began work on the
BeBox and the BeOS. His behavior at Be has been an about-face from his behavior
at Apple.

IBM OS/2 [2] has a far richer history. It was begun by IBM as an alternative to
DOS in the mid-80s. Microsoft saw this, and jumped on. What they did with OS/2
1.1, 1.2, and 1.3 is negligible. Essentially, they handled HPFS (which where NTFS
draws its inspiration -- in fact, NT 3.51 handled HPFS drives and NTFS)
development. IBM later hired on the developers of HPFS. Microsoft left early in
the 90s, but not after Mr. Gates himself said "we see OS/2 as the platform for
the 90s." What happened next is moot. Microsoft took what they learned from OS/2,
including what elements of the interface were not taken from Apple, and
incorporated them into the then-fledgling Windows. Run OS/2 1.3 and Windows 3.x
side-by-side some day if you can find a copy. They're nearly identical. Now, look
at the about box. That's right, OS/2 1.3 was released almost five years prior to
Win 3.1. Surprise, surprise. I digress. Today, OS/2 is a high-powered workstation
and server OS that I personally use daily to run my various LAN and Internet
services. IBM continues to update OS/2, and version 5.0 is forthcoming with
features such as the JFS (Journaling File System, it's totally cool and too
involved to explain, suffice it to say that its a nearly fail-safe way of
protecting data on your hard disk even after the <extremely rare> crash) from
IBM's AIX. Today, OS/2 systems are generally used in banking operations, and in
mission-critical tasks such as controlling the rods in a nuclear reactor in
Germany. The only high-end business applications for it come from IBM's Lotus
subsidiary. They include Lotus SmartSuite, Notes, and Domino. Various other OS/2
applications are available from Indelible-Blue. OS/2 has a CLI, GUI, and OOUI
(that's command line interface, graphical user interface, and object oriented
user interface) that are world-class. Add this atop of rock-solid stability,
power, and ease-of-use.

NT. You've got to love the marketing Microsoft has done with this thing. Compare
it to Windows 9x (read: DOS-based Windows) and it's the most magical thing in the
universe. Compare it to "real" OSes, and it's a dwarf amongst titans. It is
unstable, suffers from repeated security flaws, and worst of all the kernel is a
total mess. Microsoft is finding it very difficult to migrate the kernel to
64-bits, and the consumer version, Win2000, is incompatible with many older Win32
applications. Fundamental design flaws exist in NT, including putting the GUI
inside the kernel. NT is fine for departmental file and print servers, but once
you get over 50 clients performance drops dramatically. NT does not scale well
either. Not to mention a per-user price tag. No wonder NT administrators are
flocking to Linux [3].

Mac OS X [4] is the most promising of the bunch. Imagine this: Mach kernel, BSD,
NeXT OpenStep, with a Mac-like interface and "classic" Mac compatibility. Sounds
like the perfect combination power and ease of use eh? It is. Add to the mix the
PowerPC processor, which runs cooler and faster [4] than x86 CPUs and you've got
a departmental file and print server that's a true threat to what is now NT's
domain. OS X (10, not "ex") also includes Apache and NetBoot. NetBoot is by far
the most compelling feature, it lets you boot Macintosh clients from the network.
No local hard disk. Booted from the network. That's a break boon to
administrators who want desktop uniformity. It also aides distribution of
software, the admin simply adds the software to the disk image that all clients
share, and you're done. Currently, Mac OS X is only available in a server
version, and is still fairly rough. Look for Mac OS X to make its mainstream
debut sometime in early 2,000.

Most computing is done with the next class of operating systems: consumer
systems. For the purposes of this essay, this includes DOS, the ubiquitous
Windows 9x, PC/GEOS, and the venerable Mac OS.

DOS began when IBM built the PC with every possibly corner cut, including
licensing an OS from a third-party. That party was Bill Gates‰ then-minute
operation. Microsoft, the then fledgling company, licensed DOS from a Seattle
company. This DOS was based on Digital Research‰s CP/M [5]. DOS is still and
excellent choice for older systems, particularly 386 and 486s which run a few
simple games. Two vendor still develop DOS. Caldera [6], who bought Digital
Research DOS (Caldera also sells an easy-to-install Linux system [7]) and IBM
PC-DOS 2000 [8]. PC DOS‰s strengths are memory management and built-in REXX (an
IBM Hursley-developed scripting language popular amongst OS/2 and Amiga users, NT
used to support it also) interpreter. Caldera DR-DOS excels in low-memory
situations, and best of all: it‰s free for non-commercial use!

Windows 9x, despite is ubiquity, is not the best choice for most users. Many
people who use 9x for Windows-only programs would be better off with NT, as NT
should be Microsoft's consumer platform and something more powerful should be
their "server" platform. Windows 9x does, however, have the most third-party
support. Despite this fact, most users simply choose Microsoft Office and
Internet Explorer and then still claim they stick with Win32 because they have
third-party support. It's a bit illogical. New and novice users, which for better
or worse make up the majority of computer purchasers now, would be better off
with the easier to use and more friendly Mac OS. Windows 9x is the choice of
gamers and non-mission critical users. Windows 9x has poor memory management and
multitasking, and is plagued by frequent to semi-frequent reboots and BSODs (blue
screen of deaths). Microsoft recently found a hardware-timing error in Windows 9x
that causes it to crash after 49 days of uptime. The fact that this wasn't
discovered until more than 3.5 years after Windows 95 was delivered is a
testament to the fact that Windows 9x is simply not a viable choice if you need
reliability.

PC/GEOS [9] is a good choice for users with older hardware who just want to do
simple DTP (desktop publishing), e-mail, and WWW browsing. It comes with a
database, spreadsheet, word processor, drawing application, financial manager,
daily planner, and a few games. It was originally from GeoWorks (formerly
Berkeley SoftWorks) and has been around since the Commodore 64. Today, it is sold
as NewDeal Office on the desktop and additionally runs on devices such as the
Sony Zoomer and Brother GeoBook, as well as on PC-, MS-, or DR-DOS. It is
preemptive multitasking, loads its own kernel and uses DOS for file management
(actually uses DOS less frequently than Windows 9x does, which makes it slightly
more qualified to be called an operating system rather than environment.) PC/GEOS
is, however, 16 bit, and has memory management and stability on (the fairly low)
par with Windows 9x. I recommend it to family members who want to type letters or
browse the web with their old 486s. This is definitely a niche player. It debuted
on the PC at the same COMDEX as did Windows, PC/GEOS took Best of Show that year.
Windows did not win an award.

The Mac OS [10]is the most mature consumer OS. Its stability is slightly better
than Windows 9x in my experience, however it is frequently criticized for its
cooperative multitasking and non-protected memory model. Starting with the latest
release, OS 8.6, a free update to 8.5 or 8.5.1, it has limited preemptive
multitasking by having the system timer send a specific command to an application
that has taken over too much CPU time. The result is fewer crashes and better
uptime. Remember, though, that Windows 95 was not preemptive unless you were
running 100% 32bit code. Add a Win16 program to the mix and you were back down to
coop mode. 98 does not have this problem. The Mac OS's strength is its maturity
and consistent look-and-feel. The polished and consistent look makes the user
experience far more pleasurable than on any other platform. After using it for a
while you become rather addicted to its simplistic elegance. The Mac OS is ideal
for novices, for graphics and multimedia creation and manipulation, for gaming,
desktop publishing, and general purpose home use. The Mac can run PC operating
systems and programs at the speed of a low-end Pentium provided that you have at
least a G3/233 and Connectix's VirtualPC [11]. It seems that the Mac OS X Client
will be out before Windows 2000, if this does occur then the Mac OS X Client
could easily fill the gap between high-end workstations, price/performance, and
ease of use.

In conclusion, I regret that I could not address other systems such as the Amiga.
I have extended experience with all of the systems mentioned here, and I was not
about to begin speaking on systems that I do not personally use and enjoy. My
home system goes like this: Macs for working, OS/2 and Linux servers, PC/GEOS on
a couple 486s, a Windows NT workstation and Windows 98 machine for
"compatibility". All these systems have their niche. The whole point of this is:
don't be zealous over operating systems to the point where you become blind to
their strengths and weaknesses. Every system has its own application. Below is a
table of what I believe different OSes should be used for:

DOS Win 9x Win NT OS/2 Mac OS X Mac OS PC/GEOS BeOS Linux 
General Use Y Y Y Y N Y N N N 
Server: LAN N N Y* Y Y Y** N N Y*** 
Srvr: TCP/IP N N M Y N~ N N N Y 
Home Use Y Y Y M N Y Y N M 
Novices M Y N N N Y Y N N 
DTP N M Y N N Y Y Y~ N 
Multimedia N Y Y N N~ Y N Y~ N 
Gaming Y Y Y N N Y N N N 
Business M Y Y Y Y Y N N N 
Internet Accs M Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Y

Legend: Y = Yes; N = No; M = Maybe (possible in some situations, though not
recommended) Codes in bold are what I recommend in that particular category. *:
Windows NT is suitable for LAN serving only with Microsoft Networking or IPX. **:
Mac OS is a reliable server using AppleTalk. I do not recommend it for serving
other protocols. ***: Linux is an excellent LAN server using Samba (Microsoft
Networking), TCP/IP, or even AppleTalk. ~: Possibly in future versions Ê


Authors background:

"Sean R." (more commonly known as i-sob) is a computer hobbyist. He runs a free
database development service using FileMaker Pro. He can be contacted at
[email protected] His web page is http://sob.dyn.ez-ip.net/