What’s the best OS? None.
Recently, I saw this video about how there is no ‘rational’ reason to use MacOS, outside of social signalling. It’s delivered by the stereotypical smug Linux user – the kind of tech elite that we used to worship before everything became about Web 2.0 and whatnot. It really got me thinking: are operating systems really all that relevant? Does it matter what you use? What does the average user want?
The assertion made in the video is that the ‘normie’ user (read: mum and dad user) just wants to click on a big icon and have their application (usually a web browser) load up quickly. Any deviation from that is a problem in their eyes. And I broadly agree with this point. The assertion from that point on though is that any OS will do the job – including Linux – if that’s all you want. At the most basic level, I also agree. But then the issue of fixing issues and repair is raised; mostly on physical hardware. Apple products, as correctly stated, are a bitch to repair without going back to Apple. So are most consumer-focused products. The video is mostly silent about software issues though (probably because Linux isn’t that easy to fix when things go wrong).
So with all that in mind, what really is the best OS for the normie user? Honestly, I think it’s probably still Windows.
MacOS: Flashy yet Limited
Let’s start with MacOS. It’s not my daily driver but I’ve used it extensively over the past 8 years, and I’ll be honest – I’m not a massive fan. There are some things that are just arse-backwards, and the entire OS seems engineered to hide as many things from the end user as possible. Of course, MacOS is effectively a pretty shell over the top of Darwin, a UNIX-like OS, and making that friendly to end users pretty much necessitates a kind of obfuscation of its inner workings (usually for the better). MacOS is attractive to a lot of users because it integrates well with iOS (which, IMO, is still the better mobile operating system – but that’s a story for another day).
From an end user perspective, Macs are pretty much ideal for that “click big icon and get going” perspective. Many people are now used to iOS devices (either from their phone or their tablets) where they tap on the big icon and bang, the app appears and they’re off. MacOS attempts to bring that to the desktop with each passing iteration. And by and large it succeeds. The development of the Mac App Store isn’t exactly a great prospect from a ‘free software’ perspective, but for regular end users it’s attractive. “I don’t have to go looking for software, I just find it here and know it won’t harm my computer!” The fact that the end user can just play around in their own home directory, use Apple’s default apps, and use the App Store if they need something else is a big bonus. There’s little they can do wrong.
On the downside, Macs are a pain in the arse when something goes wrong. It’s harder to dig into the system unless you have a Linux/UNIX background (irony?), and for most people it’ll be a trip to Apple for help. Then again, most regular end users would do the same with a Windows device I’d wager. The biggest issue though is compatibility – namely, we live in a Windows world, and pretty much every business or organisation out there expects to have at least some sort of Windows client. While Macs have been better accommodated over the past 10 years, it’s still a Windows world for end users. Having to have extra software to properly access that NTFS formatted volume for write access is a pain in the arse (unless it’s changed?). Not all software is released for Windows, but a great deal more of it is versus for Mac.
So for the normie user, are Macs any good? Well, maybe – they do pass the “click big icon” test, but outside of that, their high price versus their reduction in utility sort of lets them down a bit. But they do have that similarity with iOS – and if you’re used to iOS, using a Mac feels very familiar. That’s a powerful draw that Apple work to capitalise on. Also I’d still argue that Macs are less of a security risk in most cases, simply by being a smaller, less popular platform. But I’d also argue that this is somewhat irrelevant, since there’s a trend for intrusions to be social engineering based, or to target data centres rather than end users. If you’ve got loads of cash and lust after that Apple integration, there’s probably no other option except a Mac.
Linux – Why Bother?
Linux is often touted as ready to overtake Windows on client PCs! Every single Windows release we hear the same argument – and it’s never happened. Whenever this is raised it’s always talking about the popular distributions like Mint, Elementary OS or Ubuntu. And to be fair, in the 16 or so years that I’ve been dabbling with different desktop Linux distros, they’ve come a very long way. But each and every time they’ve failed to gain a foothold on the consumer market – because by and large, nobody wants them.
Prima facie, a distro like Elemental OS has exactly what you want – click big icon, get app going. The fact that it’s essentially free for the end user is a big drawcard too. Linux is almost always more secure than Windows and less likely to crash. But that’s probably about the limit for what end users care about, because there are two glaring issues: support, and compatibility.
Support is still a major issue. If something goes wrong on Linux, you’re going to be stuck trawling through documentation, or more likely searching user forums. Hardware selection is important too – while out of the box compatibility has gotten a lot better lately, it’s still not perfect, especially on new hardware. The normie user who has an issue with their Linux machine is going to have a harder time getting help than if they had a ubiquitous Windows machine, unless they have family or friends who can help. For the normie, any error is a big problem, but at least with Windows they’re more likely to know someone who can help. If they want to get new hardware or peripherals (like a printer), the person at the retailer probably can’t say “Yes, it’ll work with Ubuntu”, assuming the normie user even knows what distro they’re running.
By far the biggest issue is compatibility. Nothing is familiar for the normie on Linux – even high end Windows users who transition to Linux will find it a shock. Yes, they can have Chrome, but there’s no Microsoft Office. “But what about LibreOffice?” you cry out from your chair. Yes, what about it? It’s not Office, it isn’t totally 1:1 compatible with Office, and a normie user is going to notice and care immensely, especially if they work with Office at their jobs. The same goes for just about any other software package out there – most of the big ones have releases for Windows or Mac, but not for Linux distros. Yes, there are alternatives – of varying quality.
But even if the end user is happy with only what comes with the distro, it’s still a fact that a Windows OEM licenses is often given out with their hardware – so installing an OS that offers very few tangible benefits with a whole host of negatives makes absolutely no sense. If they’re running on really oudated hardware that doesn’t support Windows 10 – well damn, maybe don’t give them such shitty hardware? Practically anything that ran Windows 7 (this is 2009, guys – 8 years ago now) can handle Windows 10. Just about the only real argument here is that Windows is still the leading target for ransomware – but whether or not swapping to a totally different OS to avoid that is worth it is highly debatable.
Chrome OS – Awaiting the New Dawn
Yet another possibility is Chrome OS – as installed with Chromebooks. The idea is pretty good – most of the things that end users do is within a web browser, and maybe we should just go towards that web app model. There’s no downloading updates, data can be stored in the cloud and thus can’t be lost, and the device itself can be a cheap thing that basically acts like a terminal. Of course, Chromebooks have moved away from this, since they’ve started allowing Android apps onto the platform (to boost app support), and there’s a load of issues with storing data in the cloud, but those are stories for another day.
On the surface, Chromebooks are the perfect “click big icon” platform. Click Google Chrome’s icon, and the web browser appears – and it syncs all of the user’s Google shit too. Bookmarks appear, extensions appear, Gmail works, the whole lot. If the end user uses Google services, it’s dead simple – and given the popularity of Android phones, they probably are Google users. If something goes wrong and the OS throws a fit, no problem! Just wipe it, you’ll have a working OS again in under 15 minutes – just put your login details back in, and it’ll restore to exactly how it used to be. Just like your phone!
I have a low end Chromebook and I actually like it. It’s useless for anything other than web browsing and web apps, but it’s a good little laptop with an awesome battery life. But would I give it to my parents? Well, maybe. Most of what they do is in a web browser, so a device that can just be scrubbed whenever something goes wrong is perfect. There’s little that can fail on it. But the limitations set in – they’re basically stuck using Google Docs for their MS Office files, and while Google Docs is pretty good, it’s still fairly limited compared to full on MS Word (so as LibreOffice, although it’s better than Google Docs again). Google’s apps are all targeted at fairly simple home users. But the app support has run out, and Google’s pinned all its hopes on Android apps filling the gap. Will this work? Probably not – they look awful on a laptop because they were made for a phone (sometimes for a tablet). The same way that the Galaxy S8’s DeX isn’t great fun to use.
Honestly, I like the Chromebook approach – it’s coming ever closer to unifying the desktop and mobile space, and I dream of the day that we get that. It probably won’t ever happen in full for me (I like playing AAA games – they probably can’t shrink my 1070 or Xbox One into a phone) but being able to seamlessly work between a phone and a laptop is promising. For normies who would love for their phone OS to be the same as their desktop OS (for that simplicity), this holds promise. But we’re not there yet.
Windows – The Default, Safe Choice
Windows has a lot of shit. LOTS of shit. There are lots of times when I want to throw Windows out the fucking window. But it isn’t the number one OS on desktops and laptops for no reason – it’s actually a really good OS that’s user friendly. It doesn’t take much to learn how to use Windows – probably because loads of people have been conditioned into using it over the past… god, nearly 30 years now! For all of its problems, it’s still the OS that most people intuitively know how to use – and the best supported OS out there. Microsoft have made almost a fetish of legacy support, so chances are your box can run Windows with almost no effort from the end user.
Is Windows perfect? No. It’s probably the most open of the operating systems in terms of letting the user do dumb shit – and when Microsoft introduced User Account Control (effectively sudo for the Windows GUI) people whinged about it. Windows isn’t hard to understand, unlike Linux, and doesn’t hide much from the end user, unlike MacOS. It has the best software and hardware support. It’s probably the least secure, but if you follow some basic security rules (that you’d follow on any OS) you’re fine.
If I was giving a computer to a novice, I’d give them Windows. Not because it’s the most secure (that’d belong to Linux or Chrome OS), nor because it’s the most basic (that’d be MacOS). I’d give it to them because it has the best support and compatibility. I know they could pick up almost any piece of software or hardware and it’ll almost certainly run.
It’s a tough truth to swallow – but it’s still the truth. For all of the “Linux is so great, we’re only one year away from taking over Windows!” and “MacOS just works!” chanting, Windows still dominates, and it’s for the reason of compatibility and its user-friendly approach.
The OS Still Matters
At the start of this, I asked the question “Does the OS even matter anymore?” And yes – it does. We’re slowly approaching a period where the OS probably won’t matter – we’re seeing more web apps appear. But we’re still fond of apps that we download and keep locally, probably because there are some things that web apps are still bad at (or because we don’t want everything in the cloud). Things are likely to remain the same for quite a while – thus your choice of OS to match your needs and frequently used apps is still important.
It’s one of the reasons I can’t justify spending over a thousand dollars on the new Pixel Chromebook when I could spend the same on a Windows laptop with better app support. It’s one of the reasons I can’t recommend using Linux to most people. We’re simply not there yet.
Whatever you choose, if it works for you – that’s fine. But each OS proponent is keen to push their OS as being better (or ‘adequate’) because you can click an icon and up pops Chrome. So what? That’s only one half of the user experience for mum and dad users – they still want to be able to run what apps they need to get things done. And as much as I like Linux and what it aims to achieve, for right now, Windows is still number one for accomplishing that task.