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Operating Systems Wear Lipstick for Their Dates

Editorial - Operating Systems Wear Lipstick for Their Dates

by , 2:15 PM EST, November 14th, 2008

In consumer electronics, the most complicated endeavor of mankind is a PC operating system. With 40-60 million lines of code and deeply nested routines, it it all but impossible for lay people to assess an OS based on anything but an intuitive feel. It's like sizing up a date gone bad. Or understanding Hal's motivations in 2001: A Space Odyssey

There is a lot we don't know about human behavior and why people do the things they do. The best we can hope for, at a lay level, is to create a set of values and assumptions, based on the culture, and apply them to the creepy or laudable behavior we see in others.

Those Who Really Know

An operating system is like that. There are so many layers that hardly anyone sees an OS is the same light as another. However, there are two classes of people who can provide valuable insights: professional IT managers who maintain hundreds (or thousands) of installations and computer science experts who can spend weeks and weeks with an OS and probe it with forensic tools.

IT Managers have the dubious distinction of, on a daily basis, looking at:

  • Application compatibility -- Do our old apps run reliably with a candidate new OS?
  • Driver compatibility -- Do our peripherals, printers, other hardware items used in our business work with the new OS?
  • Network compatibility -- Can the candidate OS operate on our network in accordance with our standards and continue to allow us to monitor activity, install updates that are compatible and backup user data?
  • Security -- Can we use tools we're accustomed to to obtain visibility into the state of the desktops, manage them, keep users out of trouble and report on anomalies?

Testing all these items for a corporate rollout takes at least a year, which is why it's taken so long for Vista to gain a foothold in corporate America. But when it's all said and done, these weary IT managers know a awful lot about a new OS in their environment.

IT managers don't like surprises.

The consensus, from my readings since Vista launched, is that Vista has been a headache in many ways because of the changes Microsoft had to make to Vista to improve its fundamental security. Vista may have been the biggest mistake ever made by Microsoft, according to the people who've had to deal with it every day. However, any OS due to its complexity, has these kinds of rollout problems, including Linux and Mac OS X. The rest of us just pick up on tidbits and make popcorn while we watch.


On Friday, there was a blog by Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols at Computerworld about how Windows 7 is, to put it euphemistically, Window Dressing. (Independent of any eye catching story headlines.) A deep inspection of the Windows 7 kernel revealed that its performance isn't very much different that Vista, and it very likely won't be suitable candidate for netbooks, no matter what Microsoft advertising claims. Knowledgeable people, like Mr. Randall Kenendy dissected Windows 7 and found that it is a minor tweak to Vista.

It's these kinds of reports that can give real insight to the structure and character of an OS. They come along rarely and can be difficult to read, but they are another sanity check on the true measure of an OS -- in addition to the painful, personal experience of rolling out a new OS for thousands of users in a corporation.

Does an OS Wear Lipstick?

I am always mindful of things like that when I mess around with a new OS, as I am doing now with Vista in Parallels Desktop 4. Even Mac OS X has its share of issues under the hood. For example, the continuing saga of the Active Directory plug-in, Sun's Basic Security Model and support for the government's Smartcards. (And in the past, flaky NFS support.) All of these deep issues drive Mac IT managers crazy while Apple keeps adding widgets and other consumer trimmings.

Marketing is the ultimate makeup job; it tries to lure us with promises and hope. We'll want to watch for that in both Windows 7 and Snow Leopard. The true measure of a person or an OS is revealed when times get tough and we find ourselves depending on one or the other. Just as important, as we know, Apple has mastered the challenge of marrying a complex UNIX OS with what might be called a pleasing desktop personality.


Obtaining a true measure of an operating system can be a long and tedious experience, as I described above, and for consumers, evaluations are forced to be more like evaluating a date: consistency, reliability, charm, grace, intelligence and values. Personality defects may take years to appear.

The desktop is like a person's eyes -- a window into the soul. But don't be deluded that even a few years of superficial dating with an OS issues a license for ridicule, hate, and poorness of spirit. As in any academic endeavor, the path to wisdom and knowledge requires patience, sweat, blood and tears.


John Martellaro is the Senior Editor, Analysis & Reviews for The Mac Observer and a freelance writer. He is a former U.S. Air Force officer and has worked for NASA, White Sands Missile Range, Lockheed Martin Astronautics, the Oak Ridge National Laboratory and Apple Computer, where he worked as a Senior Marketing Manager for Science and Technology, Federal Account Executive, and High Performance Computing Manager. His interests, in addition to all things Apple, include alpine skiing, science fiction, astronomy and Perl. John lives in Denver, Colorado.

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