OS shoot-out: Windows vs. Mac OS X vs. Linux

2008 saw Windows' market share drop to less than 90 percent. Should you switch to Mac or Linux, too?

The Mac's been on a roll, both due to its highly regarded Mac OS X Leopard operating system and to an unhappy reception for Microsoft's Windows Vista. The result: For the first time in memory, the Mac's market share has hit 9.1 percent, according to IDC data, and Windows' market share has dipped below 90 percent. (Linux distributions make up the rest.)

But can either Mac OS X or Linux be more than a niche OS? After all, Windows runs practically everything, from widely used productivity apps such as spreadsheets to highly niche applications such as chemical modeling. Mac OS X and Linux simply don't have the app base that Windows does. Of course, the fact you can run Windows on a Mac or Linux system, thanks to Parallels Desktop and EMC VMware Fusion, lets you have your cake and eat it too.

[ Find out the deployment secrets of Vista adopters and see how the beta Windows 7 performs | Follow InfoWorld's guides on switching to Mac OS X and switching to Linux. ]

For some users -- often technically savvy people such as engineers, consultants, designers, and CTOs -- it is clearly an option that already works quite well. In the past year, running Mac OS X or Linux as your default OS has been made easier by the capability to run Windows in a virtual machine, giving you access to both Windows-only applications and Web sites that rely on Microsoft's Internet Explorer-only ActiveX technology. But in a business environment, switching to a Mac or Linux PC may not be quite as easy.

The Windows option
Despite the increasing adoption of alternatives to Windows, the Microsoft OS remains the standard choice for the vast majority of businesses. After all, it's been their standard for nearly two decades; they know it, have become dependent on it, and understand its capabilities and limitations. Plus, it's backed by a company that puts a lot of resources into maintaining, supporting, and enhancing the OS for its very wide user base -- and has a huge third-party support system, from vendors to consultants.

For most businesses, considering something other than Windows is not even a question; their concern is when to shift to a new version of Windows. Still, as users (re)discover the Mac and questions over Windows' long-term resource requirements hang in the air, some are considering alternatives to, or at least supplements for, Windows in the form of Mac OS X and Linux.

The Mac OS X option
Of the plausible alternatives to Windows, Apple's Mac OS X has the largest market share and history. InfoWorld chief technologist Tom Yager has written that the latest version of the Mac OS, Leopard (10.5), is simply the best operating system available. And Macs are indeed popping up more frequently even within IT circles -- I've seen more MacBook Pros in the hands of CTOs and IT execs at conferences in the past year more than ever before. Although there are no real numbers on just the business adoption of Macs, it's clear that Apple is in growth mode, gaining an increasing proportion of all new computer sales for more than a year now.

Many businesses have already adopted the Mac as a standard platform, discovering that the hardware is typically better designed than equivalent Windows systems for the same price, that security risks are lower, and that there are more enterprise-quality management tools than they expected. InfoWorld has chronicled how to make the switch to Mac OS X.

The drive for Mac adoption often comes from users, not IT. InfoWorld's Yager has chronicled the adventures of one PC user who switched to the Mac OS, showing that for an individual, the conversion was ultimately a rewarding one.

A key tool for any Mac OS X switcher is a virtual machine to run Windows for those apps and Web sites that require it. Both Parallels Desktop 3.0 and VMware's Fusion software will do the trick, as InfoWorld's comparative review has shown.

Although Macs are compatible with most typical hardware, such as monitors and drives, fitting a Mac into an enterprise's management systems and ERP applications can be a different story. Yager's Enterprise Mac blog and the Mac Enterprise user group both provide advice on managing Macs in a traditional IT environment.

The Linux option
The more technically inclined may be attracted to Linux, the most popular form of desktop Unix. Linux desktops typically are challenged by limited hardware compatibility (due to lack of drivers), limited application options, and user interfaces that require active participation to get work done, which tends to keep Linux away from the general user population. Still, it's possible to do, and InfoWorld has chronicled how to make the switch to Linux.

But those who work with a Linux server all day may find that using it on the desktop as well actually makes their lives easier.

Just as Mac users need occasional access to Windows, so do Linux users. Because Linux distributions run on Windows-compatible hardware, it's straightforward to use desktop virtualization software, such as Parallels Workstation, Sun's (formerly Innotek's) VirtualBox, and VMware's Workstation software, to provide access to both environments.

Although some enterprises have committed to wide Linux deployment -- such as automaker Peugeot Citroën's plans to install 20,000 Novell Suse Linux desktops -- most have left Linux to the engineering and development staff.

InfoWorld Enterprise Desktop blogger Randall Kennedy argues that desktop Linux is doomed to remain a tiny niche OS, given the Linux community's lack of interest in providing a UI that regular people could use. Kennedy tried to spend a week working on nothing but the Ubuntu distribution of Linux but gave up on the fifth day.

But Kennedy's take isn't the last word on desktop Linux. Frequent InfoWorld contributor Neil McAllister put together a special report on how to move from Windows to Linux, concluding that the effort was not as hard as you might think.

Who's right? As with any platform choice, they both may be. A one-size-fits-all approach may be unrealistic. And that likely explains why many businesses will have a mix, dominated by Windows XP today (and perhaps Windows 7 in a few years) but not exclusively tied to Microsoft's OS.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.