The Henna Page Tech Pages
"Do Operating Systems Matter Anymore?"
Network computing and the false choice between the Mac and the PC.

by Roy Jones © 2007

The resurgence of the Macintosh computer over the past few years supported by Apple’s aggressive marketing campaign has reignited the old argument between proponents of the Windows-Intel architecture of the PC, otherwise known as the “Wintel platform” and Mac users over which computer is “better.” This argument has been long, loud and passionate and has been shaped to a great extent by the ignorance of many of the people who have involved themselves in it.

Few of the people I encounter chanting “Macs are better! Windows sucks!” know anything about computer operating systems, hardware or software, they just know that they own Macs and they love them. Likewise, most of the Wintel users I see sneering disdainfully at the Mac users at their local Wi-Fi coffee bar or the lone Mac user in the office who had to get a special dispensation from I.T. to be allowed to use it in the workplace, have no idea what’s going on past the keyboard and the monitor screen. They just know that their PCs work OK for them and feel comfortable knowing they outnumber those pesky upstart Mac users.

Both groups are missing two significant points.

The first point is that the Mac and the PC have different lineages and different histories. “Mac vs. PC” is, in some ways, an apple-to-orange comparison

The PC conquered the small computer market because the architecture was developed by a number big-time of players in the computer hardware market and it was opened up to all developers and manufacturers through a set of licensing agreements that made it possible for anyone to build and sell PCs or PC parts and those parts conformed to a set of technical standards that made them interchangeable over a wide range of computer chassis, regardless of the manufacturer. Combined with Microsoft’s MS-DOS and then later, the Windows operating system, the PC was a total package that software developers could build on. Competition took off, volume went up and costs of both hardware and software plummeted, making the PC-type computer the de facto standard for small computing over the past three decades.

The Macintosh is a different sort of creature. Unlike the PC, which developed separately from the operating systems commonly used to run it, the Mac’s hardware and operating system were developed together by Apple and they were always meant to be part of the same computer. The great innovation that made the original Macintosh so attractive was the graphical user interface or “GUI.” The GUI made it possible to operate a computer without knowing anything about what’s going on under the hood and changed most common operations from strings of commands to “point and click,” making it possible for nearly anyone to manage a computer. Apple didn’t invent the GUI but they were the first to bring out a GUI-driven computer for the consumer market. Because the Mac and its operating system are proprietary to Apple, they have been able to develop and promote the Macintosh platform as a single piece and unify the design of the Mac, the appearance of the graphical interface and the style of their advertising campaigns and develop an integrated brand identity that is unique in the personal computer market.

The second point is the more important of the two. All the fanatics on both sides need to take a deep breath as I’m about to say something both groups will consider heresy: For most purposes it doesn’t matter which operating system you use because in the modern computing environment operating systems are becoming increasingly irrelevant.

One of the main reasons for this development is the growth of the Internet and the range of services available through the World Wide Web. Every major study of personal computer use shows that most of the time most people don’t use their computers to compute, but to communicate and that the main media of communication are the web browser, and e-mail and chat client software. These software devices are designed to meet internationally accepted technical standards for online communication which is why their basic functions are identical, regardless of who makes them or what computer they run on. Every modern operating system includes software that conforms to the standard communication protocols and nearly every personal computer sold these days includes the standard hardware interfaces necessary for network communication.

Many of the guests at a recent large gathering at our house have online businesses, so I had all three computers in my office, a Mac and two home-built PCs, one running Windows and the other running Linux, powered up and each with a browser and chat client turned on so anyone who wanted could check their e-mail or get in touch with family or colleagues by IM. All three computers had generic keyboards and Microsoft wheel mice. Hardcore Mac users had no trouble with the PC. Hope-to-die Windows users didn’t flinch if they had to use the Mac and both groups never hesitated to use the Linux machine. The browser and chat software were different on each computer, but after a moment to adjust to minor differences in the interfaces everyone was able to do whatever they needed with no help from anyone else. This was possible because for online communication, which is the primary use most people make of their computers, it’s the Internet protocols and the standards they set for data communication software that matter, not the operating systems of the computers people use to access the Net.

The growing irrelevance of the operating system is also being driven by the increasing expense of computer software and ever-tightening controls on software registration, coupled with the growth of “software as a service,” or SaaS. Google was first among the biggest players in the Internet market to offer SaaS in the form of an integrated suite of web-based business applications from e-mail to spreadsheets and storage for those documents as well. Microsoft has entered the market with “Microsoft Office Live” and a number of smaller companies are also competing to offer online software services.

Businesses have moved many of their office processes to their internal web servers so common office tasks such as filling out purchase orders, querying databases and workgroup communications are all done through the web browser. Web-enabled software and processes can make life simpler for the office desktop support staff and server managers because all that’s necessary is to set up one copy of the software on a server and configure the user’s computers to access it through the office intranet or the Internet. Some industry analysts believe this could open the way for the Macintosh to become a more common piece of office equipment or a notebook alternative for remote users and corporate “road warriors.” Introducing Macs into a Wintel environment would still present the problem of cross-training the IT staff to maintain two different hardware platforms, but the overall stability and reliability of both the Mac and Wintel platforms has increased over the years and with Web-enabled systems user software setup can be nothing more than minor browser tweak or a small client program that users can easily install themselves and some simple account maintenance which would reduce the complexity on the application side.

A little over twenty years ago, John Gage, one of the founders of Sun Microsystems, made the now famous statement “The network is the computer.” Gage had a vision of the future of the small proprietary networks that were part of 1980s computing developing into the technology that is now part of all our lives – deeply connected, distributed systems that do the bidding of users joined to the network through standard communications protocols. Gage’s vision came true because the makers of all operating systems and computer communication hardware adopted those standards and made them part of all their products.

Internet communication standards make it possible for all computers to participate seamlessly in the worldwide network, regardless of the specifics of their hardware, operating systems or software and, because so much of the real computing is done remotely on the local network or the Internet, those standards have trivialized the differences between computers and their operating systems. In other words, although there are important technical differences between Mac OS, Windows and Linux, the main desktop operating systems in use today, for most users, the choice of one over the other is dictated more by personal style and work habits than any objective measure of the qualities of the systems themselves.

You can e-mail specific computer questions to Roy Jones at

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