- The Washington Times - Monday, October 19, 2009

Just how important are computer operating systems, anyway?

We’re going to get an indication Thursday morning, when Microsoft Corp. is scheduled to launch Windows 7, successor to the much-maligned Windows Vista and what many critics believe is the replacement for Windows XP that Vista should have been.

XP will be exactly eight years old next Sunday, and that is kind of old.

In late August, Apple Inc. launched Snow Leopard, which has had a good reception among users and critics. I’ve reviewed Snow Leopard and shall review Windows 7 in due course. My early impressions of Win7 are positive, however.

That said, I again ask the question: Just how important is the operating system?

For many of us, it’s not that important: As long as our computers boot up and function and work can be done, we’re happy. Adding new applications, or new versions of older applications, can require an OS upgrade, but then again, many of us find ourselves quite happy with one level of software and can stay there.

But just as Moore’s Law notes that “the number of transistors that can be placed inexpensively on an integrated circuit has doubled approximately every two years,” operating systems and applications grow more capable every year or so. And if you can do more with a computer, why wouldn’t you want to?

All this bumps up against practical matters of cost, however. Windows 7 upgrades are being advertised for as much as $199 a pop, depending on which version you buy. Snow Leopard was a comparative bargain at $29.99 a copy, but it runs only on Macs that have Intel processors. If you had an older Mac, you were either out of luck or off to buy a new machine.

Is there an alternative to all this? Quite possibly, and its name is Linux — specifically, Ubuntu Linux. Version 9.10 is expected to debut Oct. 29.

The nice thing about Ubuntu is that it really is free: Just download a disc image at www.ubuntu.com, burn a CD or DVD, and you’re ready to install it on a computer near you. (Ubuntu will work on Intel-based computers; PowerPC-based machines can find some new life with a Linux distribution called Debian, available at debian.org.)

I haven’t played with 9.10 yet, but I have used the most recent “stable” release, Ubuntu 9.04. It’s a very nice operating system: graphical, easy to learn, and equipped, out of the gate, with a Web browser, e-mail client and productivity suite. It loaded on my system without crashing the main OS, and it ran well. I could connect to the Internet without hassle, and thus had a world of options open to me.

The “rub” here is whether and how something such as Ubuntu and its related applications will coexist in a Windows world. My sense is they would work quite well. The productivity suite is OpenOffice.org’s “clone” of Microsoft Office, and OpenOffice lets you “write” files in Microsoft formats. On the net, you might not have every bell and whistle, but Linux advocate Shannon VanWagner (of ubuntuguide.com and similar Web sites) notes that a Ubuntu player for Hulu’s video streaming service is now available, which is a nice plus.

Those who are devoted to Apple’s iTunes, however, will face a more daunting challenge: In order to use iTunes under Linux, you need to install a “virtual” Windows XP system on your computer, or operate in a dual-boot mode where you have both Windows and Ubuntu running separately. For many, that could be a drawback.

But for straight business applications, Ubuntu as an operating environment is more than adequate. You can’t beat the price, especially in these cost-conscious days.

E-mail mkellner@washingtontimes.com.

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