Linux vs. Windows NT and OS/2

We continue to see media blurbs and ads for both Microsoft's Windows NT and IBM's OS/2. Both promise to be the operating system that we need and to take advantages of the capabilities of the Intel 386 and beyond. In the mean time, development and use of Linux, another system that takes advantage of these capabilities, lumbers along. In this article, Bernie Thompson explores these as three alternat
The Practical Results

Windows NT is compelling because it is a solid system that offers freedom from the single CPU Intel world.

OS/2 is compelling because it offers the best system for running 16-bit DOS and Windows applications while moving into the more flexible and powerful 32-bit world.

Table 5. Cost

But both systems still end up locking users into proprietary technology—applications that will only work on either OS/2 or NT. Linux does not pose this danger. Applications written for Linux can be ported to any of the dozens of other Unix systems available. Betting on an “open” technology from IBM or Microsoft is still a risky game. Linux offers freedom from this kind of entrapment.

The greatest difficulty in realizing this freedom is finding high quality applications. To keep from getting locked into a proprietary system, you have to choose applications with support for multiple platforms. If your spreadsheet supports Windows, OS/2, Unix, and Mac, you can be confident that support for additional platforms would also be possible. The trade-off is fewer features and higher prices.

Linux has an interface to run commercial applications designed for other Intel Unix systems like SCO Unix. But the quality of applications is still a problem. For example, there is no commercial word processor for Linux which matches the quality of ones for Windows and OS/2. This kind of glaring inadequacy alone can preclude the use of Linux.

Which System to Use

For the corporate user, Linux will fit in well with a TCP/IP based client-server strategy. Linux can turn low-end hardware into a solid fileserver or PostScript print server. Linux works better than many commercial Unix systems on common Intel hardware. Linux is small and fast. Linux can be completely inspected and customized by anyone. Linux has built-in mail and internet tools. Phone support and documentation for Linux are available.

But there are three disadvantages. One, there are few commercial applications. Two, if something goes wrong, there is no one organization to blame as with OS/2 or NT. Three, Linux's foundations are strong, but Microsoft and IBM are constantly developing new technologies that may leave Linux behind. In general, Linux has the features to make it a better choice than NT or OS/2 in some situations. As Linux gains exposure, more businesses are likely to take advantage of this potential.

For the technical user, Linux offers the exciting chance to tinker with an operating system. All of the system's source code is available. It is a great learning tool and motivator. And since most current Linux users are technical hobbyists, a wealth of applications are available to suit these tastes. Ray tracers, morphing programs, graphics viewers, compilers, games, and more are all available. Linux does lack full-motion video, speech recognition, and some other cutting-edge technologies. These features, along with OS/2 and NT application development, may be compelling enough to draw the technical user towards OS/2 or NT.

For the novice user, OS/2 or NT is the best 32-bit option. OS/2's object-oriented interface and free technical support are compelling factors. NT's power to sway commercial developers is reassuring. But the safest and most likely choice for the novice user is to stick with the operating system that came with their computer, typically DOS and Windows 3.1. Tackling installation, configuration, and new applications is still not trivial for these three 32-bit systems.

Overall, Linux stacks up surprisingly well for a free system developed by a horde of volunteer programmers. It's foundations are solid. The quantity and quality of many free applications are stunning. If Windows-class applications and an OS/2-class interface are developed for Linux, it will have the compelling features to tackle commercial systems. While many computer users now know only OS/2 and NT, thousands of others have discovered Linux. As all three of these systems quickly improve and evolve, Linux is likely to gain an expanding base of users. Free software has a powerful new platform to build on.

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