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PC/Windows vs. UNIX: the Good, the Bad and the Ugly

An article by Plainsboro.COM owner Kennedy Lemke
December, 2000

This article is a discourse on my current opinion of the computing world as it exists at the end of the year 2000. I will primarily focus on the topic of UNIX Sun machines versus PC/Wintel machines and their relative usefulness in today's internet-connected world. I will include my complaints and kudos about both platforms and will offer suggestions about what each world needs to do to continue being successful, and even to compete with each other.

This article also exists so that the next time one of the PC administrators I know or meet tries to convince me how much better the PC world is than the UNIX world, I have a place to point them and straighten them out.

Contents

Introduction

I was startled to discover recently that I have been a UNIX user, programmer, and systems administrator/manager for over 20 years now (that's more than half my life). I started using UNIX on a PDP system back in 1980 in college, and since then I have been able to experience lots of various UNIX systems (Sun, PDP, Vax, DEC, SGI, Linux, and even several older UNIX boxes running System V).

To date, my favorite hardware/OS platform is Sun Sparc/SunOS 4.1.3. I learned this configuration thoroughly in my career and at home and it remains to date my favorite hardware/OS combination of all time (while I own two Sun computers at home, my "main" Sun workstation now runs Solaris 7 while my older SS4 that I use for backups is still running SunOS 4.1.x!).

For years and years, I was a self-proclaimed PC bigot! That is, PC's running DOS/Windows were the bane of my existence and I hated having to deal with them at all.

Finally back in 1998 I realized that I would no longer be able to function in the computer/internet world without learning more about the Wintel platform, so I broke down and purchased a Dell Dimension V350 desktop PC. Since that time, I have also purchased a laptop computer: an Acer Travelmate 340T with ethernet built-in to its motherboard.

My Home Network

So now I have four computers at home, all of which I use regularly. I'll share what the computers are and what I use them for here in the order I purchased them:

  1. Sun SparcStation 4 with a 70 Mhz SPARC CPU, about 40 MB of memory and a couple small hard disks: I think an internal 400 MB disk (yikes!) and an external disk that's about 1 GB. This machine is still running SunOS 4.1.x. I purchased this system in late 1995 for around $4000. This was the first computer I had every purchased for personal use in my life, and I used it both as a "personal computer" for composing letters and so forth and also as the first server for my home domain Plainsboro.COM.

    These days this computer sits in my basement, booted up and operating most of the time but not always (it is not plugged into a UPS system so if my house experiences a power brownout, the system will crash and I may not reboot it for several weeks). I have a small Exabyte tape drive attached to the system, and thus I use it primarily as a machine for doing tape backups for both of my Sun/UNIX systems.

  2. Sun SparcStation 5 with a 170 Mhz CPU, 128 MB of memory and a couple internal disks: a 2 GB and a 9 GB. I purchased this system in the summer of 1997 for about $4000 primarily because the serial ports on my SS4's motherboard had failed (I was connecting to the internet 24 hours a day via a PPP phone connection at the time, so the serial ports failing was a very serious problem for me), and rather than taking the time to have it repaired, I just decided at that point to purchase another Sun computer, one that was a bit faster and more robust.

    This is now my primary UNIX server machine. Originally, this machine also ran SunOS 4.1.x, but since getting it, I have upgraded the OS so it now runs Solaris 7. I use this machine to completely operate my domain Plainsboro.COM. It runs NIS, DNS, the Apache web server, sendmail, an IRC chat server, and it also acts as an NFS file server for my other UNIX machine (and I will probably install Samba on it some day soon so I can more easily share data between my PCs and my UNIX boxes, but ftp works fine for now).

    Because this computer offers all the services I need to run my home network and my web site, I consider it the most important component of all my computers and I thus have it attached to a UPS system to help it stay functional even through occasional power brownouts.

  3. Dell Dimension V350 desktop PC running Windows 98 with a 350 Mhz PII CPU, 96 MB of memory, and a 10 GB hard disk. I purchased it in October of 1998 for about $2200 (a price which included a monitor, scanner, and external speakers).

    This is my "main" PC that I use for most of my PC needs. Since purchasing the system, I have attached a bunch of internal and external peripherals to it, including a CD-RW drive, a USB hub, a digital camera, a digital video camera a scanner, and color injket HP printer. I have now had the system for more than 2 years, and it continues to perform pretty well. I am not currently planning to replace this computer for at least the next year or so, though I will be upgrading its memory to a total of 224 MB in the near future.

    About a year after purchasing this system, I decided to build a small home office around the machine. I bought a very cool computer work table and a nice leather "executive" chair. This has definitely become my primary computing area now and I find that I rarely actually sit in front of my Sun computers to do computing these days; instead, I spend most of my computing/internet hours at my home office desk working on this PC.

  4. Acer Travelmate 340T laptop computer running Windows 98 with a 450 Mhz PIII CPU, 64 MB of memory, a 6 GB hard disk, and a 12.1 inch LCD display, with ethernet built-in to the motherboard. I purchased this computer in April 2000 for about $1800.

    I purchased this computer mostly because I wanted a laptop for personal use. My main requirements when I was looking for a laptop were that I wanted it to be light and fast, and wanted it to have builtin ethernet (so I didn't have to purchase a separate PC Card just to do ethernet). Less important to me was the size of the display, battery life, the speed of the CPU, and the size of the hard disk. This particular model is very light (about 4 pounds) and thin (about 1 inch), but because it is so thin it does not have a CD-ROM drive built-in. Instead, the system shipped with an external hot-pluggable mini-IDE CD-ROM/floppy combo drive. This is just fine for my purposes; I find that I rarely actually need to connect the CD-ROM/floppy drive.

    It took me a very long time (months) surfing the internet looking for the perfect laptop machine. The main obstacle I found was that there were hardly any laptops at that time that actually had ethernet built in to the motherboard. In fact, at that time I could only find one other laptop manufacturer (Sony) that offered a laptop with builtin ethernet, and their models were $700 to $1200 more expensive than the Acer. I felt fortunate at the time to find such a good deal on exactly the kind of laptop I was looking for and I still feel that way today.

    Since purchasing this laptop computer, I have discovered that I rarely use it for its obvious intended purpose (as a portable battery-operated computer). Instead, I have learned the lovely benefits of being able to sit/lay on my couch in my family room in front of the TV and put the laptop on a small table in front of the couch and access the internet while I'm watching TV! Now whenever I see an advertisement or news story on TV containing a web address that I might be interested in, I can immediately access that web address and check it out without even having to get off the couch and move to my PC work area.

    I have also recently become interested in playing some web/java-based internet games, primarily at a couple particular gaming sites (see my informational pages about pogo.com and prizegames.com). So, sitting on the couch enjoying the latest episode of "Friends" while also playing games on my favorite internet gaming sites has become a common pasttime!

And finally, a bit about the actual network that I have at home. I have written several articles concerning home networking so I will be terse here. Basically, I use a cablemodem to connect to the Comcast version of @Home. I use a Zyxel "cablemodem router" as both a sort of firewall for my home computers and to allow me to access the cablemodem's high-speed internet access from all my home computers using Zyxel's version of NAT. Interestingly, while the Zyxel box is probably the most important component of my home network, it was also the cheapest, costing me around $250 in January of 2000.

My home network also consists of a couple cheap 10 Megabit hubs and a bunch of wires running all the way from my main computer room on my home's second floor down to first floor where I spend most of my time, all the way down to the basement where I have my secondary UNIX box. Luckily, being a bachelor, I don't really have any problems with wires running this way and that along the floor, through light fixtures, and along walls and ceilings and such. .

It turns out this home configuration is just exactly what I need for my personal use and I am quite pleased with my current set-up. For more information on several aspects of home computing, see these related articles:

  • Experiences with Home-Based Internet Connectivity, Domain/Web Site Ownership, and Cable Modems (March, 1998)
  • Cablemodem download and upload speeds (November, 1999)
  • Home Networking and 24x7 Internet Connectivity: Six Configurations (April, 2000)

(For links to these and other articles I have written, please see the editorials and articles section on Plainsboro.COM)

More detail of my history with PC's and UNIX

Ok; if you've read this far, you are now very familiar with my home network and computers. You also know that while I have traditionally been a strong UNIX supporter and have been strongly anti-PC/windows, that these days I spend most of my time in front of PC's. I now will go into more detail about why I have hated PC's in the past, why I use them more today, and what I hope the future will hold for both platforms.

As I mentioned, I began using UNIX in 1980. This was about the same time that Intel was beginning to produce some of their early 808x computer chips, and marked the beginning of the PC revolution.

I recall in college that while I still used an electric typewriter to submit most of my eloquent prose to my professors, I also had become attracted to using computers for my homework. I used some very early "IBM PC Clones" that my college provided (Heathkit computers!) to write some papers and letters, and early on my UNIX use was infrequent and mostly consisted of storing some files for backup and some limited email.

After graduating college, I found that many of my friends were computer geeks who were really into UNIX. Also, one of the first jobs I had (at the same college) involved extensive use of the college's UNIX system (a VAX at the time). Eventually, I ended up learning lots more about UNIX, and got my first system administration experience when my department purchased a small UNIX machine of its own so we could operate independently of the college's main computer.

It was these early years in the mid-1980's where I was not only surrounded by UNIX professionals, but also had an opportunity to use UNIX machines and PC clones side by side that caused me to develop my early pro-UNIX/anti-PC opinions and biases. I saw that while PCs (then running DOS) could store files, run a few applications and be used for playing some games, UNIX opened up a whole different world that included everything a PC could do, but also connected you electronically to other people and to the world. I quickly became proficient at email, an aficianado of USENET (then run exclusively via UUCP), and an eager student to my wiser UNIX colleagues.

Over the years, since moving from Minnesota to New Jersey in 1987 and experiencing the early years of the internet and then the commercial explosion of the world wide web, my bias toward UNIX and away from PC's increased. My jobs at the time were as a UNIX and network system administrator, and I rarely spent any time out of this environment working on PC's or Macs. Most of my co-workers shared my contempt for the world of personal computing, only serving to increase my love of UNIX and disdain for PC's (and Microsoft!).

My first PC/UNIX Integration Challenges

In 1993, I had my first real taste of a UNIX/PC dichotomy. At that time, the UNIX-savvy research lab I was working for (Panasonic) began sharing office space with another Panasonic research lab that consisted primarily of PC users. It was a big part of my job at that time to integrate all of our employees, both UNIX and PC/Mac users, into an environment where we could work together electronically in an effective and productive manner.

This was still the pre-Windows 95 era, and most of our PC users were running the most recent version of windows, version 3.10 or 3.11 (which included the ability to share files in work groups). The PC-oriented lab had their own network administrator, and they were Novell-based at the time. I'm afraid that my biases against PC's were probably most evident during this period. I saw them as merely "toy" computers used by unsophisticated administrators, accountants, and hardware engineers, whereas us folks who "really knew" what we were doing all had UNIX workstations on our desk.

When Windows 95 came along a couple years later, our PC users were quite eager to convert their PCs to this latest Operating System. And admittedly windows 95 was about the best OS I had ever seen coming out of Seattle. I remained unconvinced at the time, however, that PC's were the wave of the future. But over the years since then, Windows 95 evolved into Windows 98 and NT 3.51 and 4.0, which were starting to look like more reasonable and stable Operating Systems.

By this time, more and more of our researchers and engineers were beginning more and more to use PC's on a regular basis and were moving away from the UNIX environment. It was now much easier to integrate a PC into a TCP/IP network environment, and we scrapped the Novell server. I also began to be more savvy about UNIX/PC integration and learned about such suites and utilitees as Samba, X servers for Wintel boxes, etc. One of the engineers at our lab who had previously shared some of my anti-PC bigotry even gave a talk on "NT as a real Operating System"

And, I finally began taking PC's more seriously and it was about this time that I purchased a PC for home use.

Why I like PC's, why I have hated PC's (and why I mostly still hate them!)

I'm going to start this section by detailing the things that I really like about PC's.

Nobody can deny the awesome effect that the PC revolution and Microsoft have had on computing and the economy in the world in the late 20th century. Bill Gates has become rich, and rightfully so for his contribution to this revolution.

Wintel PC's are more affordable today than ever before. Almost every family can now purchase a PC for hardly more than the cost of a 27" television set. This is awesome in my opinion: I think that this fact, combined with inexpensive or even free internet access brings the benefits of personal computing and the world wide web to nearly everyone in the United States, and I believe this trend will continue to become an equalizer in our society, giving the less-wealthy access to much of the same information and opportunities as the rich. It is my belief that over time such equal access will help narrow the gap between the rich and the poor in America.

That social statement made, there are more practical things that such inexpensive PC's have led to: there are now innumerable companies that distribute PC and peripherals catalogs, and consequently add-ons such as scanners, printers, digital cameras, and writable and re-writable CD and associated media are also very inexpensive. With a very small investment, almost anybody in the US could purchase the computing equipment they need to start a small business.

The standards community has also contributed generously to the latest aspects of this revolution as well. Recent standards such as USB, firewire, and digital video continue to make it easier and easier to connect desired peripheral equipment to allow a personal computer owner to expand their computer into an incredibly useful device for everyday use.

Finally, I have felt it necessary to purchase and use PC's in the world as it exists today simply to remain compatible with the 90 percent of the rest of the world that uses them. By Microsoft's and Intel's dominance in the computer market, I am forced to use Wintel machines so that I can create and exchange powerpoint and excel files and so forth. Hard to survive in the computer world these days without this capability.

The trend toward inexpensive hardware has not translated to UNIX-centric companies such as Sun. To date, it will still cost you around the same amount of money (about $4000) to purchase a current state-of-the-art Sun workstation as it did 5 years ago. And when is the last time you saw a catalog from which you could purchase inexpensive and pervasive peripherals for a Sun workstation? (Answer: probably never).

And even if you do drop $4K for such a Sun UNIX system, you'll still end up with a computer that won't even run Microsoft Office 2000!

Yet despite these facts, I remain as much a UNIX devotee as ever. Why?

The Crux of the Matter

My complaints against the Wintel community can be summarized into the following points, each of which I will explain in greater detail below:

  • Instability (unreliability)
  • Memory management
  • Process management
  • Remote access/control
  • Software costs can still kill you
  • Limited or difficult server capabilities
  • Software installations that necessitate reboots
  • Viruses suck!

More details on the items in the list above:

Instability (unreliability): as I sit writing this article, I pause, suspend my "vi" session, and type "uptime" on my Sun UNIX workstation (which I am accessing remotely over my home network), and I see that my main workstation has been "up" (operating continuously with no reboot or other interruption) for 210 days. That's 7 months since the last time my UNIX machine was rebooted! And if I recall correctly, it rebooted at that time 7 months ago because of a memory error, indicating that one of its memory SIMM's may be bad. Even with this potential hardware problem, it has been operating flawlessly for the past 7 months, and continues to perform the functions I have programmed it to perform, even though many of those functions and requirements may have been added, changed, or discontinued over these past months.

Even my 5-year-old Sun SS4 computer has been up and running for 25 days now (though granted it does not get as much use as my SS5 or my PC's).

When was the last time you remember your PC being "up" continuously for even, say, 7 days continuously? Yet my Sun box has been operating for 30 times that long without so much as a burp.

The fact of the matter is that any PC owner who uses their Wintel PC even for tasks as short as a few hours will be a victim of a frozen screen, a crashing application or other anomalies that will frequently leave them with no other recourse than to "start over" by completely rebooting their computer. And as often as not, that reboot may have to be performed as a "hard" reboot by resetting the on/off switch on the hardware because they are likely unable to even perform a graceful reboot.

Memory management: OK; I have to admit right from the start here that I am not an expert on memory management. So this section is based more on my own observations and experience than on any first-hand knowledge.

The point here is that in my opinion, current releases of Windows 98 have some gigantic memory management problems. It is frequently the case that even on my desktop PC (which has 96 MB of memory), if I run an application like Netscape or IE or PowerPoint for any length of time, then I try to open up another application simultaneously, I will get a message telling me that I don't have enough memory and that I have to close some other applications first in order to run the new application.

And what I find really interesting and unfortunate is that even sometimes if I completely exit my current PC application, and then try to open the new application, I sometimes STILL get the same message, that there is not enough memory for me to run the new application. And like clockwork it is ONCE AGAIN necessary for me to "start over" and completely reboot the PC.

From my limited knowledge about memory management, this tells me that there is something seriously wrong here. When you run an application on a computer, even if through the course of using that application you gobble up a tremendous amount of memory, when you close that application you ought to free up and regain that now-unused memory for use in other applications. Yet experience tells me that this is not the case; that in fact memory management under Windows is so poor that even exiting a memory-hungry application will not actually necessarily increase the amount of memory available to other applications (and that this memory will not become available again until the machine is completely rebooted!).

Yes, I find this truly interesting; let's compare this to UNIX. Most UNIX workstations run a windowing system called "X Windows" that is itself notorious for memory leaks. And it is true that on such machines, after you have been up and running for some length of time (say for a week or a month), you will find by examining memory usage with tools like "ps" or "top" that indeed your X server is using a substantial amount of memory and as such may be causing applications to run slowly or perhaps not have enough memory to run at all.

But in such a circumstance, the only requirement to regain full use of the capabilities of your UNIX machine, all you need to do is exit and re-start the X windowing system. It is rarely the case that running out of memory in such a way would actually require you to entirely reboot the computer.

I remember several years ago receiving a complaint from one of our lab's researchers who was a UNIX/X-windows user; this particular person rarely complained about anything so I was surprised to hear from him. The complaint I was faced with was that he was beginning to receive errors that he was out of memory and could not run any more applications. I asked when was the last time he had logged into X-windows, and he didn't know. So I investigated (remotely from my own office) and discovered that he had actually been logged into his computer and had been running X windows for over a year! And even so, the solution to the problem he was experiencing did not involve rebooting his computer. All he had to do was log out of and restart X-windows (then he was all set for another year!).

If Windows 95/98/NT were as robust, there would be an awful lot of out-of-work PC administrators.

Process management: if you run the "ps" command on a UNIX computer, the resulting output you see is a list of every process that is running on the computer, and there are lots of processes running. Depending on your experience level as a UNIX user/administrator, you may or may not recognize what these processes do, but usually you can easily discover their purpose by reading the UNIX documentation.

Under Windows 98, the most common method one uses to access a similar list of processes is CTRL-ALT-DEL (yikes! Isn't this the command that used to reboot a PC?). If you press these three keys simultaneously, you bring up a window that I think is commonly called the "Task Manager", and you will be presented with a list of all the programs that are running on your computer. It is unceasingly wondrous to me that I have no idea what any of these processes do. In fact, if I open up "help" and type the name of any of these running programs (some of the names of the programs are "Systray", "Mdm", and "Em_exec"), no information is available. Except that I suspect these processes are actually doing something, right? Hmmmm. But if I go through this list and use the "End task" button for all of them except "Explorer" (which is the name of the actual windowing process itself), I find that I can close all of the processes and can then work on my computer with apparently no ill effect.

Of course, we have already learned that we probably will not free up any valuable memory by closing these programs anyway, so it is probably not terribly useful to end these tasks. But I do find that if I am running a program such as a memory- and graphics-intensive game that it is useful to exit all of these programs in advance, or else risk running the application at a too-slow speed!

Some of these processes seem to be vendor-specific. For example, whenever I boot my laptop and look at the process list, I see programs running with names like "Sleepmgr", and "Hotide". Well, I can probably guess what these programs do, and can further guess that bad things might happen to my laptop if I do actually end some of these tasks.

Further, some of these processes that begin upon startup are apparently related to some sort of anti-virus software that most PC vendors include for free these days. For example, my laptop always starts a program called "Webtrap" that I think supposedly positions itself between the internet and my web browser and supposedly protects me from any nasty things I might inadvertently download during a surf session. Of course, if something like this were actually to happen, it would most likely occur on a piece of code that Webtrap doesn't know about (but hey; I can get a subscription to protection from the most-current-dangerous-web-stuff for only 40 bucks a year...).

Unfortunately, Webtrap also seems to be the thing that causes my internet surfing to slow down so that it's eventually unbearably slow so I end up stopping that program anyway. Sheesh.

And, of course the Task Manager doesn't actually tell you any other useful information about these programs either (like how much memory they're using, how much CPU time they have consumed, what percentage of the CPU they are currently consuming, etc.).

There might be some as-yet-unknown-to-me way to actually learn more about, monitor, and manage these programs that are running on my PC computers, but it remains a mystery to me.

Similar facetious statements could also possibly be made about UNIX process lists, but at least under UNIX, users are given the ability to learn much more about the processes that are running (and are prevented from killing processes that would damage the computer).

Remote access/control: I have spent the last 13 years of my career generally being able to manage and manipulate the UNIX computers under my care from the comfort and convenience of my office (yes, occasionally one needs to actually sit in front of the machine to fix a problem, but this is generally infrequent).

Yet at the same time, after all these years that PC's have been on the market, I have been the quizzical witness to my PC-administrator counterparts running back and forth between their office and the machine room countless times per day just because they have to physically sit in front of the computer to perform such simple tasks as rebooting a PC server system.

Yes, I am aware that there are all kinds of software products out there that you can purchase that will allow you to connect to and perhaps even manage a PC remotely, but it has been my experience that many of these software products are expensive, complex to install and use, and often end up not really solving the problem anyway.

The fact of the matter is that in the UNIX world, accessing, managing, and controlling a computer remotely is an integrated feature of the Operating System, not an expensive and convoluted 3rd-party software "solution". At the cusp of the 21st century, after PC's have been around for over 2 decades in our heavily networked world, you would think that Microsoft would have at least made it possible by now for a PC administrator to actually perform simple tasks on a remote computer without having to run into the machine room 20 times a day or having to purchase additional software.

Software costs can still kill you: it is difficult to purchase a PC these days that doesn't include some free or cheap bundled useful software like "Microsoft Works". That's a good thing too, because if you were to simply purchase a PC without any of these bundled packages, you'd be purchasing a computer that really doesn't do anything. Oh sure you could type a letter in "Notepad", or create an image with "Paint", but there is precious little you can only with the tools that are provided for you in the Operating System itself.

Luckily, the most useful software these days (web browsers like Netscape and Internet Explorer) are generally free and often included either with your computer purchase or by an ISP anxious for your business.

But in general, if you want to do any other basic tasks such as word processing or creating a spreadsheet, your choice is pretty much limited to shelling out an additional $500 up front to get the latest version of Microsoft's Office Suite.

In the UNIX world, some software is also quite expensive, but these days whether you are purchasing a Sun system or Linux, there is generally enough software bundled for free with the Operating System to allow you to perform the basic daily tasks that are part of your computing day. And if the software isn't bundled, you can generally find a free suite from either Gnu or directly from your computer vendor that will let you perform any simple tasks that are not already included with the OS.

Limited or difficult server capabilities: let's say that I purchase a Sun workstation running Solaris. Generally, you are going to purchase that computer from a third-party vendor (VAR) who will supply the computer to you with the Operating System already installed on the hard disk.

After you unpack and assemble the hardware, you turn the computer on, answer a few simple questions, and you are likely to be mostly all set to use your computer in a networked environment (some UNIX system administrators such as myself may have their network specially configured, but generally they can supply you with a short script you can run after your machine is on the network that will configure your computer into the environment immediately).

Furthermore, if you have purchased this Sun computer to act as an internet server machine, you generally are also supplied automatically with all the tools you need to get started. Using programs supplied with the Operating System, your Sun machine can be set up to be a web server, to serve a DNS domain, act as an NIS server, be an email server (even serve pop and imap clients), be a file server for other UNIX machines or even PC's, etc. In short, for the most part OUT OF THE BOX your new Sun machine is going to perform all of the server-oriented tasks that we normally expect from a "server-level" machine.

Compare this to purchasing a PC. Well, for starters, you probably can't get your PC running Windows 98 to perform as this level of internet server anyway. So forget windows 98, and purchase Windows NT up front instead.

Now, to actually make Windows NT into a server, you're going to first need to figure out how many machines/users you're going to act as a server for. Why? You guessed it: there are actually additional substantial licensing fees you have to pay to Microsoft PER USER or GROUP of users in order just to turn your NT server into a server for multiple machines/users.

The next thing you will realize is that even after you have purchased NT instead of Windows 98, and even after you have paid the extra fees to make the machine useful to the number of other computers/users you have, you're still going to need to purchase some package that will actually perform the functions that you need. I think the standard package that NT folks purchase these days is called "Microsoft Back Office" and/or "Microsoft Exchange Server". And oh yeah; I forgot to mention that this software also has a per-user licensing fee so the more users you need to support, the more you're going to have to pay.

Now I think that Back Office/Exchange have most if not all of the general "internet services" that one normally wants: web server, email, pop/imap, DNS. And to be fair, some companies such as Apache and Sendmail.com are doing their best to make their software run under NT for cheap or for free. They deserve mucho kudos for that.

Nonetheless, when you consider the hassle, time, and expense of trying to turn an NT box into a full-blown internet server-type machine, you're looking into an abyss.

Oh yeah; I forgot to mention that if you actually wish to set up a Microsoft-style NT/PC-based network, you're going to need to purchase at least a second server machine (which also has to be licensed to server all your users). This second machine is going to serve as something called a "BDC" which stands for "Backup Domain Controller". And from what I've heard, that machine can't really be used for any additional purpose. Blech.

Software installations that necessitate reboots: By the way: I have found it to be the case that whenever I purchase a new piece of software for a PC, whether it is a server-class PC, or whether it's just an application for use at home, more often than not, you can plan on the fact that you're going to have to reboot your machine AT LEAST ONCE after the software installation is complete.

I can't remember the last time I installed a program on UNIX that required me to reboot the machine after I installed the program.

Viruses suck! There exists in the PC universe a world that simply has no parallel in the UNIX universe. And that world be named VIRUSES!!!

One just doesn't even consider viruses in the UNIX world. (Well, with the exception of that little incident that pretty much broke the whole internet back in '88).

And for the life of me I just can't figure this out. A whole bunch of companies exist solely for the purpose of "watching out for" and providing fixes for PC viruses that might appear on your computer (provided you subscribe to their update service).

I must be just incredibly lucky, because I've been using PC's at work for about 4 years and at home for over 2 years, and I own and run anti-virus software which has NEVER detected a virus!!! I've never HAD a virus on my PC! Am I doing something wrong? Seems like everyone else at work gets infected a couple times a week.

Oh that's right: most of the worst PC viruses the past couple years have been associated with Microsoft's email programs called "Outlook" and "Outlook Express" and I don't run those email programs. And oh yeah; if someone sends me an executable attachment or a javascript program in my email? I DON'T RUN THOSE EITHER!

What the Wintel Community can do to convert me to their cause

OK; if you've survived my facetiousness to this point, then you now understand my disdain for the PC world. But it wouldn't be fair of me to just voice my complaints without offering possible solutions, so I'm going to sum up what I think the Wintel world can do to win me over. I'm going to do this in a single paragraph/list, basically summarizing the points I have mentioned above.

Do this, Wintel world: create an Operating System that runs on the inexpensive hardware that we've become used to and also:

  • Is stable and reliable. I don't want to have to reboot the thing 5 times a day just because I'm running a complex java game.
  • Fixes all of the memory management problems that currently exist in Windows. When I exit a program that might have been using lots of memory, I want ALL of that memory recovered after the program exits.
  • Allows me to easily find out details about what current running processes are doing on my computer, what the purpose of each of these process is actually is, and helps me figure out whether it's OK to stop one or more of these processes (and by the way, if I do stop one of these processes, I want the memory that it was sucking up to now be available to other applications).
  • Comes with all the tools I need to easily and securely access and manage the computer remotely over a network or a phone line.
  • Allows me to do simple tasks like word processing and spreadsheets without having to pay an additional large software fee up front.
  • Can be set up as an internet server using basically just the tools supplied with the OS.
  • Doesn't require me to reboot the computer when I install a simple software application.
  • Isn't prone to the silliness of the stupid viruses that keep cropping up all over the place.

If you can solve those problems and still keep the hardware cheap and robust, you will have gone a long way toward converting me to a Wintel proponent instead of opponent.

What the UNIX/Sun community could do to improve

To be fair, I must admit here that life could be a lot rosier in the Sun world also. It'd be awesome if I could purchase the latest and greatest workstation for just a couple thousand instead of $4,000. It'd be cool if the hardware and OS supported USB and firewire and if I could purchase inexpensive peripherals such as color inkjet printers (why spend $4000 on a color laser printer when you can get 40 inkjet printers for the same price?) for Suns in computer catalogs. It'd be awesome if it was as easy for me to attach my Palm Computer or HP Jornada or my digital camera to my Sun/UNIX box as it is to attach them to my PC's.

In short, make Suns as inexpensive as PC's and make peripherals as easy to connect to them and you could very well dominate the world much as Microsoft dominates it now!

Conclusions (finally)

OK; I think the last two sections have summarized most of what I want to say. There is one final point I want to cover, though; this is the thing that ticks me off probably more than any other single fact about the Wintel world:

You know all of those PC deficiencies that I've been talking about and that I went over in detail in this article? You know--the fact that PC's have to be rebooted so often, have sucky memory and process management, have no built-in remote access, have outrageous software costs, cannot be easily or cheaply set up as internet servers, and are prone to viruses. THERE ARE A HECK OF A LOT OF PEOPLE IN THE WORLD THAT THINK THIS IS "NORMAL" AND THAT THIS IS WHAT COMPUTING IS ALL ABOUT! ARGGGGHHHHHHH!!!!!

Postscript 1: So why have I purchased PC's and why do I still use them at all?

Good question. Basically three answers: (1) I didn't feel I could survive effectively in the computing/internet/IT world without having more of a working knowledge of Wintel boxes. (2) As I mentioned above in the section that starts off with Why I like PC's, there are enough things about PC's that make them very practical to use: they're cheap, and lots of inexpensive peripherals work with them. (3) There are lots of us who have really been backed into a corner just because of their dominance in the world, and that in and of itself is probably enough of a reason for anyone to own and use a Wintel box.

So in other words, I put up with all the shortcomings because I have no choice. And Microsoft knows it. And they're not going to do anything about it. SIGH!

Postscript 2: what about "Windows ME"?

I have not to date set up or tried to use Windows Millennium Edition. The only thing I know about it is that I keep reading that to run it effectively folks are going to have to either buy new computers, or drastically upgrade their current ones (like lots more memory, lots more disk space, and a faster CPU). I think that sucks. Also, given that Microsoft has been in existence for 25 years and they still can't make an Operating System with some of the basic features that UNIX had 15 years ago, I don't have much confidence that ME is going to be much different from Win 95/98/NT.

Postscript 3: what about Macs and Linux?

Macs: I know there are a lot of Mac people that would disagree with me, and I'm very sorry to have to say this, but I think that Macs are basically dead now and will probably soon be completely dead. I doubt that Apple can continue to compete effectively against the low hardware costs that currently proliferate in the Wintel world. But before they go under, I do hope I have the opportunity to pick up a cheap iMac and a digital video camera.

Linux: I remember reading an article around mid-1999 or so about a Linux company that went public and in doing so created a potential billionaire-owner. My guess is that his value has gone down drastically today. Linux isn't a bad solution for an OS for Intel hardware, but I don't see it as much of an advantage over Solaris for Intel at this point. I was extremely surprised by Linux's sudden jump into the limelight in 1999, was equally surprised to see Linux software for sale at my local Best Buy store, and I will be even more surprised to see Linux surviving to have an equal stature 2 years from now. But thank you, Linus, for your awesome contribution to the computing industry.