Tuesday, January 17, 2006

An Operating System Ready for the Desktop

In the Windows vs. Linux debate we keep hearing that Linux isn't ready for the desktop. Depending upon what you want to do with your PC, this may or may not be the case. For example, you may have applications that you must run, which do not run on Linux. Or, you may want to setup network printing, which remains a bitch and a half on Linux.

The implication of this is that Windows is ready for the desktop. Not necessarily. The main problem running Windows is that while it's generally easy to use, install applications, and setup peripherals -- including printers shared over the LAN -- keeping a Windows box running well and free of viruses, spyware, Trojan horses, and other assorted malware requires a saavy user. But, the vast majority of users are anything but.

This past Saturday I went over to client's house to help get two of the three PCs on his home network squared away. His older daughter's PC was unable to open MS Word or iTunes, and was having intermittent problems accessing his wireless network. It turned out that the box was infected with a Trojan horse which installed mIRC and was phoning home. (I forget which exact Trojan it was, unfortunately.)

After determining what malware was infecting the PC, I got rid of Norton Internet Security, which although up-to-date, hadn't detected it, and replaced it with AVG. AVG detected the infected files and allowed me to delete them. I also installed and ran full scans with Spybot Search & Destroy and Ad-Aware, after replacing the stock HOSTS file with the file from MVPS.org.

Another program I loaded was K9 Web Protection, from Blue Coat Systems. This is a content filtering application made freely available (free as in beer) for home use. By default, it has a fairly restrictive filter set which we modified to only block sites determined to be sources of malware or privacy risks. The logging function will enable my client to better monitor what his daughter is doing on the Internet.

Expecting your average, not-computer-saavy user to keep up with antivirus, antispyware, a hosts files, and content filtering, on top of Windows Update, just isn't realistic.

The second PC I had to look at turned out to have a bad video board. It's a Gateway that's about 4 or 5 years old. I've previously replaced the hard disk in the box and now it's had a second hardware failure. I told my client I could replace this video card, but explained to him in my opinion that sinking any more money into the box was more or less equivalent to putting money into a 1989 car.

With the experience of the other PCs on his LAN in mind, and the fact that his kids uses Macs at school, and my suggestion he consider the option, he ordered a loaded Mac Mini to replace the Gateway. His daughters will be able to do their schoolwork just as easily on the Mac as on a PC, yet he won't have to be concerned that the machine will need an endless stream of antivirus and antispyware updates.

Windows advocates are fond of pointing out that Linux is only free if your time isn't worth anything. The same is true of Windows, which is often perceived as free because it comes loaded on the majority of computers. The initial cost for a Mac is higher than for a Wintel box. But the long-term cost can be much less, especially if you have to pay someone like me to come into your house or office and fix the mess that Windows becomes after a short period of use. This level of support is not needed with Macs. The OS's design, based on BSD UNIX, is much more secure and robust. Right now, the operating system that is the most ready for the desktop is Mac OS-X.

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