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While Mac OS X is certainly a good looking operating system on the outside, no operating system can stand on the looks of the Graphical User Interface (GUI) alone. Apple has gone to great lengths to make sure that Mac OS X was stable from the inside out, and they did it by building on the time tested powerhouse, Unix. It is my opinion that UNIX or Linux on the end user side is probably the most rigid of all operating systems by way of the general unfriendliness of the GUI.
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If you’ve ever played with Debian, Slackware, Fedora or other hardcore Linux distributions you quickly learned that there is no hand-holding to be found there for the new user to the platform. Each new peripheral you add to the system can be a nightmare of driver support headaches and missing library components that will soon have you toiling at the command line to alter configuration files or downloading software packages and even recompiling the entire kernel.
Who needs that?
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Windows has proven to be a much more user friendly operating system but not necessarily because each and every function is placed in an easy to reach and logical location within the GUI.
I still can’t fully grasp why the option to Shutdown your computer is hidden in the smooth green button called the Start menu of Windows XP which has already survived throughout three major service packs. While Microsoft has somewhat addressed this by turning the start menu into a shiny, glowing Windows logo in Vista - simply omitting the word start did nothing to make it logical. In fact if you were to right click the menu icon and alter its ‘Properties’ you would see that Microsoft still references it as the Start Menu.
New peripheral drivers are widely available from various sources as long as the device is somewhat current, and there are plenty of Windows developers out there offering solutions to almost any problem under the sun, for a fee of course.
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Mac OS X
While Apple is certainly guilty of doing the same thing from time to time, they largely win the usability battle by somehow finding the magical formula that covered up the rigid UNIX backbone with a flexible and stable and stunning Graphical User Interface.
This is proving successful for Apple not only in sales of retail OS upgrades but also in entire system upgrades or new purchases. In effect they are stealing customers of other popular operating systems because of compatibility, features and functionality of the software as well as the looks and quality of the hardware.
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Stability and Compatibility:
For any operating system to be considered for home or office use it needs to be compatible with other platforms and stable. Why would anyone choose to use an operating system that required a massive investment in support just to keep it from crashing and losing critical data?
Mac OS X was built using technology found in a version of Unix called BSD. While UNIX is itself over 25 years old, Mac OS X has only been available for desktop/client since 2001 and has been gaining strength and a wider user base since then. While old and reliable is nice, Apple also made it possible to hide the sometimes scary Unix aspect under the elegant and very stable user interface that we recognize as Mac OS X today. But stability isn’t the end all and be all here - we also need to be able to read and write documents of just about every type without hassles. We need our communications to be written, received and used by anyone without hassles or compatibility issues.
For such document-specific support, major software companies have stepped up to produce fantastic software and updates with features found only in the Mac OS X versions of their offerings. Among those companies are giants like Microsoft with their MS Office suite, IBM has Lotus Notes, Adobe with their Creative Suite, Quark still actively develops good old QuarkXpress and there are many others out there too numerous to list here -- so sharing that Excel spreadsheet from your Mac with your colleagues who are using Lotus Notes and Microsoft Office 2007 is a cinch. Or perhaps your mom took some pictures with her pocket camera and sent them to you from her PC and you want to do a little do-it-yourself retouching and send them back to her. Not a problem!
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There is software compatibility and user compatibility to consider. Ideally there should be special attention given to figuring out what functions are to be represented by what icons within the GUI. This kind of universal understanding is often overlooked and confusion and frustration are the result of poorly thought-out interfaces. For icons to properly represent a function they need to be intuitive. Let's look at a simple task and the applications used for simply getting a photo and sending it in an email.
Imagine you have a CD containing photos from your last vacation stored on it and you want to send some of those photos to your friend. You’ve never used a Macintosh before to do it, so you’re not quite sure what to expect.
There are potentially two issues here that Mac OS X handles extremely gracefully, without requiring any special knowledge of specific applications or artistic skill and training. You proceed to insert the CD ROM in just the same way as you would on your PC and immediately an icon appears on your desktop in the image of a small CD. Ahh, okay -- that certainly looks like the object you just put in the computer so you continue onward. You double click the CD icon and you see a preview of the photos stored on the disc then drag the one you want onto your desktop (remember that you know nothing of iPhoto yet).
Now you want to email the photo to your friend so the next task is to figure out what to click to open your email program. How about that little postage stamp icon sitting in the dock? It makes perfect sense to me that before you can send anything through conventional mail you’d first need to put a stamp on it and email is a lot like writing a letter isn’t it?
You click it and you drag the photo into the body of your email. You add the email address of the person to receive it and voila! We have now successfully copied a photo from your CD ROM, and emailed it using rather intuitively thought out icons and simple procedure. No special knowledge was needed as the tasks to be performed were answered by using universally understood graphic representations suggesting which actions to take.
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Mac OS X wins the battle at the price tag level here as well. Nowhere can you find all the above mentioned functionality, stability and good looks for $129 complete with support and a user community like no other.
Don’t get me wrong, each operating system has its pluses, but for me and an ever increasing army of others there isn’t really a comparison. The standards that OS X is based on offers free software and support, compatibility and selection beyond the wildest dreams of some of the competition.