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Written by Lincoln Spector   
Friday, 30 June 2000 19:00
OS 9 is known for stability, ease of use, and users who will threaten to kill you if you suggest that it's flawed

Everything that happens on your computer happens through the operating system. Turn on your computer, and you turn on the operating system. Save a file to disk, and it's saved through the operating system. Write, send, and immediately regret an angry e-mail message to your ex-spouse's lawyer's Mafia Don, and that too can be blamed on the operating system.

With operating systems so important, it's time we took a look at what's out there. So here's the official, semi-occasional, Gigglebytes roundup of the programs we most love to hate.

Windows 98: More people use Windows 98 than any other operating system. Every day, hundreds of millions of users boot Windows, vainly search the help files, try to fix a feature that worked yesterday but doesn't today, and watch the famed multitasking OS lock up entirely because they tried to do two things at once. Then they grit their teeth, reformat their hard drives, and reinstall Windows from scratch. Meanwhile, Bill Gates tries to figure out why poll after poll shows that he's less popular than Stalin.

Macintosh OS 9: This marginal operating system is known for its stability, ease of use, steadily shrinking market share, and the legion of fanatical followers who threaten to kill you if you suggest that it may contain flaws. One such flaw (there goes my life insurance) is that OS 9 only works on overpriced Macintosh computers, many of which are distinguished by their odd shapes and fancy colors. Mac users often wonder why everyone else hasn't gone over to their obviously superior system, but the reason is simple: If there's anyone Windows users hate more than Bill Gates, it's Mac users.

Unix: This is the oldest of all current operating systems, and probably the most confusing. There are many flavors of Unix, such as SCO and That Other One That Keeps Changing. What makes one version of Unix different from all others is that they have absolutely nothing in common. Indeed, people who can tell the Mac OS from Windows at a single glance at the screen cannot recognize a Unix system until someone tells them what it is, at which point they get up and move to another computer. Unix is best known for its name, which suggests that those who use it are something less than real men.

Linux: Everyone's favorite come-from-behind operating system was originally developed by a college student in Helsinki. By comparison, most OSes are developed by programmers in hell. This student, Linus Torvalds, then named this Unix variant after himself and made it available for free to anyone who could figure out what to do with it. Some figured out how to sell it. Today, Linux is known for carrying an unusually high price for a free product. True to its Unix origins, there are multiple, incompatible versions of Linux.

Windows 2000: The latest version of Windows to hit store shelves combines the complex, impossible-to-figure-out internal structure of NT with the flaky instability of Windows 98. Like its predecessor NT, Windows 2000 is designed with security in mind; you can set up your system so that your coworkers can't get into it, the IT department can't get into it, and you can't get into it. In fact, a fully secure Windows 2000 system can only be accessed by a skilled hobbyist.

BeOS: A few years ago, Be Inc. decided to take on Microsoft and sell its own, independent operating system for standard PC hardware. Today, BeOS is known as the only free alternative OS that runs inside of Windows. The operating system is also being adapted for use in Internet appliances, allowing you to surf while you dry your hair.

Internet: Once upon a time, the Internet was supposed to free us from the tyranny of operating systems. The idea was that everyone would be running their applications on the Web, and it wouldn't matter on which OS they were running their Web browsers. Today, in fact, you can find a handful of applications designed to be run over the Web; most of them are called Web browsers. The rest are e-mail servers that offer you half of the features of conventional e-mail programs at a full tenth of the speed. It is possible, however, that one day people will do all of their work on Internet-based applications, and the rest of us will pity them.

Windows Millennium Edition: This is absolutely, unquestionably the best operating system of them all, and is likely to remain so until the day it is released. The primary advantage of Windows Me, aside from a video-editing program that will be of little use to anyone, is the lack of DOS Compatibility Mode. If you need to resize a partition, clean up a hopelessly corrupted Windows installation, or play a game, you will have to first boot from a floppy disk created in an earlier version of Windows. Windows Me is expected to become available about the same time that system manufacturers stop making computers with floppy drives.

Contributing Editor Lincoln Spector writes about the absurdities of computing life.

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