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Operating Systems - cont'd

The proliferation of Microsoft Windows platforms has peppered the market with several variations on the same theme. Some Windows platforms are much better than others, and some just plain stink. They are not the only game in town, but only barely. Linux burst onto the scene a few years ago and has established itself as a contender - at least in the server segment. Read our thoughts and recommendations about each one below.

Microsoft Windows 95

Release of this operating system in late 1995 probably still remains the most anticipated and hyped product releases in the PC industry, and perhaps any industry. It captured the imagination of consumers, capitalized on their blossoming awareness of computers, and made a huge row with its blockbuster marketing campaign.

While it did deliver some valuable technology to the world, it was definitely not perfect. Its coverage of compatibility with all hardware was not complete and it was not quite stable enough to keep it from crashing frequently. Its release signalled the beginning of the now standard interface style with the toolbar at the bottom, the Start Button, and the pop-up program menus that persist in the latest releases from Microsoft. These design cues exist in current version of Windows today, but the guts of Windows 95 are definitely yesterday's technology.

Overall, Windows 95 remains the first halting steps in Microsoft's departure from the previously dominant architecture of DOS, and is not recommendable as a desktop operating system due to its aged technology. It is not available in a server version.

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Microsoft Windows NT

What has been alternatively called New Technology or Network Technology is Microsoft's complete departure from DOS architecture to create a robust, stable, network operating system environment. It was not an immediate hit with all markets, but by the time version 4 was released and had a few service packs released to fix some bugs and compatibility problems, Windows NT had made definite inroads with the business computing crowd, especially in its server variation.

Windows NT supported larger amounts of system memory (RAM) and more easily accommodated the greater storage capacity of hard drives that were proliferating the market at the time. Its architecture also allowed for more powerful applications to run reliably. This, along with its more sophisticated security and user management, made NT a no-brainer for companies with large user bases or higher security requirements.

Windows NT has been so successful that it is the progenitor of all of Microsoft's operating system offerings today. Windows 2000 as well as Windows XP, in all of its available varied forms, both descend from Windows NT 4.0. In fact, Windows 2000 is also referred to as Windows NT 5.0, and Windows XP is known as Windows NT 5.1.

Despite the release of these more recent versions, Windows NT 4.0 still remains recommendable due to its inherent stability - if you can still find someone who sells it - when properly patched to the latest service pack (SP6). It is compatible with a full complement of programs, tools, and utilities and probably still holds the crown as the incumbent server king at many large companies around the world. Migration from NT 4.0 to Windows 2000 or XP is simply not yet necessary if everything is running well and does require careful planning and expense to make the change.

As a desktop OS, Windows NT is very usable, but for the best user experience you would be better off taking advantage of the refinements and improvements in Windows 2000.

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Microsoft Windows 98

Windows 98 is where Microsoft achieved probably their greatest success within a DOS-based architecture. This is particularly true of the Second Edition, known as Windows 98SE. This release of Windows made significant strides in compatibility with hardware of its day, such as Universal Serial Bus (USB) devices. It was also a little more stable than most Windows 95 installations.

This is not to say that Windows 98 remains stable. A common development of installations of "98" is that after several months or a year of hard use they begin to degrade. System operations begin to become unreliable; some functions begin to perform incorrectly or not at all. Symptoms like these are often vague and hard to capture or quantify.

The most common and likely cause of this degradation is minor corruption of important system files or critical data in the system registry, which can be extremely difficult or near impossible to find and correct. The ultimate cause of this corruption can be one or more of the following:

  • system crashes that leave incorrect or incomplete data in system files or the registry
  • virus activity that destroys system resources or otherwise disrupts operations
  • frequent installation and removal of user applications
  • instating a user application that runs rough-shod over the registry

The most effective response to such a development is to start over. Abandon the operating system and reinstall Windows 98 - or hopefully an even better choice of OS. The hope of recovering a degraded, malfunctioning installation of Windows 98 is very low. If you've reached the end of your rope in dealing with Windows 98, it is now time to consider moving on to a newer, more stable operating system. Windows 2000 anyone?

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Microsoft Windows Me

After the success of Windows 98, Microsoft took the DOS-based architecture one step too far and created Windows Me (Millennium Edition). This product is not worth trying. If you are simply looking get a recent release from Microsoft, please choose Windows 2000. This version of Windows is known for having created more problems than it solved. Many software applications you can buy for Windows platforms are not fully compatible on Windows Me and it has turned out to be somewhat unstable. Windows 2000 may be a boring Toyota Camry of operating systems, but at least it is not a Ford Pinto.

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Microsoft Windows 2000

Building upon its novel technology in Windows NT 4.0, Microsoft created Windows 2000 (or Windows NT 5.0). The improvements over 4.0 are numerous and significant. The changes result in an operating system that is the most stable, compatible, and powerful of all the Windows offerings.

It is primarily available in two varieties - Windows 2000 Professional and Windows 2000 Server. Windows 2000 Server is an excellent choice for running a small office network. It is also Microsoft's most mature product to do so, since there currently is no server variant for Windows XP. Using a Windows 2000 Server machine and coupling it with a group of Windows 2000 client machines produces a very robust network. Even Windows 98 machines would be welcome in this setup, but they would not be able to participate in all of the higher functions offered by 2000.

This operating system is the current recommended favorite of Redshift Technology because it is a proven and very well supported platform. It is still generally available, even if most high-volume retail outlets are now pushing only Windows XP. If you buy a new PC you may have no choice but to accept Windows XP, but it would be worth your while to remove it and install Windows 2000 instead.

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Microsoft Windows XP

This selection is Microsoft's current focus of marketing attention. While it is delivered on most new PC's, it has failed to take off like previous releases. Despite prior success with Windows NT and Windows 2000 upon which it is built, XP (or Windows NT 5.1) has reverted back to the problem of hardware and software compatibility problems.

Buying some great new PC peripherals or hot software may be futile if you try to run then under Windows XP. Many users have experienced the disappointment of finding out their new toys do not work as hoped, and may end up returning them.

This situation may be temporary, as Service Packs released from Microsoft might resolve these compatibility problems, and third-party developers may learn better ways of supporting XP. But for the time being, these issues are a quagmire.

Another issue is the increase of restrictions on installing this operating system. There are requirements for registration and activation of the operating system once it is installed, but this is similar to policies surrounding Windows 2000. However, in addition to this is the restriction that, after installation, you cannot make significant changes the hardware on which Windows XP is running and expect it to continue operating. This particular item is intended to keep users from pirating copies from one machine to another. But in a business environment, this hurdle can prove to be a complication that jumps up and bites you when you are already across a barrel, say, when you are reconfiguring a machine to perform new duties.

By all means, though, do not try to use the Home Edition of Windows XP in a business environment. If you have any intention of using a new desktop computer of laptop as part of a business network, be sure to use Windows XP Professional.

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Future Windows Products

While not much is known about this operating system, as it is still under development, recent announcements by Microsoft and some rampant rumors give some insight into how it will be different from current and previous versions of Windows.

The first and most high-profile addition known to date is the publicly announced intent for Microsoft to include technology they are calling "Palladium." It is being touted by Microsoft as the answer to all kinds of security, privacy, and copyright issues surrounding today's operating systems.

The limited amount of information that has been officially announced has unfortunately left plenty of room for pundits and analysts to propose all manner of fire-and-brimstone visions of how Microsoft will misuse the proposed technology. Granted, some of their scenarios are not implausible, and some do fit with Microsoft's record of questionable ethics in sensitivity to the free market. Even this early level of suspicion leaves us wary enough of the coming future from Microsoft to begin searching for alternatives - just in case.

On the other hand, there are some enticing tidbits on the horizon. But, knowledge (albeit limited) of another proposed addition to new Windows technology is based only on rumors. The rumors surround the concepts of a file system, which is what provides a way to logically name, store, retrieve, and manage files on your computer. Some gossip implies that conventional file systems are expected to be replaced by the kind of technology behind high-powered database systems like Oracle and IBM's DB2.

While such a change may result in significantly different user interaction, and therefore more training time, it promises to provide great new functionality and supercharged performance.

Overall, however, the Big Brother aspects of coming releases from Microsoft make it unrecommendable to pin hopes on new releases of Windows, but to start searching for alternatives.

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This innovative entry into the PC operating system market is unique in that no one person or entity controls its design or function. It is created by legions of volunteers adhering to a common plan for the finished product and dividing the workload among disperse individuals. Its architecture resembles that of UNIX, which is an operating system that is meant for larger, more powerful computers than usually sit on the typical user's desk. Linux, however is designed specifically for the PC.

Linux has distinguished itself as a very capable server operating system, but it remains a little uncultured to be used by the average user for everyday tasks. Windows operating systems do have the advantage in the ease-of-use and "friendliness" for average users.

So, while this selection is not advisable for novice or intermediate users, it is a logical choice for use on a dedicated server machine. It will be incomparably cheaper than Windows choices and has a wide array of supporting products available to provide complete functionality.

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Last Updated: 09/17/02