Something to Say

Apples to Oranges -- Why the Platform Wars No Longer Matter


Over the years, an individual’s choice of which operating system to use for their computing needs has become increasingly personal. In general, most modern platforms are extremely capable, and with the ubiquity of the Internet and standardized file formats, it is far easier to share data between otherwise wholly different systems. Mac versus Windows, either versus Ubuntu, and so on, are battles that have lost much of their relevance, and as a result, I’ve somewhat lost interest in the debate. I still believe Mac OS X, and by extension iOS, are superior platforms for my needs, and I still encourage people to try them for themselves, but ultimately, each individual user’s personal preference for a computing solution is their own, and that is how it should be.

Comparing platforms, too, has become increasingly difficult, both because the number of tasks that we all perform on our computers has continued to grow, and because the ways that the various systems, particularly OS X and Windows, handle these tasks have diverged in fundamental ways. And that, of course, does not even begin to address the inevitable human differences in the way we all think, respond, or retain information. An artist may be especially talented at producing beautiful masterpieces with oil paints, while another may be hopeless with paints but is adept with charcoal. The difference in tools between them does not make either more or less of an artist; nor does it inherently devalue either’s work. Each is using their talents with the tools that suit them best as unique human beings.

Objective comparisons between operating systems are virtually meaningless, because while the systems themselves behave in primarily predictable and consistent ways, human beings do not. To even begin to make a perfectly objective comparison, a single individual would have to be equally proficient and accustomed to working in the platforms being compared. This is a problem right out of the gate, since platforms themselves will vary, to some degree, in order to appeal to different sorts of people, and whether or not someone is equally competent and comfortable in two significantly different systems cannot be objectively measured for tools as complex as computing platforms.

But let’s say, for the sake of argument, that one could find such a person. What then? How do you objectively compare systems with such differing feature sets? You might be able to compare a small number of specific features common to both, but would that truly be helpful? The answer is that of course it isn’t, at least not in terms of the bigger picture of comparing the platforms to one another.

For a simplistic example, you could compare the length of time it takes to open a web browser and access a particular website. Let’s say that this task takes ten seconds to perform on platform A, and only five seconds to perform on platform B, assuming that the network connection speed variable is constant. One could extrapolate from this that, if our imaginary user opens twelve sites in an hour, they will save themselves one minute of time on platform B over platform A, and thus be more productive.

But what if, completely unrelated to this task, platform B has a bug that causes the system to hang and need to be rebooted once an hour? And what if the total time spent restarting the machine and logging in takes one minute? Now, with this new piece of the puzzle added to the equation, the results of our test, as far as productivity goes, are a wash.

Operating systems have thousands of these tiny variables. The example above is simple and extreme in order to illustrate the basic point. Even if one could objectively account for every, or even most, of the countless variables and make an objective, measurable comparison, the results would only apply to the single individual and those who are most like them.

This is, too, why Mac survived at all during Apple’s dark years. Windows, by many technical measures, surpassed Mac OS during that time, and yet many users still chose to use it, because for them, the system was more intuitive or a better fit for their own specific way of working.

Someone recently made the point to me that it was an unassailable conclusion that the number of keystrokes to perform a task with a screen reader was the only, or at least the primary, measure of productivity for a visually impaired computer user. This is, to most critical eyes I believe, an absurd statement. What if the user isn’t using keystrokes at all to perform a task and is instead relying on something like VoiceOver’s Trackpad Commander? What if one user has written scripts on one system but not the other? What if those scripts have been developed to behave differently? What if a user of one system is better at memorizing and recalling key commands than is the user of the other? What if one is a better or faster typist? The number of variables and their combinations is significant and virtually limitless.

My advice to users is to try out different platforms, if they can, and decide which is best for them and the way in which they work. OS X, Windows, Ubuntu, and some other platforms are all modern operating systems with unique strengths and characteristics to offer. They are all legitimate choices, regardless of how strongly you feel about your own.

Most people, at least I like to think it is most, don’t go around belittling or harassing others for their religious beliefs, or lack thereof. Those who do, are frequently looked down upon by those of us who are more enlightened and/or tolerant. Why should it be any different for our computing choices?