Desktop Unix: MacOS X and SUSE Linux

If you put MacOS X up against both SuSe Linux and Windows Vista on similar laptop hardware you'll immediately see that Windows is the one that's the odd man out: it's much more click intensive, less intuitive, and far more in your face than the other two.

As regular readers know my general preference in making IT decisions is to keep the hardware and software as simple as possible while putting the real focus on empowering the people using it. In general, therefore, I see "the right way" as one that centralizes processing for simplicity while decentralizing control for empowerment - but sometimes there's no sensible way to meet user needs without giving them laptops and the question then is, which ones you should get?

All three of the main OS candidates: MacOS X, Novell's "Sousa Linicks" and Microsoft's Windows Vista run on pretty much the same hardware and run broadly comparable applications suites, so the decision must ultimately come down to which one best balances cost versus productivity in your applications area.

Two of these are Unix desktop implementations - as are both outlier options: Solaris and OpenBSD - making Windows Vista the odd man out from an OS technology perspective.

Put them side by side and I think you'll notice some consequential differences too: MacOS X and Linux (specifically Novell's latest "enterprise desktop") have a very different feel to them than Vista does.

In the ideal experiment to see this, you get three OS advocates to put their favorites on similar Apple hardware and then watch as they load email from a common server, find and watch a video from my favorite hot air site and bring three working documents up in separate, side by side, windows.

That's ideal, but of course most people don't just happen to have three identical x86 Macs laying around - so try the next best thing: recruit two friends favoring whichever two desktops you don't, and go do as much of the trial as you can get away with at your favorite local x86 shop: Office Depot, BestBuy, whatever.

It's worth doing, particularly if you're a Windows advocate, because it's absolutely eye-opening. By itself Windows Vista (or XP) looks decent enough: you click, it does - something; the fonts work, the colors look nice, and IE comes up. But, put it right between the two Unix versions and you'll see that the two Unix desktops, although very different, share a responsiveness, a directness of focus, and a simplicity of operation, that are completely missing in the Windows products - showing Windows Vista as a kind of click hungry hippopotamus in a tutu that simply doesn't belong on stage with the other two.

Windows 7 will, at least according to the Microsoft press, fix this: recapturing XP's place in the competition - although even two minutes with the latest Linux desktop should convince you that if Microsoft were showing that to their focus groups as their Next Generation product they wouldn't have to fake the enthusiasm. Back on planet earth, however, it's hard to think of an argument for buying a Microsoft desktop that doesn't start and end with: "because we already have Microsoft..."

If you're halfway objective about it, that leaves you to choose between the latest Linux desktop and MacOS X for your users - a choice most people will, I think, find to be an absolute no brainer.

For those who put a premium on cost savings, Linux is the no brainer option: it runs on cheaper hardware and you get it for free or nearly free and with, or without, paid support.

For those who put a premium on user productivity, MacOS X is the no brainer option: it's more matter of fact than Novell's new GUI skin and packaging, and mostly just stays out of the way of knowledgeable users. In fact, for many it meets the IT ideal: it works so well, they don't know it's there or doing anything to help them - they just click and expect it to work; because, well, it just does.

That's a different horses for different courses situation: my own bottom line is that a few hundred bucks per laptop is meaningless when set against even a small improvement in user productivity - so I'm picking the Mac. You, on the other hand, may have higher volume, lower complexity, requirements for which cost becomes the decisive criterion - and so pick Linux.

It's that choice, I think, that forms the real bottom line here: they're both good choices, and they're genuinely different - offering different values to different people.

And it's been awhile since we've had a real choice, so how great is that?