Overview of some operating systems

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The following describes some operating systems. Some of these choices may generally be considered to be excellent choices for some tasks.

OpenBSD
OpenBSD's usage

Many people are not familiar with OpenBSD. It may be the second most popular BSD operating system. Out of the modern operating systems that have been designed around some compatibility and/or similarity to ancient Unix code, the most popular options may be operating systems using a Linux kernel, Mac OS X, and possibly in third place is the category known as BSD operating systems. So, OpenBSD isn't the absolute leader in popularity.

Perhaps one reason is shown by Slovenian interview with Theo de Raadt (shown by the OpenBSD Journal @ Undeadly.org) which asked the OpenBSD project's founder and leader, “How do you advertise your OS?” His answer was, “We don't”, and “We have absolutely no marketing.”

Positives about OpenBSD

Perhaps the most impressive characteristic of OpenBSD is their self-promoted security track record which, when objectively considered, has been pretty strong. The OpenBSD team is largely responsible for OpenSSH; the derived “Portable OpenSSH” is the most widely used OpenSSH software for Unix platforms. In addition to the success of the OpenSSH Portable code that is widely used by other operating systems, the operating system released by the OpenBSD team has also achieved an outstanding track record of security. Some brief documentation about OpenBSD remote holes describes a very small number of attacks which were relatively non-severe, and which were resolved very quickly.

Another highlight about the OpenBSD project is that OpenBSD tends to be freely available with very little restrictions on how the code is used. A huge factor in being able to provide such freedom is that the project is pretty selective about what sorot of licensing goes into the code base.

The project also plans design very meticulously, resulting in well-designed software that works rather straightforwardly. Another result of this design is that polished releases are made on a fairly frequent basis, which is twice a year (about May 1st and November 1st), and the new official releases are routinely released on schedule.

Some highlights are provided by OpenBSD FAQ: why OpenBSD may be something people want to use. (That short list includes items already discussed in this text.)

Downsides of OpenBSD

On the downside, the selection of programs that will readily work with OpenBSD is more limited than some other choices. This really may not be an issue at all if the plan for the computer is to be dedicated to perform a specific task, but this can make OpenBSD a less attractive option, or even a show-stopping non-option, for some purposes.

One of the reasons that a lot of software isn't made primarily with OpenBSD may be that OpenBSD is not the most familiar option. Another may be OpenBSD's stringent policies about what sort of software gets endorsed. These limitations can cause pleasant impacts on the end product, such as a product being designed better and having a quality product. However, this may also simultaneously affect how wide of a variety there may be to available software, perhaps because developers may decide to not bother working with guidelines to have software work well with OpenBSD. A third reason that limits the availability of readily runnable software may be the platform's requirement that a whole lot of code is designed to be rather synchronized. This means that software may regularly require updates to remain compatible with the operating system platform, and vice versa (meaning that operating system updates may be needed to easily run the latest version of software).

On a very related downside: software is often designed for other platforms, so even software which will function on OpenBSD might not be designed with the purpose of running as well on OpenBSD. Some programs might have some features that aren't as fully implemented on OpenBSD compared to running the software on other platforms.

Documentation is a mixed bag of being both positive and less-than-fully-positive. On the plus side, documentation included with the project tends to be accurate. On the less positive side, some of it may be designed for people with certain familiarity, like people who have mastered basic network technologies. This documentation may be a bit more difficult for some new users. Also, some third party documentation (bundled with third party programs) may often describe how software works on platforms other than OpenBSD. Details that may be different on different operating systems, like details about where certain files are located, may often be documented more frequently for operating systems other than OpenBSD.

Those are quite a few positive aspects, so it is no surprise that many people tend to really like OpenBSD once they become pretty familiar with the software. However, it is good to know what some of the limitations are. The project is about trying to release quality software that is designed well and which is distributed without unnecessary licensing problems. These goals are provided with much higher priority than factors such as having wide compatability with lots of software, including many software versions, or a goal of providing an easy graphical interface for all sorts of configuration.

The OpenBSD team can be quite insistant about holding to doing things the way they deem best. To make that sound quite positive, they hold to their ideals even in the face of notable resistance. On the less postive-sounding side, this can lead to them being viewed as quite stubborn. OpenBSD FAQ: why OpenBSD may be something people want to use thoroughly acknowledges that there will be differing opinions, and not everybody will choose OpenBSD as the preferred choice for every possible use. OpenBSD FAQ: OpenBSD's capability of being used as a desktop provides the same sort of answer.

Chromium OS (and ChromeOS)

This was developed using Ubuntu as a base, and is itself the technical base/foundation used for the development of Google's ChromeOS.

ChromeOS is an operating system that has been released by Google. The name “Chromebook” has been used for some laptops that use ChromeOS. At least at the time that this text has been written, this is separate code from the Android operating system that Google purchased, significantly developed, and then started using on mobile devices (starting with “smart phones”, and then also including tablets).

ChromeOS is the package that Google has created for the purpose of companies releasing a product that gets used by many people. The name “Chrome” refers to this supported product which is intended to be a relatively controlled experience. The desired results are that the product feels rather “polished”, largely meaning that things operate smoothly and in a rather straight-forward manner. Hopefully common “end users” will enjoy such an experience.

Chromium OS is the release of development code, freely obtainable and usable by people who may wish to be a bit more ambitious.

Google does oversee the development of the “Chromium OS” and “ChromeOS” operating systems, as well as the Chromium and Chrome web browsers. The distinction between “Chromium OS” and “ChromeOS” is pretty much the same as the difference between the “Chromium” web browser and the “Chrome” web browser. In both cases, the variation that includes the word “Chromium” is meant to be used as the development platform.

Steam OS

At the time of this writing, Valve Software's “Steam OS” may not have been released, or has been released relatively recently. This product is likely to be an operating system that has substantial focus on the experiences people have when playing games. Therefore, video performance and simplicity are likely to be features that are key goals of the project. Some features that seem very likely include:

  • An easy software distribution method that supports obtaining software from Valve Software's “Steam” service
  • Support for remote graphics (using technology that Valve calls “Steam Play
  • Support for accomplishing important tasks using a controller other than a full keyboard, such as a game pad
    • Valve Software has used terms like “Full Controller Support” or “Big Picture” mode to refer to such capabilities, at least when using the software product that is named Steam. It would not be surprising if such terms also get used for Valve Software's “Steam OS” operating system.

SteamOS web page has stated, while SteamOS was being released as a “beta” product, “Users should not consider SteamOS as a replacement for their desktop operating system. SteamOS is being designed and optimized for the living room experience.”

Ubuntu

Ubuntu has become the most popular platform using the Linux kernel. A key attraction is that it comes with a graphical interface, and so is considered to be one of the easiest variants.

Ubuntu also comes with widely used, official releases made on a regular basis, twice a year (in April and October). (The version numbers reflect the year, followed by the month, of the release.) Benefits to its popularity include having lots of software available for it.

In comparison to Debian, having official polished releases twice a year allows rather updated code to be installed from the standard installation files, without needing to delve into code that is officially meant for development use (using terms like “unstable” and “still in development”).

Ubuntu uses code from the Debian project, which has become famed for its excellent package management system, making software installation a fairly simple process. The excellence of the package management system, combined with the popularity of both Ubuntu and Debian which is largely compatible, ends up providing a large amount of software that is readily available, being relatively easy to install.

Debian predates Ubuntu, but still serves as the basis for critical portions of Ubuntu's code. For instance, Ubuntu was made based on using the kernel from Debian. (Ubuntu has since added support for FreeBSD's kernel.) Some more details about the project are in the following section about Debian.

Debian

Debian was named after its founder Ian and his girlfriend named Deb. (Those two people later became married.)

Debian became well known for an easy to use package management system, as well as creating a popular document known as the Debian Social Contract and Free Software Guidelines. The software gained quite a bit of popularity, much of which has since moved to Ubuntu which is a separate project that heavily uses the Debian code.

The inclusive nature of Debian (and resulting projects such as Ubuntu) allows some software which may be a bit more restrictive, in terms of licensing, compared to software found in another option like the main BSD operating systems. However, there are efforts to have licensing which provides people with many options, as seen by the influential documentation called the Debian Social Contract and Free Software Guidelines. Also, Debian's discussion about the meaning of “free” and “Free Software” and “Open Source Software” is some similar documentation. The debacle over trying to include Firefox showed the importance of these rights: Mozilla wanted to have control over the quality of executable computer code that used the trademarked name of Firefox. Debian insisted on the rights to be able to include modifications, including security improvements (like bugfixes). The resulting agreement is that certain software had to be renamed in order to comply with Debian's requirements, but the software is readily available with the rights that the Debian project wanted users to be able to have.

Compared to Ubuntu, Debian's core operating system may be a bit simpler, with less focus on the graphical interface. Debian also has a larger focus on trying to have code be very polished before making a new official release. The result is far fewer new official releases that are part of Debian's “stable” branch. There is also newer code readily available in the “unstable” branch, and even newer “bleeding edge” code in the branch called “sid”, which is sometimes referred to by an (apparently unofficial) acronym of “still in development”. (The name “sid” also refers to a neighborhood kid from the movie Toy Story. Sid was very destructive to toys, and so toys may have considered him to be dangerous to interact with, and Sid may also have been a bit “unstable”.)

Distributions similar/related to Red Hat
CentOS

This software uses code from Red Hat's project. They apparently became so noteworthy that, at one time, doing to Google Search for “Red Hat” showed CentOS's website as the most relevant result.

To comply with Red Hat's reaction, the CentOS team removed Red Hat's name from the CentOS site. References in documentation to a “Prominent North American Enterprise Linux Vendor” (“PNAELV”) refer to Red Hat, while trying to not use Red Hat's name so that the project isn't infringing on Red Hat's trademarks or, in some other way, benefiting by the usage of Red Hat's name. (This is mentioned by Wikipedia's page on “Red Hat Enterprise Linux derivatives”: “Legal aspects” section, Wayback Machine @ Archive.org's archive of CentOS's removal of trademarks).

The CentOS team also received legal notification that they were not permitted to hyperlink to Red Hat. (PNAELV letter body, Wayback Machine @ Archive.org archive of message, PNAELV.net). The behavior of making such demands is probably why ceeam's Slashdot post on Red Hat's name points out an anagram: simply by reversing the order of the words in Red Hat's name, the letters spell out the word “hatred”.

Those who are interested in how Red Hat works may wish to try CentOS (or Fedora).

In January of 2014, the CentOS trademarks were transferred to Red Hat as part of a new partnership, as Red Hat started to employ developers who had worked on CentOS.

Scientific Linux

This software is based on RHEL (“Red Hat Enterprise Linux”).

Other Linux-based distributions
Linux Mint

Linux Mint may have become more popular than Ubuntu (although, when this text was added on July 10, 2014, it was not more popular than the combination of Ubuntu, Xubuntu, and Lubuntu). This may come with some software (including drivers) that may have more licensing restrictions. Many users like having such software be installed rather automatically, instead of needing to manually download the software.

Part of Linux Mint's growth in popularity may have been a response to some changes made by Canonical and GNOME. The Wikipedia page about “Controversy over GNOME 3” discusses some dissatisfaction with changes made to the user interface with GNOME 3. In 2010, Canonical stated that Ubuntu would use Wayland as a replacement for X11. Unity replaced the GNOME Shell software that people became used to. Before Ubuntu included a version that shipped with Wayland, in March 2013, Canonical switched gears and stated they planned to use Mir as the replacement for X11.

Many of these announced plans seemed to focus on long term developments, and possibly would involve people needing to adapt to substantially changed newer user interfaces.

The Linux Mint team released an edition compatible with MATE, which continued development from Gnome 2. Later, they developed the Cinnamon desktop environment, which used Gnome 3 code but provided an experience similar to what people were used to when they used Gnome 2. Such moves were widely appreciated by users who were dissatisfied by some of the developments of alternative graphical environments. The popularity of Cinnamon, and the earlier MATE software, show that a significant number of people seemed to like the previous ways of doing things.

Some commercially-backed Linux-based distributions

While Ubuntu was backed by Canonical, it was largely promoted as a free operating system that individual consumers may enjoy. Some companies have sold versions of their operating systems, and “enterprise” business environments have been the intended goals.

These include “Red Hat” and SUSE. Red Hat is rather focused on businesses. RHEL stands for “Red Hat Enterprise Linux”. The word “fedora” refers to a type of brimmed hat, and the Fedora operating system is owned by Red Hat. Fedora is an “open source” operating system. The trademark to the CentOS name is now also owned by Red Hat.

SUSE is another competitor which has had some success selling their operating system commercially. They also have an “open source” variation of thier operating system, which is called “OpenSUSE”.

People from the “open source”/free software community have expressed different opinions about Red Hat and SUSE, with some people appreciating the contributions of paid software developers and paid support personnel. For example, Wikipedia's page for “Red Hat” states, “As of June 2013, Red Hat is the largest corporate contributor to Linux.” While some people appreciate such involvement, or at least certain benefits that result from such involvement, other people resist the “commercial” aspect to these distributions. Red Hat was viewed as a bit of a bully when they responded to growing popularity by CentOS. SUSE's ties to Novell, and especially an agreement that was made with Microsoft, alarmed quite a few people.

Still, despite any mistakes that these companies may have been made, or flaws that these companies may have, neither of these companies are generally as deeply loathed as another vendor of a Linux distribution, Oracle.

Oracle

Oracle Corporation sells database software and sells an Oracle Linux distribution. Oracle bought out Sun Microsystems. Doing so led to Oracle taking possession of rights related to some popular software products including OpenOffice, mySQL, Java. Oracle has made plans to discontinue OpenSolaris and OpenSSO.

People have responded to Oracle's involvement by forking projects: LibreOffice has replaced OpenOffice in many cases, and MariaDB has replaced mySQL. The discontinued OpenSSO became replaced by OpenAM.

Despite being unpopular with the “open source” community, Oracle has been known to sell to large organizations, including governments. Their products may be rather “high end”, achieving rather high performance. (Given their target audiences, it would not be surprising if this high performance comes with the cost of some high prices.)

Oracle Linux may be available for download, after filling out a registration form. (Oracle software freely available, Wikipedia's page on “Red Hat Enterprise Linux derivatives”: “Legal aspects” section)

Further details/resources abouit these operating systems may be on the page about Linux-based operating systems.

Microsoft Windows

One of the biggest advantages that Microsoft Windows offers is mainstream popularity. Software vendors release software that works with Microsoft Windows, and hardware manufacturers invest in drivers that function within popular versions of Microsoft Windows.

Another benefit related to using Microsoft Windows it that many people feel rather familiar with using Microsoft Windows. The familiarity likely comes from two factors, one of which is its heavy popularity. The other factor that leads people to feel familiar with the software is that the learning curve for Microsoft Windows is often considered to be less steep than many alternatives.

The security track record has been, at least at times, extremely horrible. The mainstream popularity makes Microsoft Windows a favored target by attackers, and familiarity may be something that helps some attackers perform attacks. Despite that excuse, the amount of severe/critical/disasterous security vulnerabilities that are regularly discovered (as evidenced by the amount of such vulnerabilities that are getting fixed by updates) remains unpleasantly high. The number is so staggeringly disappointing that alternatives should be seriously considered for this reason alone. On the positive side, the mainstream popularity also helps the software to be scrutinized more by well-meaning computer experts, so current Microsoft software may often get patched with more frequency than some alternative software options.

Licensing can also a noteworthy to substantial financial cost for whomever is purchasing any needed operating systems. Beyond just the fees that people pay Microsoft to get licenses, complying with licensing can also be a substantial burden for IT staff. Until this factor is resolved, significant effort may be needed (at least by large organizations) to ensure proper compliance. Once licensing has been fully addressed, the issue may not be such a visible burden for a long period of time, although factors such as substantial version upgrades can re-introduce licensing difficulties as a subject that demands attention, time, and money. Software may regularly demand agreement to new and updated terms, which can be a nuisance to end users (although the level of nuisancedom is often minimal by some end users who just indiscriminately indicate acceptance to whatever terms may be shown).

The “closed” nature of the source code means that errors may not be easily fixable by many computer users.

Apple/Mac platform

Mac OS X, like the MacOS before it, seems to be heavily enjoyed by a segment of computer users. These computer users will often state a strong preference for Apple's Mac platform over Microsoft Windows.

This software may have licensing restrictions preventing the software from being readily used on hardware that doesn't come from Apple. Such hardware is often priced higher than comparative hardware provided by other companies.

The software also tends to be mouse-heavy. Some users love this fact. Fewer users of this software despise the mouse-heavy nature (mainly because if someone has a strong distaste for using a mouse, such a person may not typically be a user of Apple's Mac operating systems).

Historical notes
Apple computers in multimedia

In the mid 1990's, and years earlier, Apple computers were often used for graphics designers, such as marketers and blueprint designers. The claim was that Apple computers tended to work better. In reality, a key reason for this is because such computers tended to be more expensive, and higher quality. A very key factor may have been simply having more RAM, as RAM was considered a substantially limiting factor during that timeframe. Organizations (such as graphics businesses, and universities) may not have wanted to purchase more expensive equipment for everybody, and the decreased cost of less expensive equipment may have still been able to provide a tolerable experience for many computer users. However, those who worked with multimedia ended up regularly using more memory. Such organizations could often justify spending more money on some computers, but didn't want to spend such money on higher end computers for everybody.

Apple compatibility was provided as a reason why Apple computers were more expensive. This allowed a justification for obtaining computers that may have been priced higher. Since a certain number of the pricier computers were justified, adding further expense for more memory may have been easier for a computer purchaser to accomplish. Graphics designers, then, noticed that Apple computers tended to run much better than trying to perform the same task on computers with other brands.

This may have been one reason why Apple's platform was widely preferred in the desktop publishing industry.

Apple's lost lead

In the late 1980's, Apple computers were more prevelent in schools. However, competitors tried to release Apple clones, and the makers of those computers got sued by Apple. In contrast, IBM's competitors released clones that could run MS-DOS and run most IBM software. Those clones were generally offered at a lower cost, which then became attractive to businesses. Eventually homes and schools started getting computers that were part of the platform of the IBM PC and compatible computers. Apple suffered for many years, until eventually abandoning Mac OS and coming out with Mac OS X, selling the iMac, and coming out with some other user-friendly devices such as the iPod, iPhone, and iPad.

DOS

DOS may not work so well on x64 platforms. (That might be an unfair characterization, perhaps based on a version that used 32-bit code as well as 16-bit code. This may not reflect the experience with code that was actually in widespread usage during the early 1990s and earlier.)

Despite any issues DOS may have with x64 platforms, the operating system functioned and enjoyed widespread usage for x86 platforms. Software developers frequently released software for DOS, and so people made sure that their purchased computers could run the software that was released in a way that worked with DOS.

In the late 1990's, this previous market leader quickly fell in popularity to 32-bit Microsoft Windows systems, in part due to some limitations such as not being as suitable of a platform for web browsing and playing some of the newer multimedia file formats. Some of these limitations may have since been addressed with some newer DOS software, but people had moved on. The operating system had some limitations which were rather difficult to deal with, such as software generally requiring a certain amount of “conventional memory” which is fairly limited. (This issue has been described by DOS memory.) The famous “eight dot three” limitation of a filename's format had been overcome, but people still remembered it. The lack of substantial standardized security was also a limitation that seemed improved by other choices.

Knowing DOS had been a useful skill even after people stopped using the DOS operating system, because other operating systems contained software providing compatible command lines.

Although the learning curve may be considered to be fairly steep, DOS is capable of a wide variety of tasks. It also has extremely low hardware requirements, which could make it useful for some situations (such as testing compatibility of hardware, or virtualization software, that would be considered simplistic by today's standards).

Many of the games released for DOS will use graphics that look quite dated. One reason may be because 3D chipsets were not very standardized when DOS was in widespread usage, and so 2D “sprites” were used. Dealing with memory limitations may have had some impact on how high the resolutions were. The quality of graphics that was once considered to be great or even passable may often look notably inferior today. One reason may just be because people have become used to higher resolutions. Another reason may be that larger visual displays (including larger monitors, or even projectors) can increase how much people notice the individual pixels of low resolution video output. Although high resolution is not absolutely required for some games, including “text”-based games, the visual quality will not typically match what is found in newer software that is commonly released for other platforms.

After DOS stopped being used as a mainstream product, some enthusiasts have continued to improve the DOS experience. There are now better drivers that use less memory, and software to perform tasks like browsing the world wide web, and software for playing some newer formats of media files.

Businesses have continued to use DOS for purposes like:

  • performing firmware updates
  • being an operating system that uses up very little disk space (and is quick to install) and yet is capable of performing many tasks (like verifying some basic hardware functionality)
  • Fulfill Microsoft's licensing requirements (as mentioned by a Slashdot comment by Jim Hall)

Despite some limited cases where some people may still use DOS, the platform's future is limited thanks to factors like the learning curve, limitations or complexity regarding how memory is handled, and the presense of alternatives that are generally preferred.

Other BSD operating systems

FreeBSD may be a bit of a hybrid of benefits that are enjoyed by OpenBSD and users of Linux operating systems. The design of the FreeBSD operating system is similar to that of OpenBSD. However, like Linux, FreeBSD placed more emphasis on speed rather than being quite as narrowly focused on security. FreeBSD also supports more software, including less tested (development) versions of software, and software for Linux may often be found in FreeBSD-related archives before OpenBSD archives. There are a number of downstream products that use FreeBSD as a base, including nanoBSD and PC-BSD.

NetBSD is quite notable for being able to be run on many different hardware platforms. The code base may be a bit smaller. The smaller size likely helps to make the code easier to support different hardware platforms.

These BSD systems have supported servers, desktop environments, and even video game consoles. There is a port of FreeBSD for the original Microsoft Xbox, and the NetBSD/i386 port added support for the Xbox. The Xbox may have required some effort for running unofficial code, because doing so was rather discouraged by Microsoft. (The term “forbidden” may be a better way to describe that.) There has also been an official port of NetBSD for the Sega Dreamcast, which the NetBSD project treated as a fully supported port. This release did actually receive some rather official acknowledgement showing support (John Byrd's post about NetBSD/dreamcast, Slashdot about Sega approving NetBSD running on Dreamcast). The NetBSD for Sega Dreamcast page referred to the Sega Dreamcast as a Japanese video game console, but the Dreamcast was also released in other locations like the United States of America. See also: NetBSD for the Sega Dreamcast: FAQ provided some information. The NetBSD for the Dreamcast: “HowTo” guide seemed to have some older information which conflicted with, and was probably outdated by, some of the details shown on the FAQ.