Windows vs. Linux

Why is Windows everywhere?

Windows is one of the most popular operating systems in the world, so it stands to reason that it must be good, right? Well, not really. The reason that Windows is used on so many computers is that it comes pre-installed on most of them. Users don’t actively choose Windows, it’s just there already. Plus it’s been paid for, as the cost is bundled with the price of the hardware, so people use it.

If users were sold empty computers and had to choose an operating system as a separate product, many of them might decide not to run Windows. A lot of them would probably go for Linux instead. Several of my customers who got fed up with Windows have ditched it in favour of Linux, and now they call me to ask what is the best way of doing certain things, rather than to report problems.

Some people seem to think that Linux is a toy system, unsuitable for serious work, but that is simply not true. More web servers run Linux than Windows, and most supercomputers run Linux too. Windows is popular on desktop computers, but has almost none of the mobile market. Most mobile telephones run the Android operating system, and Android is based on the Linux kernel.

You can see why Linux is gaining in popularity all the time by looking at the following comparisons with Windows:

Free of charge?NoYesWindows might appear to be free, but it isn’t. The cost of Windows is built in to the total price that you’re paying when you buy a computer. Linux is actually free of charge, so you can afford to install it on however many computers you have, and upgrade whenever a new version comes out. This is a big deal for businesses with a large number of computers.
Fully documented?NoYesThere are scores of books about Windows, but not many of them are about the internal workings of the system, and the ones that are don’t explain exactly how important mechanisms like Windows Update are supposed to work. Why would anyone want to know about the technicalities under the hood? Because when things go wrong, the detailed mechanics can reveal what is really happening, so you have a better chance of fixing the problem and getting back to work. Linux is fully documented, including the innermost details. Nothing is hidden. There are no secrets. Everything is open and above board.
Proprietary?YesNoWindows is a proprietary Microsoft product, and they don’t want you fiddling around inside it. Microsoft’s standard End User Licence Agreement specifically prohibits you from disassembling or reverse engineering the software, so even when the system blows up in your face, you’re not supposed to poke your nose into what doesn’t concern you. Linux is not a proprietary product, and you’re welcome to look at any part of it you like, and change it if you decide that’s what you want or need to do.
Source code available?NoYesMicrosoft do not publish the source code of Windows (in other words the instructions that the programmers wrote when they created the system). This means that the wider programming community cannot see exactly how Windows works, and are unable to see the causes of flaws and suggest ways of fixing them. In contrast, the Linux source code is publicly available. This means that anyone can look at it to see what is going on. As a consequence, there are a lot more eyes on Linux than Windows and problems get fixed quickly, and more importantly, properly. All the source code is subject to public scrutiny, and bodges can’t be ‘swept under the carpet’ because there is no ‘carpet’.
Reliable and stable?NoYesIf you’ve been using Windows for any length of time, you’ll know how the system can just seize up for no apparent reason. If the central processor or hard disk drive are being driven at 100% capacity and you haven’t got a clue why, you’ll know how annoying Windows can be. Linux just doesn’t do this kind of thing.
Safe and secure?Not reallyVeryWindows is targeted by just about every kind of malicious software that exists. Partly this is because it is a very popular system, with a large pool of potential victims. However, it does have weaknesses that do not exist in Linux. You can run a Linux system without anti-virus software reasonably safely. Good luck trying that with Windows.
Everything done in the user’s best interests?NoYesMicrosoft is a commercial organisation that is out to make a profit. I haven’t got a problem with that, but it does mean that they may not always have your best interests at heart. Linux is not owned by a commercial organisation.
Forced updates?YesNoWindows will update itself without your permission, and sometimes the updates will break your system without any explanation. Occasionally the damage done will be very difficult to undo, and non-technical users will be in real trouble. Linux updates are always optional, and almost never break anything.
Fast updating?NoYesWindows updates are often huge and take many hours to download and install. Sometimes the installation will fail, then later Windows will try the whole thing again. Linux updates are fast to download and install, and don’t require a system reboot (except for kernel updates, the kernel being the core of the system).
Simple, easy-to-use interface?For a lot of features, noYesThe Windows 10 user interface can be confusing. For example, some things are best done through the settings app, and some very similar things are best done through the control panel. Linux doesn’t suffer from this kind of inconsistency.
Runs on older hardware?Not very wellYesWindows 10 can sometime run on older hardware, but not very well. Linux is very good at getting the best possible performance out of old hardware and can out-perform Windows 10 in nearly all circumstances.
Fast?Not particularlyYesWindows is rather bloated and slow compared with Linux. One reason for this is that it has grown like topsy over the years, adding more and more unnecessary features. Another reason is that you really have to run anti-virus software with Windows, whereas with Linux you can get away with just running relatively speedy firewall software.
Standards compliant?Not reallyYesWindows is about closed ‘standards’ that are designed to lock you in. For example, Microsoft don’t want you to walk away from their office software and start using someone else’s equivalent. Therefore the older Microsoft Word file format (‘.doc’) was never published, and the later ‘.docx’ format is not a real ‘standard’ in the true sense of the word. Linux is all about open standards that allow you to switch easily from one system to another without getting ‘locked in’. The LibreOffice Writer software, which is the equivalent of Microsoft Word, uses the ‘.odt’ format, which is a genuine international standard that other software can easily understand.
Cryptic error messages?ManyA fewWindows tends to produce cryptic error messages like ‘0x8000c006’. If there’s a giant public index somewhere that explains exactly what these messages mean, I don’t know where it is. Linux error messages can occasionally be confusing too, but not to that extent.
Respectful of privacy?NoYesMicrosoft like to gather as much information about you as possible. One of the reasons they collect personal data is so they can target you with advertisements. Linux just doesn’t do that kind of thing.
Nags you to use proprietary products?YesNoIf you try to use Mozilla Firefox or Google Chrome under Windows 10, the system will nag you to try Microsoft Edge instead. I don’t want to be harassed into using something else when I’m perfectly happy with the web browser I already use. The same goes for photo-viewing software. I like to use IrfanView, and don’t want to be nagged about using the Windows Photos app instead. Linux doesn’t do any of this nagging.
Understands many different file systems?NoYesWindows can only understand Microsoft’s own FAT and NTFS file systems. Linux can understand Microsoft’s file systems, plus its own (obviously), and several others. This makes Linux much more flexible.
Has an advanced command-line interface available?NoYesThe standard Windows command prompt is a bit like MS-DOS, an ancient system only offering primitive facilities. You can always install a slightly more advanced command-line facility called PowerShell, but it isn't much better. Linux provides truly sophisticated command-line facilities (shells) that are actually useful, and can be used to automate many system administration tasks.
Runs for months without restarting?NoYesWindows wants to restart annoyingly often. Just removed an unwanted program? Windows will usually need to restart in order to complete the removal process. Want to install some updates? Windows will need to restart to complete the installation. Want to remove an unwanted update? Windows will yet again need to restart. Restarting is not a quick operation, so it soon becomes irritating having to restart in so many circumstances. In contrast, Linux can run for months without restarting.
Allows you total control over your own computer?NoYesMany Windows users feel that they’re not in charge of their own computers, and they’re probably right. Windows seems to have its own agenda, and sometimes pays little attention to what you might want to do. One of the worst things it does is download huge updates without asking for permission, clogging up your Internet connection when you might be wanting to get on with other things, and possibly setting you up for a wrecked system when what you really want is stability. Another thing that Windows often does is refuse you permission to do certain things, even when you are an ‘administrator’ with supposedly the highest level of privilege. There are several other ‘I’m in charge’ things that Windows does, but why bother mentioning them all? If you’re a regular Windows user, you’ll know what they are. With Linux, it’s not like that at all. You retain complete control and won’t find the system giving priority to its own jobs in a difficult-to-stop way, or refusing to let you do perfectly reasonable things.
Runs ‘Windows’ applications?YesYes (with ‘Wine’ or a ‘Virtual Machine’)People often wonder if they can run their favourite Windows programs under Linux. The answer is often yes. Linux supports a software package called ‘Wine’ that allows you to emulate the Windows environment within the Linux environment. Also it is possible to run Windows for real inside a Linux ‘Virtual Machine’, then get Windows to run the programs of your choice. However, this does take a bit of setting up. Most users simply find Linux programs that are as good as, or better than, the equivalent Windows programs for achieving what they want.