The Great OS Experiment

The Great OS Experiment

A celebrity CIO reviews the desktop operating system contenders in search of the next-generation office computer

Because Windows is the top-selling operating system, new hardware such as GPS modems and EVDO wireless cards are always developed first for XP. So Halamka rarely worries whether his computer is going to recognize a new device or network; it's pretty much a guarantee. For example, one day in September, just as he was about to start a two-hour interactive lecture at Boston University that required him to use the Web, he realized the network cable in the room wouldn't reach his laptop. Rather than move his computer to an inconvenient spot in the lecture hall, he simply fired up the wireless broadband connection on his computer to get Internet access. "I was able to get myself out of a jam because so much is available for XP," he says. "Monopoly does generate interoperability."

The fact that he can easily change the OS's underlying file structure with a simple right click enabled him to configure his XP desktop to look like the desktop on his MacBook. He was so taken with the MacBook's clean user interface that he wanted to replicate it on his Dell, so he created a short cut that takes him to all the files he's working on. The only other items on his Dell desktop — as on his Mac — are a trash can and a launch bar with icons for his e-mail client, Firefox client, a calculator, a notepad and wide area network wireless connectivity.

What he disliked: The drawback of Windows' widespread interoperability is that figuring out what driver you need to enable certain functionality can be confusing. For instance, when Halamka tried to connect his laptop to CareGroup's wireless network, the wireless driver that came with his Dell didn't work properly. He wasn't sure if Dell's Web site or Intel's would have the fix he needed, so he spent time on both sites. (He found a patch on Dell's Web site but then had to go to Intel's site for the most updated one.)

"Users have to be pretty savvy and be able to navigate various manufacturing sites to track down drivers to support this stuff," he says. Because Microsoft does not control the hardware its software runs on, figuring out which drivers will work with any given configuration is what makes Windows harder than Apple to use, he adds. In the corporate setting, systems administrators do most of this searching — part of what gives Windows its reputation for being time-consuming to manage.

By contrast, Halamka continues, because Apple governs much of the hardware and the software in the Macintosh world, Apple can preconfigure its machines with all the proper drivers installed.

One of Halamka's major criticisms of Microsoft has been that its products are overburdened with features, and that this complexity leads to bugs and security vulnerabilities. In particular, he finds Internet Explorer "so slow and bloated" and vulnerable to viruses and spyware that he made Firefox the default browser on his Dell. "Firefox is smaller than an IE service pack. [And] it doesn't bother me with security warnings." The reason is that Firefox doesn't support Active X controls (code that lets Web applications share information with each other, and which can introduce security vulnerabilities). "So all the security holes that are a huge burden when you use IE don't exist in Firefox," he says. Although he acknowledges that Firefox is not problem-free, he says its vulnerabilities are far fewer and less severe than IE's.

Workarounds: Halamka made two decisions that helped him prevent annoying operating system and application slowdowns, lock-ups and interruptions that cramp his computing style.

Having used XP since 2002, he's noticed that the more applications he installs, the slower and more unstable the operating system becomes. So to keep it in tip-top shape, he's keeping his software stack simple. He vowed to install as few additional applications as possible and to install only Microsoft manufactured and branded software at that (except for Firefox).

The other action he took was to create two separate log-ins: one with administrator privileges, which he would use on the rare occasions when he wants to install new software, and one with no administrator privileges, which he uses on a daily basis. The latter prevents Web sites he visits from downloading Active X controls. Halamka says these Active X controls, in addition to creating security holes, can introduce the software conflicts and hardware incompatibilities that cause crashes and slowdowns. The user-only log-in also prevents his computer from automatically downloading software updates from Microsoft at inopportune moments, like during presentations.

By taking those steps, Halamka says he's achieved "a version of XP that actually hasn't crashed in 30 days. As long as I keep [the OS] in that totally static state, it'll be OK."

Conclusion: Halamka says it's possible to run a secure, stable and reliable version of Windows provided you configure XP properly and don't make any changes to it. "If you give yourself system administrator privileges and you install software and serve a lot of Web sites, the likelihood that the OS will be corrupted is high. You can prevent yourself from getting hurt, but you have to have a really locked down environment," he says.

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