Choosing the right operating system for your PC. (personal computer)(includes related article and summary of operating systems)by Arkin, Howard
The microcomputing world of the '90s is more volatile than ever. Not only do we have choices on which hardware to buy (and the brands to choose from seem to be endless), but now we have to decide which operating system (OS) we are going to run on our computers. As the head of an MAS department, some of the most frequent questions I am asked include: "Should I be running Windows?" Or, "Is DOS going to be around for long? And what about Networks?"
If I were to tell you that I have the answer to the single OS that will take you well into the '90s, I would either have to be a fortune teller, a liar, or someone who has not witnessed the unpredictability of the world of computers in the last 20 years. But, what I do have are some suggestions to assist you in making an informed decision. I also have some hints for you on which way the industry seems to be going and how to decide on the best OS for your present and future needs.
WHY HAVE THE PLAYERS
In order to understand the reasons for all the seemingly new choices in OSs over the past few years, we must first examine the recent changes in personal computer (PC) hardware. Now a user can buy a desktop PC for about $2,200, which includes a 386-based processing chip that operates at 25 mhz, with 4 megabytes of RAM, (random access memory), and a 120 megabyte hard drive. These machines are faster and more powerful than the average mini-computers of the '70s. In order to make use of all the power that these low-priced machines contain, the OSs that run them must keep pace. PCs have power and potential that the old versions of DOS could never make use of, even Microsoft's latest release of DOS version 5.0 still does not utilize the full potential of today's equipment.
Now the desktop PC is no longer just for word processing and spreadsheets. These systems can be used as network servers and workstations for small work-groups and are able to run several applications at one time. DOS versions 3.3 and lower just weren't designed to make use of all this power.
WHAT ARE THE CHOICES?
We should begin with the birth of the perennial leader in PC operating systems, MS-DOS (developed by Microsoft). In the mid-'80s, there seemed to be only one clear choice when it came to installing an OS. The only question a vendor would ask was, "do you want me to burn DOS onto your hard drive?" Even after the introduction of Windows version 2.0-- Microsoft's entry into the graphical user interface (GUI) OS market--the only real choice was some version of DOS.
Enter the 386s. These machines were introduced at a relatively low cost compared to the current technology yet their power and flexibility are far beyond what most 8088 (the chip of the original IBM PC of ten years ago) users ever thought possible. All of a sudden people wanted systems that would allow them to run several applications at once. They wanted to be able to use a mouse instead of typing out commands, and why not have these powerful machines act like the CPUs of yesterday? And, let us not forget the very loyal Apple users who swear by the GUI and the icons that their Macs give them. Users were no longer satisfied with the old DOS: they needed an OS that would take full advantage of their hot new boxes.
Today, there are several contenders for the right to be your desktop computer's OS. These choices include DOS 4.01/5.0, Windows 3.0, Unix/Xenix, OS/2, and the network OSs (such as Novell Netware and 3Com+). This list is what I call, for lack of a better term, the "major" players in today's OSs. There are several other excellent choices, but it will be hard enough sifting through all the information on the major players.
AN OPERATING WHAT?
Before we sort through the specifics, let's define exactly what an OS is: it is a program that controls a computer and makes it possible for users to enter and run application programs. It also enables the computer to recognize and obey commands typed by the user. Actually, it is a very simple concept. In order for a computer to run programs such as Lotus 1-2-3 or WordPerfect, the computer must have a file organizer and manager to activate the hardware and to interpret the commands you give, so that the programs can understand and follow the commands.
So, what's the big deal? Wouldn't any OS pretty much do the same thing? Well, as we will see later, different OSs require different hardware, and the applications software must be specifically written to operate within a particular OS. And not all OSs have the same software, or as much software, written for it as does others.
Also, some OSs handle large volumes of data better than others. For example, I would not run a large sales/order entry under the Windows OS, just as I would not put a small advertising agency on an application running under OS/2. OSs must fit a user's needs, just as an application is designed to accomplish a particular objective.
HOW TO DECIDE WHICH
SYSTEM IS BEST
Just for the record, there is no one, all encompassing OS. Each of the OSs discussed have very useful and powerful tools for a given situation. You may be able to choose among several of the OSs, while others may have needs that require them to run more than one OS in their offices. The combination of choices are truly endless.
EENIE, MEENIE, MINEY, MO!
Let's try to choose between the available OSs. First, there is no one criteria you can use to select an OS. It would make everyone's life very easy if we could build a worksheet on an electronic spreadsheet in which we plug in the variables, and, bang, out comes the OS for you. Unfortunately, there are other issues that come into play. Some of the issues will be obvious, while others might be a little more ambiguous.
When looking at the major factors in the OS decision, it is important to remember that they do not carry equal weight. Each situation determines the weight of each factor. The only way to properly set priorities is to know the goals set for the new system. Once known, the priorities can be established to select an OS. So, on that note, let's get busy.
WHO'S ON FIRST?
The first thing I like to know when selecting an OS is how many users are going to be working on the system. Is this going to be a stand- alone PC? Are there going to be 10 people accessing the same data? Or, are there going to be 100+ users on the system, all accessing and editing the same data? If it was a single user system in the '80s, the system would have to have been DOS. But now that Windows has come on so strongly, users could probably choose between DOS and Windows. For multi-user systems, the options include a local area network (LAN), such as Novell, Bayan, Lantastistics, or running a Unix/Xenix OS. When using Novell, it is important to understand that even though Novell is the networking software, all the PCs (often referred to as nodes) on the network will be using a version of DOS as their OS.
WHAT IS BEING RUN?
It is impossible to select an OS based solely on the number of users, so the next determinant I like to use (and many times the most important) is the applications which are intended to be run on the system. Is the new system going to be used for accounting applications, inventory/order entry, designing or estimating, personal information management systems (referred to as PIMS), word processing, custom made dBase applications, or presentation oriented software?
Keeping the Books
After attending the last round of trade shows, and keeping up with all the trade publications, I think it is safe to say that when it comes to accounting functions, Windows is not the answer. GUI has not yet come to the world of debits and credits, and I think it will take some time until it does. The mere fact that people can input data much faster using a 10-key pad than they could ever input using a mouse would make it seem foolish to run an accounting application under Windows.
If there are fewer than 20 people working on the data, then there are two options. One is to install a LAN. This would allow everyone who has rights to access the data to work on the system, and to take advantage of the plethora of applications available for DOS based machines.
The other option is to install a Unix/Xenix system. Before we continue, let's get a little background on Unix/Xenix. Unix has been around as long as DOS. It is a true multi-user OS, meaning that the server (called a workstation) operates like a minicomputer. It handles all the processing at one central location, unlike the LANs, where all processing goes on at the node.
For example, if a Unix OS is used with a 20-user workgroup, only one microcomputer is needed; the rest of the terminals can be dumb terminals. The many advantages to using Unix include maintaining only one PC instead of having to keep each node up to date and operating efficiently. All the software maintenance is at the CPU. Another advantage to the Unix OS is the dollar savings. A dumb terminal costs about $300, instead of $1,800 for each node on a LAN.
One of the most significant advantages of Unix is the way it positions an organization for the future. Let me explain. The future of microcomputing may just lie with the new RISC (reduced instruction set computing) based systems. To fully discuss these new computers would take an entire article in itself. The OS that will run the RISC based machines will be some derivative of Unix. If a new computer system is currently running on Unix, then it will be that much easier to migrate software to the new hardware platform. RISC may not be the definitive approach of the future, but with companies like IBM, Apple, MicroSoft, and Compac committed to this new chip, it seems like it would be a good bet. One more quick note on RISC-based machines. When I say that it will be running a version of Unix, that does not mean that it will look exactly like the Unix of today. It probably will take on a whole new look and feel, making it much more user friendly, but it will still be the same Unix shell that operates the system.
When an executive's first PC is placed on the desk, one of the first applications that he or she wants to run is a personal information management system (PIMS). PIMS perform several helpful tasks, including organizing a hard drive, arranging an executive's busy day with a planner, providing names, addresses and phone numbers in an electronic phone book and even dialing the phone. These systems also allow the executive to keep notes on a computer to be accessed at a later date. There are PIMS that now run on both Windows and DOS.
The Windows version gives the user all the advantages of GUI, which is a natural for PIMS. They make an already user friendly system that much easier to operate. Today's DOS systems allow the user to use a mouse like the Windows versions, but lack the commands and interface features that Windows gives. Most systems (for Windows and DOS), when installed on a LAN, will also act as an electronic mail system (E-Mail). This gives executives all the power of the system, plus the added bonus of sending messages and notes to other employees.
The Ever Popular Word
Despite what most people think, LANs were not developed solely for word processing. Typically, the first application to run on a LAN is word processing, and why note? In the old days, secretaries would type a draft copy of a letter and then use white out for corrections. There was carbon paper for multiple copies, and lots of frustration caused by having to type documents over and over. Now, not only can a secretary type a document once, check it for spelling, and edit the mistakes, but also all the secretaries in the office can access the document, and make changes, as required. Word processing on a network is a natural.
Excellent word processors come in Windows, DOS, and Unix versions. For example, WordPerfect for Windows, now receiving rave reviews from almost all of its Beta test sites, should soon ship for mass distribution. So, if word processing is the most important application running in you office, then take your pick of OSs. The choice is yours.
Custom Database Applications
Database programs such as Paradox, RBase, and dBase allow users to program a system designed for a specific application. And, when it comes to a custom database application, there is only one OS, DOS. Because Windows is still a relatively young OS, mature, user friendly database systems have yet to be introduced for it. Relational databases are extremely user friendly and allow the relatively inexperienced programmer to generate custom applications quickly and efficiently. By using a database system, you are no longer stuck with off-the-shelf system that really don't fit a specific need.
To get the most out of these systems, many companies require more than one user to access the database at a time. When there is a need for several users to access a database, a LAN is the perfect solution.
When it comes to computer aided design (CAD), the clear choice seems to be Unix. Now, workstations have excellent monitors that give even the most advanced users the ability of getting the most out of the extensive CAD systems currently on the market. Along with the functionality of these systems, the falling prices of Unix workstations are making these systems available to a whole new set of users. Even though several CAD systems exist for both DOS and LANs, it seems that these programs fall far short of most users' needs. To most people's surprise, including my own, there are several CAD systems available for OS/2, and CAD for Windows cannot be far behind.
IS THERE TOO MUCH
Another important factor in the OS decision involving multiple users is how much data is involved. If the new system is going to handle an enormous amount of data and traffic, then it would make sense to go with Unix as opposed to a LAN, and breaking the system into several workgroups. When installing a system for a specific application, a file sizing chart (see the accompanying sidebar) should be filled out to see what hardware is needed. If there is too much traffic for a PC LAN to handle comfortably, then OS/2 might be considered. By using OS/2 on a PC, an IBM AS/400 minicomputer can be used as the storehouse for all the data, and OS/2 acts as the bridge between the PC and the microcomputer.
THE HIDDEN COSTS!
Another factor that goes into the OS decision chart is the dollars available for the hardware expenditure. It is very easy for Microsoft to tell us that Windows 3.0 can be bought for only $39.95. But no one tells you that you have to start souping up your PCs in order to run Windows. It starts with additional memory requirements. The days of 640k being ample memory are long gone. Now it takes about 4 megabytes, or more, to help Windows run fast enough for most users. Don't forget the color VGA monitors and VGA boards needed to get the most out of Windows, both of which are very expensive add-ons. There are also co- processors, accelerator boards, and on and on.
When thinking about an OS, make sure that all costs including software conversion, the cost of the OS itself, and any hardware upgrade needed have been taken into account. So, if an office has an extremely limited budget and needs a new system, Windows or OS/2 might not be the way to go. Both require more RAM, better monitors, and more speed than a computer that runs under DOS or Unix.
The next two factors are interrelated and very important. What is the knowledge of the everyday user of the system? And, what sort of in- house technical support will the new installation have?
If the person using the new system is a novice and has the usual fear of computers, then I would not recommend Unix. For a new user, a GUI interface is ideal. New users are usually more comfortable with the icons and mouse associated with Windows than they are with the keyboard. Windows gives people the ability to run most applications that function in DOS without ever having to touch a keyboard for other than the entry of data.
There are also many excellent menu systems that run under DOS that make the actual OS being used unimportant to the user. As a matter of fact, I would bet that if there was a poll taken of corporate employees using a menu system for DOS, most users would not know what OS they are actually running.
The final factor to consider is the degree of technical support within an organization. Some systems require more knowledge of computers than others. For example, it is fairly common for a novice to take a newly purchased PC, follow the "getting started" instructions, and effortlessly load DOS on the hard drive--I am sure it has been done millions of times. But this would not be true for all OSs. For example, I would be very wary of a new user installing Unix. Such an installation would require someone with a little more computer experience. Similarly, the installation and daily running of a LAN requires someone with more technical knowledge than a novice. Some vendors lead people to believe that a LAN runs itself. Well, tell that to someone the first time "NETWORK ERROR" appears on a node. If you have little knowledge of the world of PC OS, start slowly with DOS or Windows. Then, as you absorb all the information, you can later jump into a LAN or a Unix workgroup. On the other hand, if there is someone within your organization who is a whiz with PCs and is familiar with OSs, it should be safe to install a LAN or Unix system. Usually, someone already acquainted with an OS can learn how to handle a multi- user system with proper training.
WHAT SHOULD YOU MAKE OF
The main point that should be made is that there is no one OS that could possibly satisfy every company's needs, and there is no stock answer for which OS will not only be the best for you, but will also be around in the future. It is fairly safe to say that all OSs mentioned will be around for the next five to 10 years. Since DOS is the old standard for PCs, 70+ million users are not going to change their OS overnight. It also appears that the popularity of Windows and the growing availability of software will help it become another of Microsoft's major OSs. As for Unix, this could quite possibly be the DOS of the '90s. Even though Unix is as old, if not older, than DOS, it is just beginning to become more widely used for desktop PCs. Once the RISC based computers begin selling to the masses, and the software companies make Unix a little more user friendly, it will be the OS of both graphic oriented users and multi-user environments.
And now, with another earth-shattering development like Apple and IBM forming a partnership, the PC operating system world could be totally altered. What makes the computer world so interesting is that no one really knows!
Howard Arkin, CPA, is a manager in charge of MAS services for Martin Rosen & Co. He is a member of the NYSSCPA and the AICPA. Mr. Arkin is currently serving on the Management Services, Practice Administration & Structure Committee of the NYSSCPA. He has previously written for professional publications, including The CPA Journal.
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