A Reflection on Operating Systems


macOS. Windows. Linux. It's all bad.

Clickybaity line aside, it's worth digging into the "Big Three" when it comes to operating systems. Over the years I've used them in various forms and versions, on personal desktops, production servers, work laptops, and so on. I've seen both the good and the bad for most of the operating system choices discussed, but I will in no way claim to be an expert. Before going any further, it's worth doing a quick rundown of Linux distributions I've used.

  • Ubuntu (various versions over the years)

  • Arch Linux (A favourite of mine)

  • GNU Guix

  • NixOS

  • Various Ubuntu-based distributions

Specific versions aside, I've been able to watch Linux distros evolve over the past ~9 years. Along the way I've used Windows 7/8/8.1/10/11 (Vista is in there somewhere, but my memory is fuzzy), and macOS/OSX versions.

All these choices have various upsides and downsides. This particular post is motivated by a recent change in my life; after years(ish) of running Linux on my desktop, stubbornly refusing to install Windows, I finally did it. I switch to an operating system that makes me feel less in control of my desktop. An operating system with very strange bugs that should not exist (like snipping tool breaking due to an expired certificate). An operating system that just does its own thing, and is still incredibly expensive.

Gripes about Windows aside, the change I made was mostly for reasons related to gaming. Gaming on Linux has come a long way, to the point it was almost second nature to be playing relatively recent AAA games on it. There was also a sense of trying to wrestle Linux - towards the end of my journey I was using NixOS, which is an excellent declarative operating system that I've covered before. While the package repository it offers is very complete, there were a few instances where I found myself needing to reach for the unstable package repository, or debating whether to write my own Nix packages, or diving into long GitHub discussions about a specific issue. I found myself with little energy to actually persue these things, with my job as a Software Development Engineer sucking up what motivation/eagerness I had to deal with technical issues. How I ended up on NixOS is detailed on the aforelinked (that's not a word, but work with me on this) blog post, with did not help with my frustrations with Linux on the desktop. Eventually this built up into a crescendo of the Windows 11 install screen and self loathing.

I'm not proud of this move, nor particularly happy, but at the very least WSL has come a long way from the initial versions, now supporting fancy things like GUI apps (I'm currently typing this in emacs running in WSL, which is still a bit weird to me).

#+ATTR_HTML :title emacs on Windows in WSL :alt emacs gui running from WSL file:https://cdn.gabrielsimmer.com/images/emacs-on-windows.png

Jetbrains editors also have okay support for WSL, so it's feasible to do what little personal development I do these days in a mostly complete Linux environment.

macOS isn't something I feel neccesary to touch on here since it's a fairly personal post about my journey, but for the sake of completion it's worth mentioning it's been my main work OS and I do have my share of complaints about it. Primarily, window management is very cumbersome without a third party application. While I haven't run a tiling window manager in a while, I do like having the option of arranging my windows in that way. I've opted for Rectangle, which works well enough that I an satisfied and not wrestling the urge to buy an application.

It may seem that the summary is that macOS has the fewest problems, but it does still suffer from being the most locked down of the three choices (I know Linux is a kernel, not an operating system itself, but most Linux based operating systems are pretty similar and covering them under "Linux" is just easier). I'm not neccesarily worried that Apple is going to kill the ability to install third party applications on their desktop and laptop platforms, since those are a mainstay of those platforms, but every so often I do wonder what that could look like. Windows is an "okay" middleground of "flexible enough to do everything" and "closed enough that I don't have to spend too much time DIYing solutions". When you run into problems on Windows, you'll have to wrestle for control to maybe fix it, but it may be possible. On macOS, good luck - you're at the mercy of Apple's priorities and a reinstall may be in your future. On Linux? It's a 50/50 chance of that issue being totally unique to your hardware and/or software combination - good luck (but at least you have the opportunity of fixing it yourself and contributing to the community).

Overall I do want to return to Linux. But given my recent frustrations with it, I'm going to hold off until I'm either in a position or mindset to contribute properly. Linux has a long way to go on desktop, but I desperately want it to succeed. The sooner we stop relying on closed platforms the better (we just need to sort out the UI/UX crisis for FOSS). For the time being, I'm going to explore Windows 11 and what it offers for developers, and keep trucking along with macOS as a work environment as long as my employers offer it.