This article is not meant for highly technical people so we may bend historical facts here to make life simple. Please do email us if you feel strongly about anything in this article though, we love to hear from our readers!
Windows has the lion's share of the desktop market, of that there is no argument. Windows' current incarnation is XP, either the Home or Professional version. Windows XP Pro comes with a few extra functions such as Remote Desktop capabilities, Multi-processor support and has more security (encryption) options and networking and network management capabilities. For the average small business user these should not be required and a copy of the cheaper XP Home should be more than sufficient.
One of the main reasons for Microsoft (MS) holding the lion's share of the market are two fold, firstly they were there first (well sort of, no emails please) to produce a system that business adopted at any rate. The embedding of their office productivity suite, aptly titled 'Office' has also helped maintain their position.
As so many businesses use MS as their desktop operating system and their staff use MS Office to write letters and documents (MS Word), build spreadsheets (MS Excel) and make presentations (MS PowerPoint) then other businesses wanting easy access to view these files tended to want to be compatible so bought into the most used system. It just worked out that this was Microsoft and so gave them dominance in the market place, which has endured.
You will find most off-the-shelf PCs come bundled with Windows pre-installed so if you are buying a new system then it may be that the choice of operating system has already been made for you. When comparing pre-built PCs though do remember to check whether they come with an operating system installed as this can make a difference to the end price and there is nothing worse than unpacking a new PC only to turn it on and find nothing happens...
The Apple Mac has been around nearly as long as Microsoft but did not manage to grab the large market share for various reasons. Macs have developed at the same speed as MS operating systems and the Mac OS is now at version 10, and was therefore dubbed OSX by its creators.
MS Office is available for the Mac so choosing to use a Mac over a PC running XP will not mean you will not be able to open files produced in MS Office applications as long as you have Office for Mac installed on your machine.
Up until very recently the development line of the Mac used its own hardware which meant that the Mac operating system would only run on Mac built computers. This meant that you could not buy your own components and build a Mac yourself, you had to buy the whole kit and caboodle from Apple, the hardware, monitor and Operating System all in one package.
Due to this, part of Apple's appeal was that they always produced computers that looked nice and were usually very stable. For designers and musicians the Mac became the computer of choice as the designs of their computers were aesthetically pleasing and the close tie between hardware and Operating System meant that Mac users did not experience as many conflicts and problems as PC users. With PCs there were so many components made by third parties which lead to a huge number of combinations of hard and software which often lead to crashes and problems in early PCs.
Recently Apple made the decision to start using hardware in their systems that was compatible with standard PCs, this has meant that XP can be run on Mac hardware and also that the Mac OS can be run on standard PC hardware. It is now possible for PC users to try the Mac OS without having to buy their sometimes expensive hardware and likewise it is also possible for Windows users to change to Mac and still be able to install XP on their Mac to make use of programs that are not available on the Mac platform.
There has never been a better time to try the Mac OS!
The last bastion of the bearded and sandaled extreme techie, up until recently the Linux platform has been used almost solely by highly technical people due to the difficulties in installing and setting up a desktop environment using Linux.
Couple this with the fact that there is no single Linux choice and this provides simply too complex a decision for the vast majority of computer users and the Linux desktop PC was rarely the choice for the home user.
There was (and still is) a bewildering choice of Linux Operating Systems (called distros) that vied for attention, Red Hat, SUSE, Mandrake, Debian and more - how was a lowly end user supposed to spend the time deciding which distro was best and then take the time to install it on their PC? As already stated, PC components are made by a huge variety of companies, each component needing specific code to make it work in the Operating System installed on the computer. This was (and still is to a certain extent) the failing point of Linux being taken up by the main stream.
The initial installation of Linux has almost always been tricky with some manual configuration being needed to get PC hardware to work correctly - a nightmare for home users who just want to plug in and go.
Linux is maturing rapidly though, recent distributions of Fedora (an offshoot of Red Hat), Ubuntu (a Debian derivative) and SUSE are easy to install, have support for a huge range of hardware and also have great online communities who are willing to help out with any problems encountered in setting up or running these Operating Systems.
This ease of installation and wide support, coupled with the fact that the Operating System is free and much of the software available can also be found for free, means that Linux usage by the mainstream is growing rapidly.
There is no version of MS Office for Linux but a free alternative that lets you view and save files in MS Office format means that you can still run a Linux PC and not block yourself off from the corporate bodies who seemed locked into MS usage. This suite of programs is Open Office (http://www.openoffice.org/) and it is available for Windows as well as Linux. It does not have all of the functionality of the MS Office programs but like the Linux operating systems it is maturing quickly and it does provide an excellent alternative for those who want to move away from XP.
If you really cannot do without Outlook and advanced functions within MS Office it can be set up on Linux, http://www.codeweavers.com/ - CrossOver Office allows Windows applications (MS Office, Photoshop and more) to be run under Linux. CrossOver Office exists due to the WINE project (http://www.winehq.org/) - there really is little reason to pay for a Windows licence any more.
If the above has got you eager to try another operating system but you are not yet ready to blow away your old set up then a relatively recent phenomenon, Virtual Computers, could be just the job!
Virtual computers run under software on your main operating system. If you run Windows XP you can buy software that allows other operating systems to be installed inside Windows, so while you would have Windows running you could also start up a Linux Desktop environment or now, thanks to the x86 version of Mac OS X, an Mac environment!
The main vendor of this Virtual OS software is VMWare - http://www.vmware.com/. Microsoft did have their own product, Virtual PC, but this was recently discontinued.
Not only does this allow you to try your hand at new operating systems it is also an idea to install another copy of your usual operating system and when installing new software or trying new things you can use a Virtual copy of your OS just in case things do not go to plan.
You will need a fairly powerful computer to run multiple Operating Systems on one PC, we recommend a recent processor and as much RAM as possible.