This article will not attempt to advocate the use of Linux over Windows or vice versa. I will try to present the differences and similarities between Linux and Windows in a fair manner.
Both Linux and Windows (2000, NT, XP, Vista) are operating systems. Linux was inspired from Unix, while Windows was inspired from VMS.
While no single company "owns" Linux, Windows is owned by Microsoft. Various distributions (often referred to as "distros") of Linux come from different companies (eg Red Hat, Novell SuSE, Mandrake etc.), while all Windows flavors (95, 98, 2000, XP, Vista) come from Microsoft.
Both Linux and Windows come in Desktop and Server editions.
As far as cost is concerned, Linux is very cheap or free. I used the word "very cheap" for enterprise users. While anybody can download, install and use Linux, the distribution companies usually charge for technical support.
Windows is expensive. You first pay for the copy of the software and then again for the technical support if you ever want it.
There is another catch though; Windows enforces you to use a single copy on a single computer. This is not the case with Linux though, once you purchase Linux, you can run it on an unlimited number of computers.
Both Windows and Linux are GUI based operating systems.
I'm afraid but, Windows has better GUI than Linux and it will get far better with the upcoming Windows Vista release. Linux has two GUIs: Gnome and KDE. Linux is fast catching up and is evolving from a server operating system to a desktop operating system.
Both Windows and Linux comes with command line interface. Windows calls it the "DOS prompt", while Linux refers to it as the "shell". Linux's shell is far more superior than Window's DOS prompt. It can do a whole lot of things that are not possible in Windows. Linux support various command line shells such as BASH, Bourne, Korn, C shell and many other.
Third Party Application Software Availability:
Both Windows and Linux run third-party applications. Windows, compared to Linux, has far greater number of third party applications available for use. A program written for Windows will not run under Linux (although it can be made to emulate, but it will be very annoying and hence not recommened).
Linux's application base is, however, increasing threefold. On a more close examination, the average computer user uses the following applications 90% of the time: Word Processor (Office suite), E-mail client, Web browser, Media software, and Instant Messenger. Linux has all these applications and in fact has many flavors for each.
Like Linux, all third party applications are very cheap or free. Whereas, Windows applications can cost a leg and a limb.
Simply put it this way, Windows is not secure. If you are using Windows and don't have Antivirus, Anti Spyware, and firewall (memory and resource eating applications), your computer can get affected by a virus in less than 10 minutes. I remember restoring a fresh copy of Windows XP on my Toshiba A40 notebook. I was browsing the Internet with Microsoft Internet Explorer and my machine got infected with loads of spyware in less than 15 minutes!
Microsoft came up with Firewall and Anti Spyware products, but these programs run in the background and eat up your computer's precious memory.
Linux, on the other hand, doesn't have these issues. I'm not aware of any spywares for Linux. One can safely run a Linux distro without ever worrying about installing Anitvirus or Anti-Spywares.
Windows also has more security flaws than Linux. By security flaw, I mean a hacker can compromise the Windows operating system and break into your machine and destroy your files. But, flaws on Windows are quickly fixed and patches are often made available almost instantly after the flaw is reported.
Windows was originally designed for Intel based machines. Earlier version of Windows NT also ran on RISC and Alpha architectures, but not anymore.
Linux run on a wide variety of hardware. And can support some very old legacy hardware. I've seen a Linux distro running on a 486 based machine.
As one author once said, "Windows is a bag of drivers". I think that is quite true. Installing a new hardware device is a piece of cake in Windows, whereas it can be a nuisance on Linux especially for average Joe. I can't in my wildest dreams imagine my dad installing a sound card successfully in Linux.
Things however will not stay the same for long. Manufacturers are also offering Linux drivers for their hardware, which will simplify the process.
Linux beats Windows bad in this area. Windows was never designed for the Internet. Unix, on which Linux is based, was designed for Internet (or Network) and is far more efficient compared to Windows. A senior Network Administrator working for a Fortune-500 company, recently pointed to me that if we monitor the traffic between exchange Windows based Exchange Server and Client, we can see that hundreds of packets are going to and from even when both are idle. He said that such is not the case with Linux.
However, our average Joe will never see or feel any difference. Windows Internet is good enough for him.
Windows Vista will use a new file system called WinFS. Earlier version used FAT (FAT16 and FAT32) and NTFS file systems, with NTFS being the preferred choice. Linux supports ext2 and ext3 file systems.
FAT file systems were mediocre, but NTFS can be compared with the Linux file systems.
Both file systems allows us to create directories, sub directories and file. Linux file systems are case-sensitive whereas, NTFS is not.
Normally, Linux systems cannot access NTFS file systems, but with the help of add-on software, it can.
Help and Documentation:
Linux help and documentation is quite good, accurate and to the point compared.
I've been using Windows for well over 8 years now. Frankly speaking, I hardly ever checked the accompanying documentation or the help file because everything is so simple that nobody needs to venture in the help file.
What should I buy?
OK. Truth hurts, but let it be. If you are average Joe, that extra $ 300 on Windows are worth spending. If you are looking an OS for your server, never even think about Windows. Buy Linux.