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In the commercial world, Windows utterly dominates. As of time of writing its market share is somewhere around 85%.

I don't have similar statistics for academia, but my personal observation is that most professors seem to prefer Macs, especially on personal devices. Linux is also a lot more common than in the public at large. Windows computers are still around, but much less common - maybe around 1/3 of computers run Windows, a substantial fraction of which seem to be because they're preinstalled with Windows.

Why the preference for Macs / Linux?

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – eykanal May 16 at 14:10
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    Do not forget about an important fact: historical reasons. Windows got a huge market share because of great marketing and allowing personal computers. It was never a good operating system, but a somewhat accessible and well advertised one. Loosing market share in this domain seems hard. – Mayou36 May 17 at 8:11
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    After all, nothing screams "serious and professional" like an OS that comes with Candy Crush ads in the main system menu. – Federico Poloni May 17 at 11:28
  • Is there a missing word before "academics" in the question, or is this another one of these "humanities don't count as academia" things? – Yemon Choi May 17 at 20:40
  • @YemonChoi I prefer to call it one of those "the OP is unaware humanities professors don't use Macs/Linux" things. – Allure May 17 at 20:52

10 Answers 10

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It's not entirely accurate to state that Windows 'dominates' in the commercial world. While this is generally accurate in Desktop and Laptop computers, keep in mind that the vast majority of web (and other) servers are Linux-based. Keep in mind that 100% of the TOP500, a list of the 500 most powerful computer systems in the world, are on Linux. Keep in mind that Linux, especially if you include Android, is almost definitely the most prevalent operating system (kernel) in the world in terms of number of devices.

A lot of academic institutions, especially in more computing-related fields, are big supports of open-source/FLOSS communities, and Linux is obviously a very big underlying part of such communities.

And, most key in my experience, for academic/scientific environments, Mac and Linux have enormous computational advantages over Windows - the underlying Unix architecture model and the inherent support of very useful shells like bash, very useful device handles (eg. /dev/random, or device IO handles), etc. These things make the development of custom code, especially for scientific, computational, or instrument-interactive purposes, a lot easier than on Windows.

Even if you're not using custom code, I'd venture to guess that absolutely any computing cluster worth its salt is being run on some kind of Linux. If you want to just use that cluster, it's far less hassle to SSH in with a Mac or Linux computer with SSH built-in, than having to use something like Putty and fiddle around on Windows.

In all, science is very heavily dependent on computing. And high-level computing is very dependent on Linux. In my view this is the biggest reason that very compatible Unix-like systems like Mac and Linux are far more prevalent.

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    I wouldn't call those computational advantages; rather convenience ones. – Federico Poloni May 15 at 8:24
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    Why Mac, though, and not Linux? I don't think more than 10% of university student Mac users have ever opened a terminal window, let alone an SSH session. – henning -- reinstate Monica May 15 at 8:31
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    @henning OSX currently still fills a niche with enough commercial support for arbitrary "you must use Adobe Acrobat to fill in this form" from (windows using) administration, while being *nix enough for library support. With the move to browser/cloud based software for admin, and the Windows linux subsystem this gap is closing, but there's still inertia. – origimbo May 15 at 9:59
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    Answer also doesn't mention that academics are far more likely to be doing software development that typical users, and developing software on Windows is an exercise in masochism compared to Unix-base OSs like Linux and Mac OS. Unix was designed for software development from day one, and it shows. – Lee Daniel Crocker May 16 at 19:31
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    @user541396 Free/Libre Open Source Software. – TRiG May 17 at 17:29
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It's not just Linux and macOS, it's UNIX (and derivatives) in general. There are a lot of reasons, but a few things worth noting that might not have been covered yet:

  • BSD (incl. the BSD Sockets API), was originally developed at University of California, Berkeley. BSD subsystems are utilized by macOS, Darwin, FreeBSD, OpenBSD, et al.
  • GNU (typically utilized by most Linux systems) is also heavily rooted in academia. Founder Richard Stallman has something like 20 honorary doctorates and professorships.
  • Mach (utilized by macOS, iOS, XNU, Darwin, GNU Mach, Hurd, et al.) was originally developed at Carnegie Mellon University.
  • Non-proprietary, free and open-source systems, software, projects, etc. (like Linux) aren't funded by high volume sales (like Microsoft Windows), so their development largely depends on contributions of knowledge and labour from postgrad research teams, and the academic & intellectual communities at large.
  • These kinds of operating systems are particularly well suited for distributed & parallel computing, supercomputing, rapid development, prototyping, experimentation, computer science, and science & engineering in general. When people accustomed to well-funded, proprietary products like macOS and Windows10 (i.e. most people) try a Linux distribution for the first time, often their first impression is that it's ugly, unpolished, even "un-finished" or incomplete — like it's still in development.

And they're not wrong. It's constantly being developed, and kind of open-ended; you can add or remove anything you don't need or want. You can adapt it to your needs or to suit any specific purpose, and you're not stuck managing a giant, stubborn monolith that forces you to adapt to it, instead of the other way around. It's kind of like leasing a mansion vs owning & living in a workshop; they're suited to different purposes.
Academics often choose macOS when they're looking for a bit of a compromise between the dichotomy. It's nice and clean, and simple, and easy, and uniform, and respectable, so you can bring your mom or your girlfriend or your grandma, but you can peel back the shiny stuff anytime you want to get back to work in that familiar UNIX-style environment.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – eykanal May 16 at 19:31
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Windows reboots itself without permission. This is very inconvenient if your computer is doing something at the time. Mac/Linux do not have this problem, so they are preferred.

Some specialised hardware only comes with Windows drivers. Hence Windows is required. Occasionaly hardware requires a different operating system.

In practice I use all three.

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    "Windows reboots itself without permission" Pretty sure you can fix this by editing your registry values. – nick012000 May 16 at 4:13
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    @nick012000 Sure, but you need to first know to expect it, preferably before you loose a couple of weeks of computations, then actually know what to change and where, which in itself can change from time to time, and then actually do it. If you a large number of computers, then also do it for every computer. On top of that, there might be issues fighting the local IT department, especially if it's understaffed and overworked and has issues collaborating with the research department (in one pathological case, I've even had 1 IT guy servicing more than 500 constantly broken computers). – AndrejaKo May 16 at 6:17
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    @nick012000 Please send me directions that are compatible with my university's IT policy. I've tried many times. – Anonymous Physicist May 16 at 10:23
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    @nick012000 I did that already. To be honest I think you are wrong. – Anonymous Physicist May 16 at 11:06
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    @AnonymousPhysicist With that said, I run a factory 24/7 full of machines that have windows-based control systems and HMIs. I can guarantee you that our factory doesn't randomly reboot itself into oblivion. – J... May 16 at 19:07
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In the commercial world, Windows utterly dominates.

If you're referring to researchers in a commercial setting - that's really not the case, or at least - you don't have any evidence to support this. In my experience, research staff at commercial outfits also tends to prefer Unix-based operating systems.

I would say the reason is that these systems are a lot more inviting and amenable to software development, this has at least the following consequences:

  • A lot more variety of niche applications, libraries and tools which researchers need to use or just find useful.
  • More amenable to customization, modification and adaptation - which researchers are more likely to want to do.
  • Easier for a researcher him/herself to code something.

Also, GNU/Linux is free and you can just copy it - and (almost) all software you can get on Linux; with Windows, not only do these things cost money - in an organizational setting at least - but they require the hassle of managing licenses. Ugh.

I don't have similar statistics for academia, but my personal observation is that most professors seem to prefer Macs, especially on personal devices.

Maybe that's true in the US, and even there I wouldn't be sure. Anyway, I would speculate that is more of a combination of vanity/fashionability, and the fact that Macs have very good hardware and well-put-together desktop environments with few bugs and usability issues. But - they are also quite expensive, so it's more likely for richer people to have them.

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    If you're referring to researchers in a commercial setting - that's really not the case — In particular, it's quite common to see researchers from Microsoft Research at conferences, giving talks that were clearly developed using the beamer LaTeX class, from their MacBook Pros. – JeffE May 16 at 7:06
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    It may be relevant that they are using LaTeX rather than PowerPoint because that choice suggests an understanding of the role of software that differs from the one the Windows cultivates. – dmckee May 16 at 15:59
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    @dmckee: TBH, if PowerPoint had some stable structural representation of content and slightly-better support for math, a lot fewer people would have been bothered with the warts of LaTeX. – einpoklum - reinstate Monica May 16 at 16:51
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    On the other hand, if LaTeX had a reasonable visual user interface, a lot fewer people would bother with the warts of PowerPoint! – JeffE May 17 at 8:45
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    @J...: This was partially true 20 years ago, mostly untrue 10 years ago, and really untrue today - unless you want to do custom software development. And when you do want to do that, the barrel of headaches is still smaller on Unix-based machines than on Windows. The only counter-case is developing software wholly within Microsoft's own ecosystem. – einpoklum - reinstate Monica May 17 at 16:24
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I would characterize the ostensible preference for Windows outside of academia as mainly inertia.

In corporate environments, the choice of OS is often dictated by application compatibility. If you have a corporate intranet which was designed to only work on Internet Explorer, you are stuck on Windows for practical reasons -- replacing it would be an expensive undertaking and bring little value, so you just live with the consequences of that previous decision.

Of course, that's just an example -- more common is probably the use of an array of enterprise applications which were designed for Windows, or work better on Windows.

Add to this the cost of hardware and compatibility concerns. From a cost-of-ownership perspective, the availability of commodity hardware with supported drivers is still a strong selling point for Windows, coupled with the fact that this is what you can expect current and future employees to be comfortable with.

Microsoft has some propaganda which attempts to argue that the TCO (Total Cost of Ownership) is favorable on Windows, but I find these claims dubious at best; and certainly, if you factor in user satisfaction, many users who have a say in how their hardware budget is spent definitely swing the other way.

Ultimately, for many users, the deciding factor is whether they need strict Office compatibility or not in their day-to-day work. If your organization heavily uses one or more of the Microsoft so-called productivity apps, the free offerings are often unacceptable, even if they nominally manage to open and save files in these formats.

Where these popular applications are not crucial, it seems that you can be more productive if you can avoid them.

In academia, then, central use cases outside of proper research are article composition and review (where typically popular word processors are less than ideal, and some disciplines heavily favor e.g. TeX), email, and web-oriented activities, where fortunately free and open source offerings are generally roughly on par with commercial alternatives. Whether you then prefer (or can afford) Mac or Linux is down to personal preference and budget.

Finally, of course, you might have an important research application which happens to be primarily targeted for Linux platforms (or occasionally, as the case may be, Mac, though this is probably no longer very common).

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    It's incorrect to call this inertia. The issue is not just Office (useable free versions do exist, even if their quality is not always great), but all the other applications that people use to do their jobs. Your claim about use cases is simply wrong, unless by "academia" you only mean "arts". Those applications are nearly always Windows-based, so it's a Betamax problem - however good your platform is, people care about actually using it, not about the platform. – Graham May 16 at 10:04
  • @Graham I really don't understand your objection. What are all the other applications and why is this more pertinent to arts disciplines? In fact I was very much thinking about various STEM fields where a lot of experiments etc more or less require Linux for analysis etc; though of course there is also a lot of legacy lab equipment which will only work with Windows drivers etc. – tripleee May 17 at 6:44
  • And the Betamax analogy is tenuous at best - the reason VHS won in spite of its flaws was because it became more popular; but I'm arguing that this is different: as long as you can do the things you want to do, you don't really care if your chosen platform is popular or not. Open or at least reasonably portable file formats help here - even if you prefer WordPerfect 4.x or WriteNow you can send things to people as PDF and they don't need to know how the document was produced. – tripleee May 17 at 6:44
  • I meant that it's only arts disciplines where your primary use cases are web browsing and document creation. I'm an engineer, and I literally can't count the number of other applications I and my colleagues use on a daily basis. Some are cross-platform, but many aren't - SolidWorks, for example. Outside of a narrow techie group, people don't care about whether they're using Windows or not, they care about being able to easily do what they need for their work, and their use cases are much wider. – Graham May 17 at 7:17
  • Well yes, of course there are disciplines or departments - in Arts too - where local conditions force your hand one way or the other. Then of course the question at the top of this page is moot, though the last paragraph in my answer specifically discusses this case. – tripleee May 17 at 7:19
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In my experience, younger people go for flashy, fashionable, stuff. Macs certainly fit the bill there, and Apple marketing specifically on that, turning their products into fashion items, does a lot for that.

Older people in sysadmin jobs often are almost religiously fanatical about their support for Linux. This they picked up 15-20 years ago during the operating system wars, and has little basis in reality but it sticks to this date. That's not to say there are good reasons to use Linux on occasion, but it's certainly not the one size fits all perfect solution these people think and claim (and push on those who depend on them for their computer hardware and software support). This causes a prevalence of Linux workstations in places where these people end up in the IT departments, which happens to be more likely universities than companies by now as most companies prefer more pragmatic employees.

Personally, I use both Macs, Windows machines, and Linux machines, the latter mostly (almost exclusively) as servers. In the server world transitioning from HP, Sun, and IBM (among other) Unix platforms to Linux based ones is a major cost saving while retaining a Unix style platform, easing transition. Which is the original reason most servers now run Linux. On workstations, it's a much more personal preference thing (myself, I consider Linux to be clunky still on the desktop, though less so than in the past) and there are religious fanatics supporting different operating systems. In academia those gravitate towards Linux, in the graphics industry towards Macs, and what few there are left in industry usually towards Windows (after the demise of OS/2, which had its own fanatical fanbase in the 1990s).

In the corporate world, many companies default to Windows because it's easy to use for the end user and Microsoft has a pretty good support infrastructure, giving you a single place for all your problems if you can't solve them yourself.

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    Windows 10 + WSL2 crushes vanilla Linux in terms of capability, I feel sorry for all the people still struggling to get audio and power management to work properly with Linux on their laptops... I have been using Linux professionally since the mid-90s but there is no doubt that Windows is superior now – Gaius May 16 at 5:22
  • @Gaius I agree, but didn't want to ignite a discussion on the comparative merits of operating systems and thus kept things neutral :) – jwenting May 22 at 4:20
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While @tjt263's answer sums up most reasons I specifically want to point out that this seems to be the case in STEM related fields. I work in a STEM working group as well and this is definitely the case here. In my brothers group, which is civil engineering, they all use windows. My girlfriend works in a group related to humanity science and they all use windows.

The biggest reason for Linux I observed is: It is just simpler. My group is related to machine learning, deep learning, computer vision, etc...sometimes it seems almost everyone in this field is producing "throw away code". Just publish a paper and that's it for the code. Since there is no end product involved, it does not matter if it runs only on this machine or more general, only on linux. So most people just use Linux because the libraries they need can be installed via simple command in the command line, they do not even care(or know) where it is installed...it just works.

Also you have to keep in mind that Linux is free while Windows is not.

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I am an academic and have more than 10 years of experience in the academia, including my doctoral studies.

I use Windows as the main operating system because most programs are made for Windows and because of subjective preferences.

Within Windows, I use a Linux virtual machine (VM) to run scientific software that is only or mainly developed to run on Linux. Linux also has a powerful command line and scripting, with which amazing things can be done. Additionally, many computing clusters run Linux, and they are useful for large calculations.

I used Mac in the past but now don't see any advantages in doing so over my current combined Windows/Linux setup.

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I am a Mac user at client side but my scripts run on Linux based server. Because the way of work is similar I don’t need to learn double logic. I try to avoid Windows as much as possible.

My main reasons for Linux: - free, available to anyone at any time; this enables free research, free science, free development, free sharing - many free and open source projects shared by universities - open, yes - you can adjust or create your own Linux if you need something special, or find out how things are made if something doesn’t work as expected - scalable, secure, social

My main reason for Macs: - user friendly (for Mac users haha) - hardware and operating system tuned to work together which results in more effectivity, efficiency and less failure; many startups and edu decide for Macs because in total it is less expensive than Windows based systems in a period of 3-5 years even the purchasing cost is higher - easy to port linux stuff to MacOS and get benefits from Linux - secure, stable, beautiful

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    I'm always amused by Linux "stability". Yes, as a server it's rock solid. But then add a desktop environment and associated apps, and watch it die. As a user of both Windows and Linux, I see no evidence of the Linux desktop and Linux apps being any more robust than Windows. – Graham May 16 at 10:04
  • I'm a Mac user for these reasons too, but also because: The expected lifetime of my Windows laptops (Dell, Toshiba, Sony, Lenovo, IBM, HP, Acer, for the brands I recall) was about 2 years (and even less in rare cases). My Macbook Air and Macbook Pro about 4 years. – PatrickT May 16 at 15:28
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    My experience with inexpensive windows laptops is also that a twoish year lifetime is expected. But I have colleagues who don't buy from the bottom of the line and they get lifetimes similar to those I experience with my macs. Which is great, but it also take price out of the decision because those durable windows laptops have very similar costs to a macbook. – dmckee May 16 at 16:25
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    I'm still more than happy with my 6 year old refurbished x230 ThinkPad with FreeBSD and a replaceable battery. I've used Macs for 15 years, but the hardware is no longer good value for money. – henning -- reinstate Monica May 16 at 22:28
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There is a lot of talk here on software availability. Let's talk about software developing. The whole thing is quite multifaceted though.

While Windows has a quite dominant share in applications, for a long time it was harder / more costly to start writing software for Windows. Nowadays the cost / availability factor is quite relaxed. However, some architectural obstacles remain. It is just easier to obtain and use (open source) libraries under a UNIX-like system, which both Mac OS X and Linux are.

Linux strives from the controllability of everything, the typical young adult rebellion, and from experienced people on the server side. Macs have the image of "just working", even if it's deteriorating. However, from the developer's view it's much easier to make a typical programmer's workhorse from a Mac than from a Windows machine. There are not many more extra steps than with Linux.

With Macs, the looks, the availability of drivers (like, 10 years ago there was a real driver hunt under Linux, if you wanted to support, say, both sound and suspend mode in your laptop), combined with relative ease of programming usage speak for them.

Of course, there are some special software products that work only with Windows or even rather on Linux and nowhere else. So, some times you need to adapt. This seems to be rather field-specific.

Next point: Apple has screwed up many things, but the beamer presentation works flawlessly–if you still have your adapter. I have seen many academics struggling with their Windows and Linux laptops at conferences.

Surprisingly, cost is a lesser factor. But if you compare a sanely configured Mac with a proper business notebook (say, by Dell), the difference is low.

A further point: telemetry and better CUDA run times under Linux. I know multiple people (including myself) who switched to Linux on their workstations in the middle of Windows 10 heist.


tl;dr: Programmer often prefer UNIX-like systems, performance, eye candy, proper image, and similar prices for durable hardware round up the deal.

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