By Woody Leonhard

Some people experiencing frustrations with Windows 10 wonder, do I have to run Windows on my PC? Here’s the short answer: You don’t have to run Windows on your PC. The PC you have is a dumb box. To get the dumb box to do anything worthwhile, you need a computer program that takes control of the PC and makes it do things, such as show web pages on the screen, respond to mouse clicks or taps, or print résumés. An operating system controls the dumb box and makes it do worthwhile things, in ways that mere humans can understand.

Without an operating system, the computer can sit in a corner and count to itself or put profound messages on the screen, such as Non-system disk or disk error or maybe Insert system disk and press any key when ready. If you want your computer to do more than that, though, you need an operating system.

Windows is not the only operating system in town. The other big contenders in the PC and PC-like operating system game are Chrome OS, macOS, and Linux:

  • ChromeOS: Cheap Chromebooks have long dominated the best-seller lists at many computer retailers, and for good reason. If you want to surf the web, work on email, compose simple documents, or do anything in a browser — which covers a whole lot of ground these days — ChromeOS is all you need. Chromebooks, which by definition run Google’s ChromeOS, can’t run Windows programs such as Office or Photoshop (although they can run web-based versions of those programs, such as Office Online or the Photoshop Express Editor).

In spite of the limitations, they don’t get infected and have very few maintenance problems. You can’t say the same about Windows: That’s why you need a thousand-page book to keep Windows going. Yes, you do need a reliable Internet connection to get the most out of ChromeOS. But some parts of ChromeOS and Google’s apps, including Gmail, can work even if you don’t have an active Internet connection.

ChromeOS, built on Linux, looks and feels much like the Google Chrome web browser. There are a few minor differences, but in general you feel like you’re working in the Chrome browser.

For friends and family who don’t have big-time computer needs, a Chromebook does the trick more often than not. It’s easier for them, and it’s easier to support.

  • macOS: Apple has made great strides running on Intel hardware, and if you don’t already know how to use Windows or own a Windows computer, it makes a great deal of sense to consider buying an Apple computer or running macOS or both. Yes, you can build your own computer and run macOS on it. But, no, it isn’t legal — the macOS End User License Agreement specifically forbids installation on a non-Apple-branded computer — and it’s certainly not for the faint of heart.

That said, it’s very easy to run Windows 10 on a Mac, say, especially a MacBook Air or Pro. Some people feel that the highest quality Windows environment today comes from running Windows on a Mac. All you need to run Windows on a Mac is a program called Boot Camp, and that’s already installed, free, on the MacBook.

  • Linux: The big up-and-coming operating system, which has been up and coming for a couple of decades now, is Linux, which is pronounced “LIN-uchs.” It’s a viable contender for netbooks. If you expect to use your PC only to get on the Internet — to surf the web and send email from the likes of your Gmail or Hotmail account — Linux can handle all that, with few of the headaches that remain as the hallmark of Windows. By using free programs such as LibreOffice and online programs such as GSuite and Google Drive, you can even cover the basics in word processing, spreadsheets, presentations, contact managers, calendars, and more. Linux may not support the huge array of hardware that Windows offers — but more than a few wags will tell you, with a wink, that Windows doesn’t support that huge of an array, either.

In the tablet sphere, iOS and Android rule, with iOS for iPhones and iPads — all from Apple — and Android for phones and tablets from a bewildering number of manufacturers. Windows 10 doesn’t exactly compete with any of them, although Microsoft tried to take on iPad with the now-defunct Windows RT and is trying to dip its billion-dollar toe back in the bare-bones water with Windows 10 S mode.

There’s yet another branch of Windows, which is geared toward phones and tablets, especially 8-inch and smaller tablets. Windows 10 Mobile owes its pedigree to Windows Phone 8 and Windows RT. At least conceptually (and, in fact, under the hood in no small part), Microsoft has grown Windows Phone up and Windows RT down to meet somewhere in the middle. Windows 10 Mobile is basically dead.

Windows 10 in S mode is a relatively new development that’s just starting to unfold. Designed to compete with ChromeOS and iPads, S mode refers to a set of restrictions on “real” Windows 10. Supposedly in an attempt to improve battery life, reduce the chance of getting infected, and generally simplify your life, the S mode versions of Windows 10 won’t run regular Windows programs — no Chrome, no Firefox, no Photoshop — and the only version of Office that runs is the Universal (read: stunted) version available in the Microsoft Store.

Fortunately, Windows 10 S mode systems can be upgraded so that they’re no longer in S mode. For most people who want more than the basics, that’s a smart move. Details aren’t yet available, but if you find that you can’t run real Windows programs on your Windows 10 in S mode machine, look into dropping S mode.

What do other people choose? It’s hard to measure the percentage of PCs running Windows versus Mac versus Linux. One company, Net Applications, specializes in inspecting the online records of big-name websites and tallying how many Windows computers hit those sites, compared to Apple and Linux.

This is a good place to mention Net Applications, however there’s a great deal of controversy surrounding its sampling and error correction methods, but it’s still (arguably) the best source of information on operating system penetration.

If you look at only desktop operating systems — Windows (on desktops, laptops, 2-in-1s) and macOS X — the numbers in early 2018 (according to Net Applications) broke. (Linux just barely broke 1 percent.)

Yes, you read the graph correctly: As of early 2018, when Windows 10 had been out for almost three years, Win10 ran only a 34 percent market share (that is, 34 percent of the desktop browser hits recorded by Net Applications came from Win10). Windows 8.1 had 6 percent, and even old WinXP hit nearly 5 percent. Win7 was the reigning champ, with a 42 percent market share. That share is declining rapidly, though, as Microsoft pushes and shoves more Win7 customers onto Windows 10.

If you look at the bigger picture, including tablets and phones, the numbers change completely. As of May 2016, Google says that more than half of the searches it handles in the US, Japan, and ten other countries come from tablets and phones, as opposed to desktops or laptops. Google hasn’t revisited the figures since, but you can bet they’re swinging even further in mobile’s favor.

Back in July 2015, Andreesen Horowitz reported that the number of iOS devices (iPhones, iPads) sold per month zoomed ahead of the number of Windows PCs. Traditionally, Android phones and tablets show twice the usage rate of iOS devices. Mobile operating systems are swallowing the world — and the trend’s been in mobile’s favor, not Windows.

The number of smartphones sold every year exceeded the number of PCs sold in 2011, and the curve has gone steeply in favor of mobile ever since. The number of PCs sold every year peaked in 2014 and has been declining steadily ever since. These days, something like 15 percent of all computers sold run Windows — if you include phones and tablets in the “computers” category.

Windows was once king of the computing hill. Not so any more. Which is good news for you, the Windows customer. Microsoft’s branching out to make software for phones and tablets of all stripes, and Windows itself works better with whatever phones and tablets you may like.

It’s a brave new Windows world.