I learned a little from my dalliances with Apple products. I learned a lot from PCs running DOS and Windows. I've learned the most about computers from Linux. However, productivity-wise, the order goes in reverse. The learning curve with Linux is at least twice as long compared to Windows and many times longer compared to Mac. If deep understanding of computer architecture, programming and operating systems is important to you, start with Linux and enjoy the others as curiosities or productivity tools.
Back in 1986, when I first acquired (as a gift) a used Apple IIe, I was thrilled. It didn't take long for the green text-based screen and two full-height 5.25" diskette drives to wear me down to the point of needing something more powerful. Several of my friends bought what's now known as a Mac Classic that could talk, do graphical things, play games, run a nuclear power plant and much more. They were cool but expensive. I didn't learn much from that Apple IIe. I learned almost nothing about computers from my friend's little Macs. I also could never figure out what was happening with a Mac or where exactly I am within the system.
To this day, it still confuses me when I open a word processor on a Mac and it does nothing except change the menu bar at the top of the screen. They seem to work in reverse to Windows and Linux, which further contributes to my utter distaste for the much hailed Mac OS.
I opted for an IBM compatible PC in 1987 that came with DOS 3.x for $1254 USD. It had one half-height 5.25" floppy disk drive, an 8086 processor (Turbo 4.77MHz/8MHz), an RGB monitor, a 30MB hard drive and 640K RAM (Which is all you'll ever need).
I learned a lot about computers from messing with that old compatible. By the time I dumped it, I'd replaced every component on it except the motherboard and processor and I added a Math Co-Processor (essential in those days for real computing).
Fast forward to 1994 when I worked for a large telecommunications company in desktop-level support. I picked up a friend's computer magazine and noticed that I could order something called Linux on CDROM for a few dollars. I read about it extensively and decided I'd like to try Linux. I downloaded Linux in floppy disk images (The computer I wanted to install it on didn't have a CD drive) and installed it. The rest, as they say, is history.
I learned about recompiling my kernel (something you always had to do back then), setting up X (not easy), creating shell scripts and installing new programs. I also learned that checking the hardware compatibility list (HCL) was more than just a good idea.
My attraction to computers and Linux grew to the point where I became a Linux evangelist. In 1996, I started the local Linux Users Group (still going and growing today). By 1998, I was teaching Linux all around the city for large and small companies. I even taught a class to a group of people who were going to provide telephone support to Linux users worldwide.
If it weren't for the availability of Linux-based operating systems like Slackware, Red Hat, Caldera and Debian (the early ones), you might not have this blog to read now. Linux has taught me to understand computer systems more thoroughly. It's through the use of GNU/Linux systems that I can attribute much of my career success as a technical writer and as a support engineer today.
I think GNU/Linux systems are superb teaching tools. My students learned more about computers in a single Linux class than they did in all their overpriced MCSE classes combined.
And your greatest learning comes from logging into the system with a terminal window and digging around not from pointing and clicking your way through an operating system. The GUI is simply a dumbed-down version of the command line. If you're really into learning, you'll have to do it at the command line.
What do you think? Do you think Linux has enhanced your learning of computers and operating systems? Let us know about your experiences.