Alt.Windows, Part 1: Evaluating the Microsoft Alternatives

Stung by the latest spyware, you've had enough. Or maybe you just want to try something a little different. Whatever your motives, you might find yourself turning toward OS and application alternatives that offer a chance to distance yourself from the Microsoft hegemony.

Last week, in Dirt-Cheap Office-Productivity Software, I looked at Microsoft Office competitors such as WordPerfect Office and Star Office. But many Microsoft alternatives come from the open-source world, a less structured environment than the Borg-like offices at Microsoft's Redmond, Washington, campus. On the office-productivity front, offers free word-processing and spreadsheet applications, along with other related solutions. Mozilla's excellent and well-regarded Firefox Web browser is stealing market share from Microsoft Internet Explorer (IE). And the Gaim instant messaging client lets you communicate with contacts by using AOL Instant Messenger (AIM), MSN Messenger, Yahoo! Messenger, Internet Relays Chat (IRC), Jabber, and other instant messaging (IM) clients, all from one interface.

Such open-source solutions have certain similarities. They're free, and they're designed and developed in an ongoing fashion largely by a stable of unpaid developers who, in many cases, simply want to provide the world with better software. This methodology is in keeping with the 1970s-era philosophies that contributed to the development of such technologies as UNIX and the Internet, and flies in the face of the cold, bottom-line-oriented world of companies such as Microsoft.

Ah, Microsoft. It's the company that many people hate to love, and—not coincidentally—love to hate. Responsible for many of the highest highs and lowest lows in the history of personal computing, Microsoft is both admired and reviled, depending on the crowd, but rarely ignored. Increasingly, however, a large segment of the computer-using world is starting to look beyond the cozy confines of the Microsoft monopoly and examining the alternatives.

Regardless of your reasons for wanting to do so, the first step is to evaluate key alternative applications (such as those mentioned above) from within Windows. Just because you have to run a Microsoft OS doesn't mean you need to run Microsoft applications. Windows gives you the best hardware and software compatibility across the board, so you can—for example—freely run the games of your choice alongside such open-source solutions as Firefox and Choosing alternative applications lets you test the Microsoft-free waters with little risk. And there's no reason you can't run three separate Web browsers simultaneously until you've settled on the one you like the most.

If you're feeling adventurous, you can even evaluate non-Windows OSs. The two most obvious choices today are Apple Computer's Macintosh OS X (which, like Windows, is a proprietary OS developed by one company) and Linux (an open-source solution backed by several large companies—such as IBM and Novell—and thousands of freelance hackers around the globe).

Beyond surface similarities and some low-level ideologies, Mac OS X and Linux couldn't be less alike. Mac OS X is based on a rock-solid Mach kernel and the FreeBSD variant of the UNIX OS, so it's got the reliability and security chops you need in today's connected world. However, because Apple develops it, Mac OS X espouses an environment that's great looking but not well designed for novices, offering none of the friendly wizard-like helpers you see in Windows XP. But it's also the home for some excellent digital-media solutions, such as iDVD, iMovie, iPhoto, and iTunes. You get all these applications for free with each new Mac.

And there's the rub: Unlike Linux and Windows, Mac OS X runs only on newer Mac hardware, which is generally more expensive than equivalent PC hardware and—more to the point—far less likely to be sitting around your home already. On the other hand, some new Apple solutions make getting into Mac OS X cheaper than ever before. We'll look at those options next week.

Linux, meanwhile, is still the Wild West of computing, although the system has improved dramatically in recent years—so much that some Linux versions are now quite well suited for home and home-office use. Linux advocates will tell you, somewhat correctly, that the term "Linux" is misused: Linux refers to the OS kernel and not to the complete OS that you download or purchase. These complete systems are called distributions, and they combine the Linux kernel with a variety of applications and utilities. The resulting distributions then become available as a complete OS package.

Like Mac OS X, Linux is stable, secure, and based on a design that borrows more than a little from UNIX. Unlike Mac OS X, Linux is a completely open-source solution, and there are numerous sources for Linux-based OSs that can run on PCs, Macs, and other hardware. But even though Linux is inherently portable—meaning it can run on a variety of hardware platforms—its greatest strength might be that you can install the system on an old Windows-based PC or in a dual-boot configuration alongside Windows on a newer PC. Or, if you just want to get your feet wet, you can snag a CD-based installation of Linux that runs only when you boot the PC with the CD. This versatility makes Linux easy to test and evaluate. And you'll want to evaluate plenty of Linux distributions before you cement your opinion of this open-source solution. You have literally hundreds to choose from.

Another Linux option is that you can run the system in a virtual-machine environment such as VMWare Workstation or Microsoft Virtual PC. These applications let you host multiple copies of other OSs in a contained virtual PC without requiring you to leave Windows. You get the best of both worlds, albeit with a slight performance hit. Still, for evaluating PC-based OSs, either system is worth a look.

In the next issue of Connected Home Express, I'll look more closely at these Windows alternatives. In the meantime, free yourself of the Microsoft shackles and take a look at Firefox, Gaim, or other open-source solutions that run on Windows. You might be surprised by the choice and quality that's now available.

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