Charting the Alternatives

With several hundred million users and more than 95 percent of the market, Windows controls today's computing landscape. Those numbers represent a lot of Microsoft software and, if the company's recent legal troubles and my email are any indication, a lot of resentment from users who are tired of one company so thoroughly dominating the PC industry. Although switching to an alternative platform such as Linux or the Macintosh is an expensive, time-consuming, and often-frustrating experience, staying with the Windows platform we know and understand doesn't require that you exclusively run Microsoft software. Indeed, for a growing throng of users, having the best of both worlds--the compatibility and performance of Windows and the choice to use whatever application software they desire--is not only possible but often desirable. Let's look at some excellent alternatives to the software Microsoft provides. Next time, we'll go a step further and examine alternative platforms that replace--rather than work with--Windows.

Web Browsers
Microsoft Internet Explorer (IE) comes free with Windows, but even though the product dominates the Web browser market, Microsoft hasn't significantly upgraded IE since the 1998 release of IE 4.0. To better meet the needs of Web developers and end users, various organizations have steadily improved their Web browser products over the years, and you can now find free and dramatically better browsers than IE.
The best of these alternative browsers is available from the Mozilla Foundation (formerly Mozilla.org) in the form of the Mozilla suite--which includes the Mozilla Web browser, email and news clients, an Instant Messaging (IM) application, and an HTML editor integrated into one application--and its standalone Web browser cousin, Mozilla Firebird, which will form the basis for all of Mozilla's Web browser products going forward. The Mozilla products are heavily oriented toward adopting--rather than supplanting--Web standards, and although earlier versions were geared toward developers, the Mozilla developers are now gussying up the products for end users. Some of the key features that separate these products from IE include pop-up ad blocking and a tabbed UI that lets you optionally open new windows within the same browser window rather than separately, as IE requires. The products are also updated on a regular basis, so problems are fixed and new features are added quickly.

Email
Microsoft supplies Outlook Express free with Windows but has updated the product even less over the years than it has updated IE. Again, I recommend the Mozilla suite and its excellent email and news application for email. The Mozilla Foundation is also developing a standalone email and news client, Mozilla Thunderbird, although that product isn't as far along as its standalone browser brother, Firebird. Still, if you don't mind living on the cutting edge, Thunderbird is updated almost daily and is improving at a breathtaking pace. Both Mozilla email and Thunderbird support excellent junk-mail filters and both can block HTML email messages from automatically displaying images, preventing the simplest way spammers can verify that you're reading your mail. To get these features from Microsoft, you must subscribe to MSN ($23 a month and more) or upgrade to Microsoft Office 2003 (about $300) or Office Outlook 2003 (about $150).

IM
Windows XP ships with Windows Messenger, but since Microsoft released the OS, the company has recast Windows Messenger as a corporate-oriented IM solution. Most consumers will probably want something a little friendlier. My recommendation, strange as it might seem, is MSN Messenger 6.0, which is, yes, a Microsoft product. MSN Messenger 6.0 supports text, audio and video chat, file sharing, access to online games, and other excellent features, and is the best IM application available. However, if you simply must avoid Microsoft at all costs, consider AOL Instant Messenger (AIM), which has the most subscribers, and Yahoo! Messenger; both are free.

Office Suites
Windows dominates the OS market, and its sister product, Office, dominates the office-productivity-suite market and is responsible for almost half of Microsoft's annual revenues. Office is a corporate product targeted to large businesses, but because it's often given away with new PCs, many home users also have the product; therefore, Office is almost as pervasive as Windows itself. For this reason, people tend to stick with Office because they need compatibility with popular Office formats such as those Microsoft Excel, PowerPoint, and Word use.
A few years ago, products such as Corel WordPerfect and IBM's Lotus SmartSuite provided some competition for Office, but today users largely ignore those suites. Fortunately, that fact hasn't stopped various groups, programmers, and companies from developing Office alternatives. And the best of the lot--a free office-productivity suite called OpenOffice.org--includes replacements for virtually all Office applications.
OpenOffice.org is at version 1.0.3.1 as I write this, but version 1.1 will be finalized soon. The suite includes Office-compatible word processing, spreadsheet, presentation manager, and drawing programs; is available in 25 languages; and runs on Linux, Mac OS X, and Sun Microsystems' Sun Solaris, in addition to Windows. For users who are familiar with Excel, PowerPoint, and Word, OpenOffice.org will be easy to use; it offers all of Office's best features, including on-the-fly spell and grammar checking, version-control and document-reviewing capabilities, and full compatibility with Office file formats.
But OpenOffice.org also offers some features Office lacks. For example, you can save OpenOffice.org documents to Adobe Systems' popular PDF format natively, without having to purchase a third-party application. And OpenOffice.org 1.1 adds support for mobile-device-format export, XML export, Macromedia Flash export, and other cool features. And it's probably been too long since I last mentioned that OpenOffice.org is completely free. For less than $100, users who are interested in a database application, WordPerfect filters, and other unique features can upgrade to Sun's StarOffice 6.0, which is based on OpenOffice.org.

Final Thoughts
The applications I've mentioned are just a few of the many alternative software packages available, but one characteristic they all share that isn't obvious is their high quality. You can get astonishingly good software for free today, and if you spend the time to consider your options, you might decide that you're not happy with what came in the box and are interested in widening your horizons. If you like to tinker or you've already spent a lot of time investigating alternatives online, I'm interested in which software packages you're using and how you've replaced Microsoft software. Some of the product categories I didn't have the space to cover in this article include media and DVD players, FTP and other communications applications, text editors, and system utilities, including those that let you tweak settings that are often hidden in Windows. Let me know if you've replaced Microsoft software with a free or inexpensive alternative, and I'll spread the word.

Mozilla suite
http://www.mozilla.org

Mozilla Firebird
http://texturizer.net/firebird/index.html

Mozilla Thunderbird
http://www.mozilla.org/projects/thunderbird

MSN Messenger 6.0
http://messenger.msn.com

AOL Instant Messenger (AIM)
http://www.aim.com

Yahoo! Messenger
http://messenger.yahoo.com

OpenOffice.org
http://www.openoffice.org

StarOffice 6.0
http://wwws.sun.com/software/star/staroffice/6.0/index.html

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