Magazine

A World Without Microsoft


A few weeks ago, i was hijacked. No, it had nothing to do with planes, trains, or automobiles. My personal computer was invaded by a rogue program called Home Search that took control of my Internet Explorer browser, afflicted me with a plague of pop-up ads, made itself nearly impossible to remove, and finally brought my computer to a grinding halt. It took me seven hours on the phone with a Microsoft (MSFT) technical-support person to get rid of this menace.

I was fed up and decided to see if I could survive in a world without Microsoft. In fact, I would abandon the commercial software realm altogether and use so-called open-source programs, which seem to be less prone to viruses and spyware, for everything from my operating system to my browser to my desktop applications. While some open-source software is available commercially, thousands of programs are free on the Web.

Weakest: Linux

Using open-source programs would turn out to be no Sunday afternoon stroll. While open-source programmers have tried to make their products easy to use, and several that I tried were as good or better than their Microsoft counterparts, others literally gave me a headache.

Getting the Linux operating system loaded on a PC was the thorniest part. The first stop on my quest was leading Linux distributor Red Hat (redhat.com). But to install its free version, I would have to repartition my hard drive to make space for it. Fortunately, I found Mandrakelinux (mandrakelinux.com), with a partitioning program built in. Still, it took six hours to download, and, because I had trouble figuring out how to configure the system, I had to install it twice.

Then, more frustration. Mandrake came with the GNOME user interface, comparable with Windows' icons and menus. It was familiar and easy to navigate, but I had trouble finding and opening a couple of programs that I had downloaded from the Internet. Things just weren't as simple as with Windows.

Once I got beyond Linux, things got fun. It took under a minute to download and install the Firefox browser from mozilla.org. Firefox worked fast and has a nifty feature called tab browsing: You can open multiple Web sites at once and switch quickly between them.

Firefox is wildly popular. More than five million people have downloaded the preview version since mid-September because it isn't affected by all the viruses aimed at Internet Explorer. I had no problems with viruses or spyware, even though I searched for half an hour looking for "free stuff," trying to trigger an attack.

I also installed an alternative to Microsoft's Office suite, OpenOffice (openoffice.org). While others have warned of compatibility glitches, I found none. The OpenOffice applications had all the capabilities I needed to type this story and perform other routine tasks.

Experiment over. I've largely returned to the Windows world, but because many open-source programs run on Windows as well as Linux, I've made the switch to Firefox, and I'll never buy Microsoft Office again. Who knows, if I run into a few more glitches with Windows, I may even give Linux another shot.

Review by Steve Hamm


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