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Anyone But Microsoft

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Take it as a given that Microsoft has an overwhelming footprint in the IT marketplace, that its new licensing and pricing schemes are frightening if not painful, and that it has tentacles in nearly every imaginable technology niche. That explains why sheer human cussedness makes it inevitable that somebody’s figured out how to create a PC that avoids Microsoft software altogether. While such an act of defiance is possible to implement, it’s harder to achieve than most casual PC users may be willing to tolerate. It can also involve sacrifices in functionality or losses of interoperability with clients and suppliers that certain organizations may find unpalatable. Columnist and author Ed Tittel looks at the options available, and explains their pros, cons, and costs.

About the "Other ABM" Movement

When Presidents Putin and Bush meet to talk about missile defense and nuclear disarmament, they're likely to put a different spin on the acronym ABM than the one I use here. In their case, it means Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty and it's pretty darn serious business. In our case, it means "Anyone But Microsoft," and that motto comes with a certain amount of tongue in cheek — if only because of the frustration inherent in trying to realize such a challenging dream in today's IT infrastructures.

Because Microsoft covers so many different technology areas: operating systems, productivity suites, back office components, Web browsers, and more, I'd like to limit the scope of my inquiry here, if only to keep things reasonably short. Thus, my story looks into the plausibility of an ABM movement based on this question:

"Can users assemble a reasonable yet fully functional PC desktop environment without including Microsoft components?"

Because the short answer to the question is: "Yes, but that depends on what you mean by 'reasonable,'" the initial question must be deconstructed further as follows:

  • What alternative PC operating systems are available?

  • What Web browser alternatives work with those operating systems?

  • What about productivity suites?

  • Are part measures possible? (That is, can you access Microsoft products from non-Microsoft operating systems? If so, how? What about vice-versa? What about hybrid solutions?)

As it turns out, while there may be some argument about what's reasonable when it comes to joining the ABM movement as I describe it here — specifically whether mere power user or outright guru status is required to join its ranks — there are plenty of ways to answer these questions in the affirmative.

Indeed a determined PC professional can either bypass the mavens of Redmond entirely, or limit their influence only to specific and limited areas of functionality. It's also noteworthy that the ABM philosophy can impose certain interesting limitations on functionality, depending on the alternatives to Microsoft selected to replace various components or aspects of a typical Windows desktop environment. The good news is that eschewing Microsoft will probably save you money; the bad news is it will cost you extra time and effort to obtain such savings.

Non-Microsoft Operating System Choices

Although I'm sure there are other options in addition the ones I mention here, the most viable PC desktops around appear to rest on one of two branches of the PC operating system tree:

  • Some variety of Unix, be it FreeBSD Unix, or any of the many varieties of Linux available (Red Hat, Yellow Dog, Debian, SuSE, and so forth). For a pretty complete listing of Linux versions, visit www.linuxcare.com. Prices vary from free downloads to CD-based versions that seldom cost more than $100.

  • Be, Inc.'s BeOS, is a desktop and server operating system designed to impose a smaller footprint and to offer better performance than other options. Although BeOS is available for a variety of chips and platforms, it's most widely used on Intel (and Intel-compatible) PCs. Be's Web site at www.be.com provides great information about this OS. A scaled-down version is available for free download; the full-blown professional version costs $49.95 or $34.95 for an upgrade. See www.gobe.com/storebeos.html for details.

Since I'm not going to cover the details involved in installing and configuring either of these operating systems in this article, suffice it to say that either option offers a technically reasonable alternative to Windows (98, Me, 2000, or XP Professional) on the desktop. Either can be had for free (though usually in a less powerful and/or user-friendly form); should an outright purchase be in your future, neither costs anywhere near as much as Windows XP Home or Windows XP Professional.

For those on tight budgets, neither alternative is as demanding of PC hardware, memory, or disk space as any recent version of Windows. Hardware requirements are almost laughable, compared to Windows XP:

  • Average Linux/PC Unix requirements: 486 or better, 32 MB RAM or better, 200 MB Disk space or better, CD-ROM player, mouse, keyboard, VESA graphics card

  • BeOS 5.0 requirements: Pentium I or better, 32 MB RAM or better, 200 MB disk space or better, CD-ROM player, mouse, keyboard, VESA graphics card

Except for the CPU, the requirements are nearly identical. But BeOS has the reputation of being easier to integrate with multimedia capabilities, and more flexible regarding hardware in general. Linux, on the other hand (and PC Unix versions are more alike than different in this regard) has the reputation of being a bear with hardware.

Drivers, component compatibility, and device setup and configuration can often be far more vexing and interesting than one might desire. If you decide to go either the Linux/Unix or BeOS route, I recommend hanging out on message boards and forums to glean as much wisdom as you can find. You should also cultivate a knowledgeable support group to turn to if and when problems should occur (for Linux, your options will also include for-a-fee technical support; the BeOS infrastructure is less well developed — I couldn't find any for-a-fee support services, so all support "comes from the community" as the old phrase reads).

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