My Turn

There's Always an Alternative

Windows and Office XP Might not Provivde Quite the Xperience Microsoft Wants

- 2001.08.14

My Turn is Low End Mac's column for reader-submitted articles. It's your turn to share your thoughts on all things Mac (or iPhone, iPod, etc.) and write for the Mac web. Email your submission to Dan Knight .

Several months ago, as a result of my increasing interest in computers (brought about by proficiency in the "dark side") I purchased a PowerBook 1400cs so I could start learning about the Mac OS. I am one of those freaks who finds builds her own computer and facing the dreaded BSOD (Blue Screen of Death) as a challenge to surmount rather than an obstacle to my computing pleasure. (Granted, the BSOD can cause a great deal of frustration, and I'd rather not have them, but it can be fun to track down why an error message occurs and hopefully fix the problem - there is nothing like the thrill of victory.)

That has everything to do with the thesis of this piece. Microsoft's licensing plans for Windows XP and Office XP might not be quite the sweeping victory they hope for.

Sure, millions of businesses and home users will purchase the new software because they're Microsoft Zombies, or they'll swallow their bile and upgrade knowing full well the consequences. But what about the rest of us? (Moreover, imagine the problems faced by school districts or state agencies, which often have inadequate computer budgets and probably can't afford the cost of renewing a license every year, or the time and money spent processing the paperwork to renew these licenses - but that's another essay.)

Due to the very nature of the x86 architecture, the diversity of manufacturers, and the Windows OS, the "Wintel" standard has bred thousands of people like me: Consumers who realize that to have the best possible experience, we must learn a great deal about our computers. So we buckle down and get to it.

Heck, the clunkyness of Microsoft's software will often turn all but the most wimpy technophobes into software hackers. My office mate doesn't have a computer at home and often says, "I just want it to work," but she will doggedly spend hours pulling down menus and checking boxes until either the program finally does what she wants it to, or she's determined that something is impossible. She doesn't yet realize it, but she's well on her way to becoming a pretty good Software Wizard, if not a Windows Power User.

And a Windows Power User knows there's always a work around. Something doesn't work quite right, so we'll tear into our hardware and software to make it work. It may be a total Rube Goldberg bailing-wire-and-spit way of getting something done, but it works. The very nature of the Wintel experience has hammered this lesson into thousands upon thousands of brains: There's always a workaround if you're willing to make the effort. The Wintel platform encourages a certain kind of experimentation and creativity.

The result is that many people have installed Linux, FreeBSD, Qnix, or BeOS on their old machines or have even set up multiboot environments on their computers and only go into Windows when they absolutely have to. Heck, even Apple's new OS X looks interesting to many of my computer geek friends, and now that Apple's machines are no longer outrageously overpriced, we can actually afford them.

Due to the increased popularity of these alternative OSes, particularly Linux, more software becomes available for them everyday. Windows? We have an alternative.

Plans to coerce developers into no longer supporting the Win9x platform? Windows Power Users know that Windows XP is built on the NT kernel; they will simply switch to NT 4 or Win 2K to ensure software compatibility. Windows XP? Ironically, there's a Microsoft supplied alternative.

When my copy of Office 97 developed disk rot and could not be installed, I headed for my local computer megastore and promptly had a heart attack when I saw the prices for Office 2000 and Corel Office Suite ($250 and $150 respectively), then I noticed something called Star Office 5.2 for $38. (Yes, Star Office is available as a free download, but $38 and a manual was worth the price of not tying up my modem for several hours.) Star Office reads all my old Office 97 files and can even save in Microsoft formats. It also works on the Linux box I plan to get in a few months. (Here's hoping a Mac version will come out soon.) Plus, upgrades are free!

Office XP? There's a full featured, inexpensive, and very powerful alternative.

Microsoft claims it's embarking on its current subscription and registration schemes in order to squash software piracy. While software piracy is a serious concern (one that might be less serious if Microsoft priced its software more reasonably, but that's another rant), Microsoft's stance on the issue reeks more of greed and control than legitimate piracy protection. Besides, I give Windows XP three months max before someone finds a hole in its copy protection and registration schemes or bypasses them through writing clever software. Obstacles and challenges are the parents of invention. Watch us hackers and tweakers make an alternative.

Helplessness before naked corporate greed and corruption? Sure, the world is full of sheep and lemmings, and doubtless Microsoft will make a bundle off of their newest railroad-the-consumer scheme, but I doubt it will be as complete a victory as they would like.

Sorry, Microsoft, many of us have been trained too well. There's always an alternative.

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