Microsoft has held a comfortable monopoly over the personal computing industry ever since computers became personal. In colloquial speech, “Windows” has become synonymous for any computer. However, Microsoft’s reign is a horrible disaster that’s waiting to happen. Experience, crashes, viruses, spyware, buggy software, and document losses are all considered “normal,” when they shouldn’t be considered acceptable operating ranges for our machines. It would be like expecting a new car’s wheels to fall off its axles every 10,000 miles. Just like you shouldn’t need to visit a mechanic every week, you shouldn’t have to install antivirus, spyware, and adware scanners, update them, and scan your computer daily. So why do we tolerate such poorly made computers? The answer is simple. The normal checks and balances present in a free-market economy are absent in the computer software world. Microsoft is the only choice and customers can’t complain if they mess up because there is nowhere else to go. Microsoft doesn’t have worry about serious flaws or leaving customers vulnerable. They don’t have to worry about bad press, and they can let the bug sit in people’s computers even after a worm has compromised thousands—they have done so countless times in the past. Even worse, they can charge hundreds of dollars for software that’s worth a tiny fraction of the price. I say all this comfortably because I have seen a set of highly capable software that, if not ideal, just works. No, it’s not a Mac. Although I commend Apple for engineering quality hardware and driving the computer industry to pay attention to aesthetics, they fall seriously short of providing a legitimate alternative. Its highly proprietary nature leads it to create the same buggy software that Microsoft is famous for, but nobody pays attention. People are happy with Macs for two reasons: they’re pretty, and everyone’s hardware is the same. As a result, programmers working in the OS X environment only have to worry about their software working on one computer, as they know their customers will use the exact same hardware. That’s why things seem to “just work. ” However, this leads to ridiculous prices, as Mac customers cannot migrate to any generic Intel or AMD-based computer. If a large percentage of consumers ever seriously “switch” to Macs, viruses and worms will become even more of a problem than it did in a Windows world, because malicious hackers only have to deal with one kind of computer. The future lies in free, open-source software. Although free material goods are not high quality, everything changes once we move into the information realm. With the advent of the Internet, large-scale worldwide collaboration finally became a reality, and cheap at that. People were finally able to work together on software for fun at minimal cost. The result of this was the rise of freely developed, open-source software and operating systems. Wikipedia is a good example of this. It is a widely read, highly accurate, collaborative, and continually updated encyclopedia.Although there are countless numbers of operating systems available, the vast majority in use today are Linux variants. Linux was an operating system kernel single-handedly programmed by Linus Torvalds during his college years, based on another UNIX variant known as Minix. GNU/Linux is a powerful operating system that runs on almost every hardware available (the list includes iPods, phones, and even a toaster!). It is stable, reliable, feature-rich, and its source code is open for all to freely modify. When bugs or security flaws are found, they are fixed within a matter of hours and uploaded for everyone to download. Basic security principles, ignored by Windows, are staunchly adhered to; the original UNIX was designed for mainframe computers, which handled dozens of users at once. On these computers, there was no room for even one minute of downtime; a system would not be restarted for years, and any irregularities in its operation was simply not acceptable. Each clock cycle was priceless, used only for the most important research, and as a result, the software was written with perfection in mind. The legacy lives on in today’s Linux distributions, and the open-source software used in these environments. One example of such quality software is OpenOffice.org, an office suite comparable to Microsoft’s Office. OOo is developed by the community, and is completely free for anyone to download and use or modify. It not only runs in Windows and is compatible with the Microsoft’s offerings (Word, PowerPoint, Excel, etc.) but provides a richer feature set. Additionally, it uses several standard open formats, such as Open Document Text (.odt). While you probably have never heard of OpenOffice.org, it puts Microsoft’s competing products to shame. Even Massachusetts’ state government recently switched its standard from Microsoft’s proprietary .doc format to the superior Open Document format. Obviously, computer users need to be educated, and it will take time, but sticking with what everybody has will inevitably lead to disaster. Switching to a different platform with different buttons and commands will be difficult for some. However, I’ve found Linux to be much more intuitive than Windows. If you do get lost, there is a vibrant community of Linux users on the Internet willing to help you with any problems you have. Even if we don’t all reformat our computers tomorrow, we can start slowly by incorporating more open source into our lives. Mozilla Firefox, an open source web browser, is becoming a popular alternative to Internet Explorer. Organizations such as Phillips Academy can easily stop paying for hundreds of expensive Microsoft licenses and adopt safer, easier to use, free open source counterparts. The revolution has already started. Even companies like Dell have started shipping their computers with Firefox pre-installed, and there are computers available without Windows. Individual users need to adopt these programs. We need to tell Microsoft to shape up, by using other products. Firefox’s phenomenal success has already prompted Microsoft to release IE 7 with features that mimic Mozilla’s. But we need more. You can do your part by switching to Firefox and OpenOffice.org on your personal computers, regardless of what operating system you use. And maybe, once people start to realize that open source software isn’t so bad, Microsoft’s offerings might become the few of many instead of the only.
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