Feature Article
Before you dump Windows 
think twice! 

By Susan Ives; reprinted from the July, 2000 issue of the PC Alamode 

There are days when Iím swearing at my computer, using words that would make a sailor blush, that I threaten to dump Windows 98, wipe my hard drive clean and start all over with Linux or BeOS. Something stops me. Alternate operating systems are not for the faint of heart.

Windows is the norm. According to a recent survey by the International Data Company, Windows 3.x, 95 and 98 have a 66% market share; Windows NT has an additional 21%, making Windows the standard on 87% of all PCs. The Mac operating system, which has been around longer than Windows, only has 5% of the market share. Linux is catching up with 4% and all other operating systems combined make up the other 4%. 

At its most basic, this means that if you have a computer question and nab the nearest random computer user you stand a nine out of ten chance that he or she will be using some flavor of Windows. This makes obtaining help a lot easier. If you have a Linux question you would have to grab, on average, 25 people before you came across someone who had a clue about your problem.

Aside from your usual lists of friend, relatives, neighbors and co-workers, you might need help from your computer manufacturer or Internet Service Provider. How many of them have technicians experienced in Linux or BeOS? At this point, probably not very many. It will be all too easy for a manufacturer, retail outlet or ISP to throw up their hands and claim "I donít know nothiní Ďbout Linux!" You could very well be on your own. 

Also expect that there will be fewer books, videotapes and classes that cover the details of every conceivable alternative operating system. The market is small and the educational materials are likely to be limited and expensive.

Drivers are another issue. All of your peripherals Ė printer, mouse, scanner, modem, digital camera, CD burner Ė require drivers, or little software routines, to help them talk to your computer. Will drivers be available for your peripherals? I doubt it, especially if your stuff is a few years old. Itís hard enough to get everything humming when youíre using Windows.

And then thereís software availability. Donít spread it around, but a lot of my friends use Macs. Their software choices are more limited than mine, and much of the software that they can use is more expensive than Windows software. Even the cuttingĖedge stuff isnít always available for alternative operating systems. As a test, I looked at the Napster site. Napster is a hot new program that allows you to find, download and chat about digital music. The same college-age techo-geeks who revel in alternative operating systems are using Napster. Itís the talk of the Internet Ė and itís only available for Windows.

I also checked the Netscape site. Their system requirements for the new version 6 are: Windows 95, Windows 98, Windows 2000, or Windows NT 4.0 . . .Mac OS 8.5, Mac OS 8.6, or Mac OS 9. . . ; Red Hat Linux 6.1. . . ; If you are running Netscape 6 on SuSe Linux 6.2, you must install the file "libjpeg.so.62" I donít see BeOS on that list. And what if Iím running Caldera Linux, or Corel Linux, or BSD Unix, or . . . 

Also think about file compatibility. The Internet has made it easier to exchange data with my Mac buddies, but when disks are involved it can get ugly. Disks themselves are not always compatible and neither are file formats. What gyrations will I have to go through to read a word processing document created in Corel Word Perfect for Linux? I shudder to think about it.

Donít forget to consider software conversion costs. I have close to $2,000 invested in Adobe products alone. If I switch operating systems, that would all have to be replaced. (The kicker is, it isnít available for alternate operating systems. Adobe just announced a beta version of Framemaker for Linux, which bodes well for the future of that OS, but it might be a few years before I could obtain Photoshop or Pagemaker. The free Adobe Acrobat Reader, needed to access many web documents, is available for Linux but not for BeOs.)

Iím starting to sound like a curmudgeon. I am, in fact, delighted that alternative operating systems are beginning to make inroads on the hegemony of Microsoft. Choice is good. The recent court decision to split Microsoft in two will probably encourage even more innovation.

But think twice. Unless you have a wide geek streak in you, these alternative operating systems are still in the experimental stages. The average computer user Ė and that includes most of us Ė are probably best off in the near future sticking to some form of Windows. Windows, although far from perfect, works pretty well out of the box. Alternative systems require a lot of fussing and tweaking and are probably not the best choice for the majority. Maybe someday . . . but not yet. 

Susan Ives is the former president of Alamo PC. Her first computer used the CP/M operating system, which she does not miss at all.