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Microsoft V The Rivals

By LayStar Magazine
6th September, 2009

Microsoft is undeniably a world leader in business and home software products. Their operating platforms are in all but a few PCs, laptops or hand-held devices. Their business software, such as MS Office and MS Project, is deeply routed within most businesses and schools. Microsoft also competes strongly against Apple and Adobe Systems for digital media players. Is there nothing out there that poses a market threat to Microsoft’s market dominance?

  Since the 1970s, Microsoft has grown into a multi-billion dollar enterprise. It all started with Bill Gates, who has now gone onto other projects, leaving behind Microsoft, the flagship of all software houses. Although Bill is the butt of many bitter arguments about Microsoft’s successes, no-one can deny that the bloke is a damn good businessman. He instinctively knows how to make connections between people and technologies that fuelled a computer revolution.

  One of the main reasons that Microsoft became so big is mainly due to there being no rival that could grow at the same pace. There was the Apple Mac computer, adored by a relatively small niche of musicians and publishers. But it was the Microsoft operating system that found its way to every IBM cloned PC, which spread like wild fire across the globe. The Apple Macintosh operating system, respected though it was, lacked the flexibility of being able to run on the masses of IBM hardware clones that flooded the market from an inconceivable number of PC manufacturers. The Apple Mac was to Microsoft what the Betamax video format was to the domineering VHS video market.

  During some twenty years or more, there was nothing to rival Microsoft’s ability to deliver wholesome products. People and organisations had an insatiable appetite for Microsoft, which could seemingly do no wrong. In fact, Microsoft brought standardisation and stabilisation to what was an orgy of emerging technologies, all trying to compete in the hardware markets. It was simple: if the new technology didn’t work with Microsoft products and the IBM cloned PC, people didn’t want it.

  After this lengthy period of dominance, people started to come out of their technodream-like state and realised that Microsoft had a monopoly strong-hold on all operating systems and software in its class. People didn’t fight back with matching products though. A couple of big names took Microsoft to court on anti-trust charges because it shipped its MS Media Player as an add-on freebie with its MS Windows operating systems. Thus, it flooded a new and strong developing market for MP3 music players, again to the distaste of Apple, now with its iPod media player. It’s hardly a competitive way of fighting back and giving consumers more choice. 

  In the background, a community of mavericks has emerged, who have been perfecting a rival operating system known as Linux. Linus Torvalds originally developed the system in early 1990s as a university project. The community that continue to development it are in fact the sort of people that businesses pay thousands to develop and run their applications and other software solutions. They are either professional developers or knowledgeable and experienced hobbyist developers.

  An operating system is impractical on its own, so a similar bunch of people - thousands of them all over the world - has developed and continually maintains software to run on Linux. In the early days, only about seven years or so, most people, and particularly companies, wouldn’t bother looking at the Linux offering. After all, you don’t get fired for buying Microsoft, so they say. What about today? 

  Linux is designed to run servers as well as personal computers. In the web server market, the servers that dish up web pages like LayStar’s, Linux has over 40% of the market. Microsoft has to compete quite fiercely with Linux and other rivals, UNIX and OS/2. However, in the PC market Linux and the others don’t make much of a dent up against Microsoft, even though some big names in computer manufacture are now backing Linux. So why bother with Linux?

  Unlike Microsoft, and indeed the others, Linux is free. It is available for download from www.linux.org. Their site is well worth a visit to see the innovation going into the project. Although Windows ships with most PCs and laptops, to buy it or to upgrade to the latest version, Vista, will cost between £100 and £200.

  Then there are the business and schooling programmes that rival Microsoft and run on Linux, and indeed other operating systems. A serious contender is OpenOffice from www.openoffice.org. It is a free suite of document tools akin to Microsoft Office. The best of the tools in terms of its closeness to Microsoft Word is OpenOffice Writer. It has the same look and feel as Word, but on its own is a serious word processor and publishing tool. Unlike MS Word, Writer has the ability to export to Portable Document Format, which means that a document can be read by anyone with a PDF reader, such as Adobe’s. Writer also opens, edits and saves back to MS Word document format, should this be needed.

  Calc is a spreadsheet and graphing tool. It’s a lesser offering than the feature packed MS Excel. For most users though, Calc is more than enough. Besides, there are many interesting debates around MS Excel. Its use is prolific and central to many large organisations’ finances, which in turn makes such organisations vulnerable to data integrity and security issues. Excel makes it too easy to manipulate and store accounting data. Perhaps taking Excel out of the arena and providing something like Calc will force the manipulators to use more appropriate accounting and reporting tools.

  Impress, is the OpenOffice alternative to MS PowerPoint. It has the ability to produce great presentations that save in Flash format – and played on any web browser with a Flash player, a free downloadable add-on.

  There is a drawing and graphics package, Draw, which saves in the new OpenDocument standard, enabling users to take their drawings into any OpenDocument drawing package. It also saves in Flash format.
Base, is the new database tool for OpenOffice. It has its own database engine, but works equally well with other open access systems. To complete the suite there is Math, a mathematical equation writer, useful for students.

  With Microsoft Office 2003 selling for over £250, OpenOffice is an attractive alternative. However, Microsoft appears to be changing their licensing. MS Office 2007, for example, has a Home & Student edition (licence only), which sells for significantly less than the usual retail price. It requires that your university or firm have agreements with Microsoft in place already. The cost could be as low as £25 for the basic MS Office package. This seems an amazing deal, but some might see this as a bit of a cheek. If an organisation buys a multi-seat licence for its PCs, it would get about 9 hours use from each seat for 5 days a week. The rest of the time, the PC is not used. Microsoft offers the same product, extended for home use, for £25 or more. Given a user can be only in one place at any one time, why not allocate a free licence for home use?

  Many schools immerse themselves in Microsoft products, paid for by our council taxes. Often is the case that students, especially at senior school age, get homework that not only requires the use of a home PC, but also Microsoft products like Word, Excel or PowerPoint. PCs or laptops are a huge outlay, but having to load up with Microsoft Office on top is going too far for most families. It is time for schools in particular to start moving towards products like Linux and OpenOffice. These products are freely available to all students and their families. What’s more, they run on older, low spec PCs with respectable performance, enabling families to obtain second-user PCs at a lower price. This makes education more available to the poorer families than the current ethos.

  Aside from the serious side of computing for business and schools, what about gaming and leisure software? There is an increasing number of games that work with Linux, but not as many as with MS Windows. A Google search brings up a number of possibilities that might appeal to hardened gamers. TechGage has a top ten list of the best on its site: http://techgage.com/article/top_10_free_linux_games/1.

  If more people migrate to Linux, the games software providers would follow suit. Most already provide for Windows, Playstation, XBox and the Nintendo WII. 

One could argue that Linux, OpenOffice and other freely available software hasn’t reached the same heights as Microsoft. One could counter argue that, given a fraction of the revenue of Microsoft, skills can be bought to develop products at a faster pace. Aside from the arguments, we think it is gratifying that there are people out there who are willing and care enough to chip into professional solutions to meet today’s IT demands.

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