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The following article is based on Timothy W Macinta's article, and is used with permission. Copyright Timothy W Macinta of KMFMS. The original KMFMS content may be found at http://www.kmfms.com/.

What Alternatives Are There to Microsoft?

If you're sick of the unreliability, the bloat, the insecurity, and the perpetual upgrading associated with Microsoft products you'll be happy to know that there are some excellent alternatives out there. The list below is meant as an introduction to Microsoft alternatives and as such it is by no means comprehensive.

The KMFMS recommended products are products that we here at KMFMS have personally used with great satisfaction. The recommended list does not necessarily reflect the value of other alternatives, it is simply a list of products that we can personally vouch for. Just because a product isn't recommended by KMFMS doesn't mean it isn't a great product - it may just mean that we haven't had a chance to extensively use it yet.

Legal disclaimer: all product names below are trademarks of their respective owners.

Quick Guide

Category Microsoft Product(s) Alternative(s) KMFMS Recommends
Desktop Operating System Windows Linux, MacOS, BeOS, and many, many more Mac OSX (SD701 recommends), Red Hat Linux
Web Browser Internet Explorer Netscape Navigator, Opera, Mozilla, HotJava, Lynx, Netpositive, iCab, and many, many more Netscape Navigator
Office Suite Microsoft Office Corel Office, StarOffice, Lotus Smart Suite, Appleworks, KOffice, GNOME Workshop, OpenOffice OpenOffice
Email Client Outlook Netscape Mail, Pine, Eudora, and many, many more Netscape Mail
Web Based Email Hotmail Yahoo! Mail, Hushmail, Netscape Webmail Yahoo! Mail
Server Operating System Windows BSD, Linux, MacOSX, Solaris, and many, many more OpenBSD, Linux
Web Server IIS, Frontpage Apache, Enhydra, Zeus, and many, many more Apache with PHP for most sites, Enhydra for highly dynamic sites
Game Console Xbox Sony Playstation, Nintendo Game Cube Sony Playstation
ISP MSN AOL, Earthlink, Speakeasy, and many, many more Within the USA: Earthlink for dial-up, Speakeasy for broadband
Email Server Exchange Sendmail, Qmail, Exim, Steltor's Outlook Connector Evaluation not complete


Operating Systems

Did you realize that a 486 is still a very useable computer if you put an operating system besides Windows on it? Are you a home or business user who is tired of the instability of Windows or who could use the performance increase that a well written OS would offer? You may be interested to know that there is an OS out there called Linux which offers much better performance than Windows and without the overhead. Linux will breathe new life into hardware that you thought was obsolete and it will unleash the real power in newer hardware. Even Microsoft can't help but give Linux a glowing review as you can read in their internal memo that was leaked in October 1998. Oh yeah, Linux is free too.

Are you an administrator who uses Windows as a server? If so, you should be aware that the alternatives are more reliable, much more secure, and much less expensive. Linux makes an excellent server with its stability and excellent performance. It's also easy to install and easy to administer if you get a distribution such as Red Hat's. If security is a concern (as it should be) you may also be interested in the OpenBSD operating system which is perhaps the most secure operating system in the world. It makes a great server and it completely blows away Windows (as well as most other operating systems) when it comes to security.

Linux and BSD are our favorites here at KMFMS because they have proven to be excellent solutions for various projects. There are, however, several other non-Microsoft solutions that we haven't tried so those of you wishing to get a broad overview of what's out there check out the review of operating systems at tunes.org or Yahoo's list of operating systems (by the way - Yahoo, one of most heavily used sites on the internet, also runs on BSD).

Editor's note: the following information on the Mac OS was accurate when it was first published in August 1999. Some information, such as current version numbers, has since changed.

A KMFMS Reader writes: For those of who want a professional-level OS, but don't want to spend all your time learning it, MacOS X Server is good. (It's ideal for a small network.) OS X Server is only at version 1.0, but is quite comparable to Linux. With your help, it can grow into something that'll make Microsoft shake in their boots. It sits upon the Mach microkernel and BSD.

A KMFMS Reader writes: Although it's a better alternative than Windows, the earlier versions of the of the Mac OS suffered from some of the same problems as Windows (like crashes that bring the entire system down, for example). But recently, Apple has gotten extremely focused with their OS plans and the Mac has seen more changes in the last couple years than in its entire history. When the Mac OS reaches version 10 (titled Mac OS X Consumer/Client), it will be rock-solid, with Unix power under the ease-of-use of a Mac (thanks to its well-praised NeXT and BSD foundation.) The only thing that makes it stand out as of now is Apple's diligent and honest work on the product. Don't expect to have a Mac secretly send your hardware ID number to Apple headquarters. The MacOS isn't free... but you can download the OS X core for free, named Darwin.

Browsers

The best choice for a web browser in most cases is Netscape's web browser regardless of what operating system you are on. If you are on Windows you should use it because it is pretty stable, it won't bring down your operating system if it does happen to crash because it hasn't been forcefully shoved into the OS like IE, and because it is the only browser which supports Java. If you're not in Windows (good for you) then you're probably already using Netscape because Microsoft can't force you to use IE. Although Microsoft does have a version of IE for the Mac and for Solaris do you really think that they will continue to update or support these if Netscape were to die out?

There are a ton of other browsers out there some of which are better than Netscape's for certain situations. Several people consider Opera the ultimate lightweight browser and its speed and small size are very impressive if you're into that sort of thing. Also, Lynx is a text only browser which can be extremely useful for remote administration, but chances are if you have a use for Lynx you probably already knew what it was. Finally, there's a whole slew of browsers at Yahoo that fit into other niche markets (e.g., Hotjava for an embedded Java browser).

Office Suites

Why would anybody spend several hundred dollars on Microsoft Office when there are high quality, free equivalents available? Save yourself some money by trying the free, high-quality, open source OpenOffice today. Not only will you save yourself a bundle now, but you'll save yourself even more on upgrades in the future as you will no longer be locked into Microsoft's viscous cycle of forcing MS Office upgrades by changing the "doc" file format (OpenOffice does a good job of keeping up with the newer MS Office file formats).

If you work in a (physical) office that uses office suite software and you are worried about potential compatibility issues, try this: limit your MS Office installation to a single machine and install OpenOffice everywhere else. For internal documents and documents which you print (or otherwise distribute in hardcopy form) you can standardize on the OpenOffice format (which is open standards and not proprietary). For the few documents that you want to electronically distribute outside your company, you can use OpenOffice to write the document in MS Office format and then use your single installation of MS Office to touch up anything that may not have converted perfectly. For incoming documents in MS Office format, OpenOffice will read most without a problem. If there ever are any problems, simply use your single installation of MS Office. This simple strategy could save even a small office several thousand dollars.

Email Client

There's a very good reason why Outlook has come to be nicknamed LookOut by seasoned users. Microsoft Outlook has a notorious security history with many a virus owing its ability to spread to Outlook's "features". Help slow the spread of email viruses and support software diversity by using another email program, such as the free and excellent Netscape Mail.

Web Based Email

When selecting a web based email service, you absolutely do not want to use Hotmail. Forget for a moment the large number of security holes that have been uncovered in the Hotmail service (including one that allowed anybody to read the email from any Hotmail account without using a password). An even bigger problem is that by using Hotmail you are very likely to become victim of Microsoft's typical lock-in tactics at some point in the not-too-distant future. MSN has locked out non Microsoft browsers before, forcing people to use Internet Explorer, so what happens if Hotmail starts doing this too? Don't think for a second that it doesn't matter because you use IE anyway - what happens when you're traveling and you stop to check your email via the web? What if you're visiting a friend who uses Netscape or you're at a web kiosk that uses Linux underneath for security purposes? You won't be able to use IE, which means you won't be able to use services that require IE.

Yahoo! Mail is an excellent alternative to Hotmail. It features exceptional functionality which many people consider superior to Hotmail (having never used Hotmail ourselves, we are relying on third party comparisons). Most importantly, it is not produced by a company that has a vested interest in forcing users to use a particular browser. In fact, Yahoo! has an excellent track record of making their content available to the widest possible audience. Yahoo! Mail is a good way to protect yourself against the software lock-in and incompatibility that you risk by using Hotmail.

Web Servers

If you're running a web server it's tough to beat Apache. Over half the web servers on the internet are running Apache (Source: Netcraft) , it has the largest number of developers developing for it (Source: Netcraft) , and it offers far more performance than most websites could ever dream of needing. It's also open source and free in all senses of the word which means it is more secure (because it is subject to peer review and doesn't rely on security through obscurity), it rapidly incorporates new standards, it is feature rich while at the same time capable of being entirely stripped down for maximum performance, it is well modularized for easy expandability, and it is guaranteed to have long term viability because it is not being used to drive a perpetual upgrade cycle. Add the PHP module on to Apache which makes dynamic content a lot easier to generate than with the CGI of days gone by, and you have a first class web server for no money down and no payments ever.

If you need a web server that can serve up highly dynamic content, if you need an application server, or you just want to separate the dynamic functionality of your site from its design, you should check out Enhydra. Enhydra is an extremely well designed server that makes writing and maintaining highly dynamic websites a snap. As a bonus, Enhydra is also free and open source so you get all the security benefits that accompany open development.

Game Consoles

When was the last time you had Windows crash on you? Now, when was the last time you had a Playstation or Nintendo crash on you? Enough said.

Internet Service Providers (ISPs)

You should definitely avoid using MSN because it will force you into using Microsoft's software. As of this writing (November, 2001) you must use Microsoft Outlook or Microsoft Hotmail to retrieve your MSN mail and the MSN website portal recently made headlines by blocking most users who weren't using Internet Explorer (earning Microsoft a much deserved rebuke from Tim Berners-Lee, the creator of the World Wide Web). You would be much better off with a non-Microsoft ISP and there is practically no reason to go with Microsoft in this case as ISPs are all very standardized and Microsoft doesn't wield monopoly power in that industry (yet).

Your physical location will have a great impact on your choices of ISPs. "The List" is a very comprehensive list of ISPs which should help you find an ISP regardless of your location. If you are in the United States, you might want to consider Earthlink for dial-up access or Speakeasy for broadband access. Earthlink has a very large number of dial-up numbers throughout the US, which is good if you travel at all and have a laptop, and it is very easy to set up Linux to use an Earthlink account. Speakeasy is an exceptionally good DSL company (absolutely worlds apart from the baby bells, if you've had any experiences with them) with a surprisingly clueful technical support staff which actually supports Speakeasy on Linux.

Email Servers

The KMFMS evaluation of email servers is not complete enough to make a recommendation because expectations vary widely on what an email server is meant to do. Here at KMFMS we actually have considerable experience with email servers within the context of sending and receiving email. The problem is that enterprises might also want the email server to handle ancillary tasks, such as calendaring, and we only have experiencing using email servers for email. If you want a best of breed email server that outshines Exchange on what email servers are supposed to do (transfer email) look no further than the staples of the internet Sendmail and Qmail. For email servers that handle more than email, we will reserve recommendations for a later date. For now, we will pass along the following pitch from a representative at Steltor who has informed us that Steltor's Outlook Connector is a "piece of client-side middleware (MAPI service providers) that allows you to replace Exchange with a standards-based offering consisting of a mail server offered by Steltor partners such as Sendmail, directory servers (offered by Steltor partners) and a best-of-breed calendar server offered by Steltor."

A KMFMS reader wrote in to highly recommend Exim writing that he strongly prefers it over Sendmail and that it has easy to use spam filtering.

Another KMFMS reader also wrote in to tell us about EMWAC IMS. He said that if you are stuck using Windows, EMWAC IMS is an excellent, free choice for a mail server. He used it at his own ISP which handled over 100,000 email messages a day on a Pentium 100 and he claims that it is very well supported in the community.

Above article is based on Timothy W macinta, and is used with permission. Copyright Timothy W Macinta of KMFMS. The original KMFMS content may be found at http://www.kmfms.com/.

See also:
> What's So Bad About Microsoft
> Microsoft's Really Hidden Files
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This page was last modified on 22 April, 2004.
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