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Why Get Off

How often are you frustrated with a PC that seems to have a mind of its own?

Do you keep up weekly with updated antivirus software (more than half of all home PC users don't)? If not, are you aware that your PC might be compromised by a virus, or might be sending out spam email in the dead of night?

Do you find it difficult to install and uninstall applications and configure the system to keep it protected from viruses and malware?

Do you feel stuck with a system and software that is costly to upgrade?

You need to consider getting off the Microsoft Windows system. And even if you still want to use Windows, you should consider skipping all the Microsoft applications and using alternatives.

Chances are, you already use Microsoft software. And you think you have little or no choice but to use it. But you can get off this unsafe habit and even save a few bucks in the process. You can live in the Microsoft-dominated world, work with others who use Microsoft software, participate in Microsoft-based networks and even share Microsoft-related resources, all without having to suffer like a typical Microsoft user.

Microsoft's software is a big fat target for nefarious schemes, such as computer viruses and Internet worms that compromise your computerŐs security. ItŐs as if everyone in the crowd agreed to carry their wallets in their back-right pockets to make it that much easier for pickpockets.

Consider these facts:

In 2004, 20% of home computers were infected by a virus or worm, and 80% were infected with spyware or adware. In all cases, the affected computers were Windows PCs. [Source: National Cyber Security Alliance]

An unpatched Windows PC connected to the Internet will last for only about 20 minutes on average before it's compromised by a worm or virus. That figure is down from around 40 minutes, the group's estimate in 2003. The drop from 40 minutes to 20 minutes is worrisome, because it means the average survival time is not long enough for you to download the very patches that would protect your PC from Internet threats -- a Catch-22. [Source: CNET report].

A survey of home PC users found 81% lacked at least one of three critical types of security -- a firewall, updated antivirus software or anti-spyware protection. Of this group, 56% had no antivirus software, or had not updated it within a week, while 44% did not have a firewall properly configured, according to the report. Meanwhile, 38% of survey respondents lacked spyware protection. [Source: CNET News, Dec. 7, 2005, on a report by America Online and the National Cyber Security Alliance].

The Real Cost

Isn't it true that a Mac is more expensive than a Windows PC, and that Linux is expensive in terms of training and support?

The problem with comparing costs is that Microsoft's software, since it is so ubiquitous, includes after-purchase hidden costs of maintaining security. When you buy a PC with Microsoft Windows and then purchase Microsoft Office, you are still not done! You'll need antivirus software and spyware protection, and you'll need to stay updated with the latest upgrades of these programs.

On the other hand, when you purchase a Mac, you don't need anything else to maintain security, and you rarely need any support. And when you use Linux, the software to maintain security is usually free, and the support and training are comparable to what you would spend with Microsoft.

To a person who can afford a powerful laptop, the price difference between a Mac and a Windows laptop -- comparably equipped with wireless, lots of disk space, Bluetooth, etc. -- is about one night in a fancy New York City hotel. In short, a minor business expense for a very powerful tool in your business function.

You need to get out from under the trees to see the forest. You need, at the very least, to try alternatives to be sure youŐre getting what you want from your software.

Too Much Microsoft Code Everywhere

You may not think that Microsoft code is so dangerous, but there's plenty of evidence to support that assertion. According to a report by the Computer and Communications Industry Association (CCIA), experts in security, technology, and economic policy agree that the reliance on a single technology, such as the Microsoft Windows operating system, by such an overwhelming majority of computer systems threatens the security of the U.S. economy and critical infrastructure. The lack of variety makes Microsoft software a consistent target.

Reliance on Microsoft software affects everyone, not just on a business or professional level, but also on a personal level. It may scare you to know that, in August 2003, the Department of Homeland Security announced that Microsoft would supply the software for the agency's 140,000 desktops. The CCIA sent an open letter asking the department to reconsider.

All that Microsoft code spawning more Microsoft code. . . It's like excessive in-breeding. What's next, deformed software? Bugs that reproduce tenfold? It's time to introduce new genes to the gene pool. To maintain the health of the software industry, we need an influx of code that has nothing to do with Microsoft.

That sounds easy enough. But Microsoft plays rough with competitors, with consumers, and with governments, making it much tougher for innovative competitors to succeed. But why should you care that Microsoft stomped on the competition or locked up the market? Gushy liberals might care that small companies got stomped on, jobs were lost, the poor got poorer, and a small group of rich jerks now run everything. Libertarians might decry the lack of innovation and freedom of choice, and that a small group of rich jerks now run everything. Hard-nosed conservatives might care that Microsoft puts its multinational interests ahead of the good old U.S.A., that security is worse than ever, and that a small group of rich jerks now run everything.

You should care -- unless you are one of the rich jerks that now run everything (in which case, you can afford to use Microsoft software and all the security add-ons). Most of us are not that rich, and we don't want to be stuck with no other choice but the crud put out by Microsoft.

Guess what? We don't have to be stuck with Microsoft Windows. Check out alternatives to Microsoft Windows.


Just Say No to Microsoft
by Tony Bove (No Starch Press)


De-Microsoft Your Office

Anyone who has ever used Microsoft Office knows that the application package dominates desktop computing and frustrates computer users. Office includes Microsoft Word, Excel, and PowerPoint, the triumvirate of desktop business applications. Everyone knows them; they are as ubiquitous as manila folders and sticky notepads and are even available for the Mac platform. Since nearly everyone in the world needs a copy of these three applications, Microsoft imposes the equivalent of a tax on worldwide productivity with these essential but costly applications.

By tightly integrating the applications with the operating system, Microsoft violated one of the core principles of software programming. Ordinarily, you would design loosely-coupled interfaces between the system and application software, or between modules, to make maintenance easier and to upgrade different pieces at different times without having everything break. After all, why should your applications stop working, just because you upgraded the system? Microsoft employs programmers who know these principles; nevertheless, the company has discouraged the kind of modular techniques that would make computing life easier. As James Gleick pointed out in his 1995 article in The New York Times Magazine, "For whatever reason, Microsoft has put aside its otherwise good practices. . . Integration of this sort is about lock-ins through integration too tight to easily reverse, buttressed by network effects that effectively discourage even trying to resist."

But you can pick this lock; you can set yourself free. You can even use software that lets you pretend you are using Microsoft Office, for the sake of your clients and associates with whom you share files, and never be imprisoned again. Check out alternatives to Office.


Slay the Word and You'll Be Free

Did you know that your Office documents -- Word files, Excel spreadsheets, or PowerPoint slideshows -- contain hidden information, including comments and revisions? If you don't know all the tricks for stripping out or deleting this information, you are essentially compromising security every time you share an Office document. For example, if you save an Excel spreadsheet with new values in its rows and columns, the older values you deleted may still be in there, retrievable by someone who knows how. Office stores comments, the entire revision history with multiple revisions, the document owner, links to web pages and files, hidden text, and hidden rows and columns, among other things.

People continue to use Word because they need to work with Word documents. Some swear by it, and others swear at it. I'm a veteran Word addict, now reformed. Since the late 1980s I relied on Word for all writing and editing. All that time I paid a tithe to the gods in Redmond so that I could eat, paying for upgrades and even migrating to more powerful computers just to run new versions. When the software continued to behave erratically, upgrade after upgrade, I began to feel misused and abused. I had heard rumors that Word harbored viruses, that Word reported back to Microsoft the details of your hardware configuration every time you launched it, and that Word was a manifestation of the devil. I had creepy feelings that somehow Microsoft could read what I was writing. Word's creepiness is evident in the random suggestions it throws at you when you least expect them -- making you feel like a dummy because you haven't yet figured out how to turn off the annoying feature.

The Word document format is the addiction. Not Word itself or some special feature of the program, but the Word doc file format. For a long time, the only way to open a Word doc file was to use Word; without alternatives, businesses migrated to Word and the rest of the Office package and got stuck there. As Word doc files proliferated (and as Microsoft wiped out the competition in word processing programs), they hooked everyone they touched.

Just what is in those files? More than you realize. Word files can violate your privacy. The program is most often configured by default to automatically track and record changes you make to a document. A record of all changes is silently embedded in the doc file every time you save it. It's easy as pie for someone to recover this record and see all the revisions. Most Word document files contain a revision log that is a listing of the last 10 edits of a document, showing the names of the people who worked with the document and the names of the files used for storing versions of the document.

And why is the Word doc file format such a moving target? Try to collaborate on a document with a random group of Word users using different versions (Word 97, Word 2000, Word XP, Word 2003, and a couple of Mac versions), and you'll see what a mess you can make with Word doc files. As John Dvorak pointed out in his PC Magazine column "Kill Microsoft Word", "It's clear the program is in decline, with too many patches and teams of coders passing in the night. It's about time that it's junked and we get something new. This code can no longer be fixed."

So check out the alternatives to Word and Office.

Outlook: More Viruses

Remember the Love Bug? Not the original Volkswagen car, but the ILOVEYOU virus, which spread quickly around the world in 2000. Security experts said the quick spread of the Love Bug was a demonstration of Microsoft software working as designed -- Microsoft chose added functionality over the risk of security breaches. Microsoft's response in 2000 was to allow people to configure the software as they pleased. Of course, most people didn't understand the options or how to change them.

Microsoft Windows and Microsoft Outlook are the perfect breeding ground for virus attacks, Internet worms, Trojan Horse viruses, and spyware. Any Visual BASIC programmer with a good understanding of how Windows works can write a virus. It's amazing that these Internet security problems are continually labeled as "email viruses" or "Internet worms" rather than the more correct designation of "Windows viruses" or "Microsoft Outlook viruses."

According to the researchers at the Internet Storm Center, as published in a CNET report, an unpatched Windows PC connected to the Internet will last for only about 20 minutes on average before it's compromised by a worm or virus. That figure is down from around 40 minutes, the group's estimate in 2003. The drop from 40 minutes to 20 minutes is worrisome, because it means the average survival time is not long enough for you to download the very patches that would protect your PC from Internet threats -- a Catch-22.

Microsoft is mean to its own customers. Security is the number one issue among computer users today, but if you're one of about 200 million people using older versions of Windows, you are stuck -- Microsoft reneged on its responsibility to make your computers secure. If you want the latest security enhancements to Internet Explorer and Outlook, you need to upgrade to Windows XP.

The answer, of course, is to use alternatives to Internet Explorer and alternatives to Outlook.

Media Lib

If Microsoft's record of dominating the PC platform is any indication, its dominance of the future media platform will guarantee a Windows-like experience, only extended to include all the world's TV sets. Consumers can look forward to more crashing software, bad human interface design, and viruses.

Microsoft's Secure Audio Path (SAP) technology, built into Windows Media Player and the Windows operating system, forces certification of device drivers in order to make protection schemes work, thereby limiting consumer choices to hardware that enforces the rules.

Windows Media Player automatically takes over all media on your PC, installs Microsoft's rights management, and spies on your music and video folders. It looks for new things to stuff into its library without your knowledge -- unless you intervene by changing its options during the setup process or right after installing it.

You can turn off the reporting options in Windows Media Player, but you rob yourself of legitimate features, such as capturing song information so that you don't have to retype it. You can also limit your use of the Internet so that it can't report back, but Microsoft makes it quite difficult to upgrade a computer to fix defects without Internet connectivity. If Microsoft chose to, it could use the information it receives from your computers to track down music and video pirates or even consumers who innocently make copies of their purchases for personal use.

It truly is time to say no to Microsoft's effort to standardize media copy protection technology. Check out the alternative media players you can use even in Windows.




Word: A Weapon of Mass Delusion

Word documents are notorious for containing tracked changes and revisions that could be embarrassing if discovered, and they are easy to discover. The British government of Tony Blair learned this lesson the hard way. In February 2003, 10 Downing Street published an important dossier on Iraq's security and intelligence organizations -- the same dossier cited by Secretary of State Colin Powell in his address to the United Nations later that month. It was published as a Word document. A quick examination of hidden revision logs in the Word document revealed that much of the material in the dossier was actually plagiarized from an American Ph.D. student. As a result, during the week of June 23, 2003, the British Parliament held embarrassing hearings on the Blair dossier and other PR efforts by the UK Government leading up to the Iraq war.


In Gates We Still Trust?

In January 2002, Bill Gates sent an important memo to Microsoft employees about trustworthiness. Gates typically uses such memos to indicate major changes in direction -- such as when he kicked off the company's .Net initiative in 2000 and its push to be more Internet-centric in 1995.

"Today, in the developed world, we do not worry about electricity and water services being available," Gates wrote in the 2002 memo. "With telephony, we rely both on its availability and its security for conducting highly confidential business transactions without worrying that information about who we call or what we say will be compromised. Computing falls well short of this."

Indeed. Several years after calling for Microsoft to make its products more "trustworthy," the products are still as bug-ridden as mattresses in a flophouse, with more security holes than it would take to fill Albert Hall. Perhaps it takes more than just a few rocket scientists to make Microsoft software trustworthy. "We said that Trustworthy Computing is a 10-year project, sort of like (President) Kennedy sending people to the moon," said Scott Charney, chief security strategist for Microsoft, to a CNET reporter in January 2003, one year after Gates' memo. That means the race to be trustworthy will probably spawn an entirely new security industry that will take until 2012 to make trustworthiness affordable. It's a brilliant strategy that actually profits from bugs and security breaches.



Tips on Using Alternatives:

Change Windows Media Player settings to allow other players to run in Windows XP.

Stop sending Word docs! Check out the campaign to stop the proliferation of Word document files.