Linux vs. Microsoft


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Q. What’s the scoop on the Linux operating system? I hear the number of people using it is growing, but can it ever really compete with Microsoft? And what good is an operating system, no matter how great, if there are just a few applications that work with it?
A. Okay, here’s the scoop. For those who are unaware of Linux (pronounced LIH-nucks), a young student at the University of Helsinki in Finland, Linus Torvalds, initially created it as a hobby and made it available free for others to improve upon. And improve on it they did.

It is getting more popular among both individual and corporate users, with the fastest growth in large business organizations because the system is so stable—and cheap. It’s estimated that about 20 million computers currently run on it. And check out the growth rate on this chart:

Linux Growth Rate
You can download the latest version free from www.linux.org , although there are inexpensive commercial products available for those who want special support and easy setup. The leading commercial provider is Red Hat ( www.redhat.com ) and it costs about $49.

A company with 10,000 employees using computers for only basic tasks could buy a single $49 copy of Red Hat and copy it legally to all 10,000 computers. Compare that with the need to buy 10,000 copies of Windows XP for a total of $2 million.

Now, as to your question about applications: Not only are they available, they’re cheap; in fact, one version is free. The free version, OpenOffice.org 1.0, which uses basic StarOffice coding from Sun Microsystems, has all the usual office applications except for database and e-mail components. You can download the 50-megabyte app from www.openoffice.org .

Sun Microsystems sells a full office suite commercial version, StarOffice, for $39.95 (www.sun.com); it runs on multiple operating systems, including Windows and Linux, and it contains word processing, spreadsheet, database, presentation and graphics capabilities. In addition, it’s fully compatible with Microsoft Office and the new XML data-tagging system.

In assessing whether Linux is for you, consider that Microsoft products are expensive: $580 for Office and $299 for the latest operating system, XP, which can be used only on one computer. That up-front cost may be just the beginning; Microsoft may soon require users to pay annual license fees, too.

By now you’re probably asking, “If I go for OpenOffice or StarOffice, does that mean I have to start from scratch training in these applications?”

The learning curve is short. In fact, when you first open either program you may think, “Wow, this looks like Microsoft Office.” The resemblance is more than skin deep—and that’s certainly no accident. It not only looks like MS Office, it works like MS Office—including all the nifty things such as AutoCorrect, AutoFormat and even the squiggly red lines that appear under misspelled words. But many of Microsoft’s irritations, such as the creepy Office Assistant paper clip or the Einstein image, thankfully are missing.

Here’s what the opening section of this Q&A looks like in OpenOffice:

As you can see, even the toolbar arrangements are similar to Windows.

If that’s not enough, check this out: If, while you’re in the word processor, you want to open a spreadsheet, you don’t have to open a separate spreadsheet application. Just go to File, Open (see screenshot at right—yep, the same commands as Office) and click on the appropriate file and the spreadsheet opens right on top of the word processor file (see screenshot below).

Any negatives? Since most of your neighbors probably still use Microsoft Office, you’ll have to contend with some minor issues of format compatibility. While I said OpenOffice is compatible, its compatibility is relative. For example, it can’t handle Microsoft Excel macros; the offset to that is that you’ll be safe from those nasty macro viruses. Also, some Microsoft Word formatting doesn’t travel well—especially when the Microsoft document is heavily formatted. But that’s not too bad because you can easily reformat any poorly converted files.

So what’s the scoop on Linux? It appears poised to give Bill Gates some significant competition.

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