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Just Say No to Microsoft

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Tony Bove
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Friday, December 16, 2005; 11:00 AM

Author Tony Bove was online Friday, Dec. 16th at 11 a.m. ET to discuss breaking a 'Microsoft addiction' and his new book, "Just Say No to Microsoft."

Bove traces the company's rise from tiny startup to monopolistic juggernaut, maintaining that the company's practices have discouraged innovation, stunted competition, and helped foster an environment ripe for viruses, bugs and hackers.

Tony Bove edits the Inside Report on New Media newsletter and writes for magazines including Computer Currents, Nextworld, the Chicago Tribune Sunday Technology section, and NewMedia. He co-founded and edited Desktop Publishing/Publish magazine and has written 20 books on computing, desktop publishing and multimedia.

A transcript follows.

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Tony Bove: Hello, I'm Tony Bove, the author of "Just Say No to Microsoft", a book from No Starch Press, available in stores and online. You can go directly to the book page on Amazon by clicking the book link on my site, http://www.tonybove.com/.

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Tony Bove: 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.

"Just Say No to Microsoft" tells you how to get out of the way of the Microsoft juggernaut and avoid getting sucked into the monoculture of virus attacks and bad software. It also shows you how to work successfully with computers and people who are still hooked on Microsoft software -- even to convince them that you, too, are using Microsoft products -- without ever coming into direct contact with the stuff.

This book is for you if you think for yourself. If you don't buy the party line. If you recognize the necessity of functioning in this Microsoft-dominated world but are willing to try alternatives. At the very least, the book shows you how to minimize your likelihood of being a victim of Microsoft dominance, and perhaps become even more productive with Microsoft software by making it crash less.

Don't think you are immune as a Mac or Linux user. You still have to deal with the Microsoft world -- opening Microsoft Word or Excel files or Windows Media files from other people. You may have to create files for others to open with Microsoft products. You may have already strayed from the Microsoft Way, but you should arm yourself with the tools you need to deal with the output from the Microsoft world.

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Tony Bove: "Just Say No to Microsoft" was released in October, 2005. To keep readers up-to-date on new issues, and to provide links to alternative software, I've set up a web site and blog for the book at:

http://www.tonybove.com/

Just click on the "Get Off Microsoft" button.

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Greensboro, N.C.: Mr. Bove, Linux and the Open Source community, in general, are gaining more and more ground over closed technologies as companies like Microsoft continually shrug off open solutions, but do you think they will ever cover enough ground to be a threat to corporate powerhouses like Microsoft?

Tony Bove: Microsoft is essentially held back by its monopoly and the complexity of its products, and can't innovate fast enough without hurting its existing business. That wasn't always the case -- in the early days of the monopoly, Microsoft was invincible. There was so much activity on so many fronts that the company was a moving target. The reason I can write this book, "Just Say No to Microsoft", now is that the company has become a big fat target. Office has matured to the point that it is not only easy to clone but easy to improve upon. Windows is under constant attack from Linux and Mac OS X. The reason people give for needing to use Windows -- because they need to run certain applications -- is quickly eroding. To use the new Internet services, all you need is a computer that runs a browser.

I think missteps by Microsoft in the coming year -- with Vista, and with advertising-supported software -- will reduce the Microsoft monopoly enough to enhance competition and spark more innovations. At some point a low-cost non-Windows computer will be very popular for the consumer market, and so will Apple Macs on the "high end". It's only a matter of time.

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Zurich, Switzerland: I'm a Linux user and I just installed the latest SUSE version 10.0. It is perfect. I actually enjoyed setting up my system and installing all the free software. And it is so easy.

It's unfathomable how someone could choose Windows over Linux. There is no contest. It's free, faster, more stable, completely compatible with loads of free software. (Buy an installation package for 40 dollars that would cost you several hundred for Windows versions)

I think it really has to do with a sort of phobia people have for new technologies that they feel will overwhelm them.

How else can you explain such poor consumer choices?

Choosing the most expensive and worst technology simply because it's the only one they know?

So much for the efficacy of the open exchange of information. People still choose crap over greatness.

Your thoughts?

Tony Bove: During the two decades that PCs have ruled the industry, I've heard the same excuse time after time from people who thought they needed a Windows PC for home or travel, but would have used something else (such as a Mac) if they knew they could. Or, they thought they needed to use the same software they used at the office, which meant Microsoft Office applications (such as Word and Excel) for at least 9 out of 10 users. Even when these applications migrated to the Mac, people were wary.

Then, during the last decade and a half, custom "client" applications available only for Windows appeared in many offices, locking people into using that software at home and while traveling. Microsoft's dominance grew, and the Mac lost market share. Alternative desktop systems faded away.

But things have changed in just the last few years. With the Internet as the primary information carrier and the Web as its primary interface, it no longer matters which operating system you use or even which applications. All most people need is a computer that runs a browser, an email program (or just your browser with online email), and your suite of "office" applications. You can determine what works for you and then use what you like.

The revolutionary new model of software distribution called open source -- in which software is given away for free and volunteers contribute to its development -- is changing the dynamics of the software industry and offering the first real threat to Microsoft dominance.

You now have choices. That's what freedom and capitalism are all about, right?

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Pirkkala, Finland: Big companies such as Microsoft and Apple have always been eager to protect their businesses by limiting the use of their software. For instance Windows Media Player doesn't work with Firefox when trying to watch streaming media on several websites providing it (CNN, Comedy Central...), it works only with Explorer. On a larger scale the compatibility of technology is a huge problem and the companies aren't willing to do anything to change it.

How can these kinds of obstacles be overcome considering stubborness and the dominant role of Microsoft in the current situation?

Tony Bove: I am against using software that doesn't conform to agreed-upon standards. People should vote with their dollars. The Microsoft formats are by no means "open" as in Open Source software. They are, in fact, part of a crafty scheme to maintain the bind that ties business and government customers to Microsoft Office. This is what Microsoft (and, by reporting it, the mainstream press) calls "open"?

While competitors can support Microsoft's "open" format, they can't improve on it without risking a lawsuit. They can, on the other hand, improve on the standard OpenDocument Format (ODF). Therein lies an important distinction. Software can be written years from now that will still be able to read today's ODF documents, and those software vendors can offer improvements to ODF. Those vendors will also be able to read the "standard" Microsoft formats, but not improve on them. Microsoft, of course, will be able to improve on them, and charge for an Office upgrade that takes advantages of those improvements.

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Myersville, Md.: I understand the security concerns associated with using Microsoft products that are riddled with millions of lines of secret bug-ridden code, but is switching to open source software the best solution? The idea that there are many people out there that are willing to fix problems with open source software for free is great, but there remains a tremendous accountability issue.

At least with Microsoft everyone knows who is responsible for reparing security breaches. With open source software there is no one that is ultimately repsonsible for problems that occur.

Tony Bove: The freedom to work with the source code is its own reward. The pioneers of the open source movement give away their software and source code with one caveat: Any improvements have be incorporated back into the software and made available to everyone for free, including the source code for the improvements. Companies can build on the original source code as long as they donate their improvements back to the project.

A programmer annoyed with an open source product can "scratch the itch," as software pioneer Eric Raymond describes it (in "Free For All" by Peter Wayner) and improve the software. With something as complex as an operating system, very deep, serious flaws might be hard to reproduce and identify, and it takes many more people working with the system with different hardware configurations to find these flaws. Raymond likens the difference between corporate-built software (such as Microsoft's) and open source software as the Cathedral versus the Bazaar.

In the Cathedral method of building software products, a talented architect runs a well-focused team of engineers to build the product. However, finding and fixing bugs takes months of scrutiny by the elite team, which guarantees long intervals between software releases. The Bazaar, on the other hand, acts like free marketplace of small merchants competing with each other. Programmers around the world can use the source code to fix bugs and add new features. The best new features and bug fixes are adopted by the larger community after rigorous testing, while the worst ones fall by the wayside. New releases occur more frequently, bringing these bug fixes and features out to the public more quickly than corporate software.

Which is not to say that this undisciplined approach to system debugging produces the best code. Sometimes programmers create fixes that are just good enough for them and their specific problems. But even if a programmer fixes a problem in a way that breaks other parts of the system, the effect is to place a giant arrow on the entire problem, forcing other programmers to create better fixes.

What motivates these programmers? Many do it to show off; others use the experience to pepper their resumes with significant accomplishments. Most do it to make open source software better for themselves and, incidentally, for the rest of the world.

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Wichita, Kan.: Microsoft is such a power house it seems when it comes to operating systems. How can other companies create operating systems, that computer manufactures will bundle with new PC's, while enabling various systems to "communicate" with one another.

An example of this would be at work I use Word Perfect but at home I use OpenOffice. OpenOffice can open word documents and save documents to mimic Word however Word currently doesn't offer users the luxury.

Tony Bove: Standards such as the OpenDocument Format (ODF) can help. You can save in ODF and then use it with different applications that support it (such as OpenOffice.org). It pays to adhere to standards that are developed by and supported by multiple vendors, and not to be stuck with Microsoft's formats.

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Thurmont, Md.: Tony,

Isn't this easier said than done. Microsoft is so embedded in todays computing world that for the most part it is easier to just go with the flow. Take Windows as the main example. Do you foresee anyone other than advanced users ever trying an alternative OS like Linux?

I think the true advantage to Msoft alternatives like Firefox and Open Office is that they give some competition and help speed along development and improvement of Microsofts products, and hoepfully will prevent them from getting lazy with updates like they have been lately.

Tony Bove: Yes, many people, especially folks with older hardware configurations, are checking out the new Linux distributions that are easily installed from CD or DVD and provide a graphical interface that looks much like Windows.

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washingtonpost.com: http://www.tonybove.com/

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St Paul, Minn.: As Linux distributions gain more traction in the workplace desktop environment, what are the prospects Microsoft losing market share due to excessive costs of Redmond products--over the next 2-4 years? An example of a smooth & seamless Linux distribution is SuSE/Novell 10.0--which appears competitive with XP or W2000--and which automatically configures nearly all hardware & network connections--at a fraction of the cost of any Microsoft OS.

In other words, how long can the marketplace ignore an essentially free product which is at least as good as anything being shipped by Microsoft?

Tony Bove: They are not ignoring the value of Linux. Large corporations are already discovering the lower cost advantage for large installations--it's not uncommon for a company with over 5,000 PC users to pay more than a million dollars in license fees to Microsoft. Software vendors bidding for large installation contracts can charge much less if they provide a free operating system. Migration to Linux is a no-brainer for companies that run relatively few applications, especially if these applications are fixed-function or low-function, such as data entry, call center, or bank teller/platform automation. Office workers are using Linux on their desktops without knowing it's Linux. Microsoft is cranking up its PR machine to fight Linux because, frankly, it costs a lot less to outfit an office with Linux and a suite of free applications than it does to outfit an office with Microsoft Windows and Windows-based applications.

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Stone Mountain, Ga.: Most people are not sophisticated enough to maintain Windows because all the updates required for Windows, Explorer, antivirus, anti-spyware, and applications. Most of these people know someone like me who is not IT expert, but can repair most problems and make recommendations. If they switch to Linux and supporting software, they will probably loose their "free" IT help. How will the average person maintain a Linux computer for its 5 year or longer life?

Tony Bove: There are plenty of ways to support Linux and plenty of people who know how to do it. A Google search on Linux support shows that there are free as well as paid alternatives. Check out Dr. Tux (www.doctortux.com) or a similar free service that answers questions.

May I also suggest the Mac, which by and large requires very little support.

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washingtonpost.com: http://www.doctortux.com/

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Laurel, Md.: Being a person of generally pro-labor political bent, I resent any company whose sheer bigness translates into defining what the market is. Obvious M$ is such a business.

However, a few years I played with Linux for a couple of weeks and got it to run... sort of.

How much computer knowledge does it take these days to use non-MS products on a non-MS machine?

Tony Bove: The Mac is a better alternative for most people than Linux. It takes very little computer knowledge to run a Mac -- much less than what you need to run Windows and keep Windows secure.

Linux is a powerful system that is attractive to developers and programmers but is not hard to use. However, it can be complex to tailor a Linux system to a particular hardware configuration.

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North Potomac, Md.: If I move to open office, then is it possible for me to move to Linux or another OS?

Tony Bove: Yes. OpenOffice.org runs on the Mac, Windows, and Linux. You can also try NeoOffice (a version of OpenOffice.org) for the Mac -- it works better and uses the Mac interface entirely. All these programs save in the ODF (OpenDocument Format) so you can use documents interchangeably with them.

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Washington, D.C.: Have you thought about writing more on the latest addiction: "Just say No to Apple" yet? I mean from what I can tell they appear to be visibly more about entertainment these days than education.

Tony Bove: Apple sells proprietary technology at a higher price. But there is very little public outcry over the ironclad control of its products or its arrogance toward companies that want to build upon its products--because Apple does not have a monopoly. In a better world, there would be three or four Apples, each with more than five percent market share, and you'd have choices that are truly different. The Microsoft monopoly prevents other Apples from existing.

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Washington, DC..: Aside from not having a monopoly over personal and business computing, how has Macintosh avoided to "discourage innovation, stunt competition, and foster an environment ripe for viruses, bugs and hackers" (as per your description of Microsoft)?

As many of us consider switching to Mac, it would be helpful to understand this angle in terms of how they best Windows.

Tony Bove: One reason for getting a Mac, and perhaps the most important reason for beginning computer users, is that it is less susceptible to viruses and other nasty security breaches that can reveal your identity, your Social Security number, and the password to your bank account. You can keep your digital life safe with a Mac.

I have used Macs for two decades without ever getting attacked by a virus successfully. While I always follow the "rules of engagement" whenencountering email--don't open strange messages and never click on attachments you don't already know are safe--I don't use any anti-virus programs and don't need any spyware protection. Why not? I use a Mac.

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McAllen, Tex.: Mr.Bove, I recently added a Linux desktop at home, which is exceptional, but anybody without a fair amount of computer savvy will eventually surrender because of the difficulty with adding drivers for basics such as video cards, and wireless cards.

Until this is improved, how can Linux become widely accepted?

Tony Bove: The companies that package Linux in a distribution--either on CD-ROM or for downloading--often include automatic installation programs or wizards that help you through the process of configuring the system for different hardware configurations. Distributions such as Xandros, Sun's Java Desktop System, and Lindows' Linspire offer easy Linux installations or PCs preloaded with Linux, and all the software you need for the desktop. You can even get inexpensive preloaded Linux PCs for under $300 from Wal-Mart. While Linux itself is free, companies make a profit selling packaged versions of the system on CD-ROM that include device drivers, utilities, and applications. Some of these companies, like Red Hat and Novell, offer services on the Internet for downloading software updates and obtaining support.

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Millville, N.J.: Given Apple's current and upcoming products, do you think the company has a good shot at recovering over 5-percent PC marketshare from Microsoft in the next 3-5 years? Also, do you see a desktop Linux solution coming that can lure a good portion of the non-geek, average Joe/Jane consumer from Windows anytime soon? Thank you.

Tony Bove: Apple has an excellent chance of reviving the "home" market with a home entertainment network and system that is better than the Windows Media solution -- because Apple spends far more on design and gets it right. Why is the Mac recognized as a clearly superior machine to any PC on the market? "Style" is what most people think. "Grace under pressure" is what I think, and what I've experienced after two decades of using desktop and portable Macs.

As for Linux, I think in about a year we will see more computers arriving with Linux preinstalled -- such as the $100 laptop that the M.I.T. Media Lab is developing for third-world countries.

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Washington, D.C.: Are any computer manfacturers making optimized Linux laptops? I'd like to try Linux, but I'm not interested in searching for the right drivers for every piece of hardware (wi-fi, sound, drives, power-save, etc.)

If not, are there distributions that are more user-friendly for certain manufacturers?

Tony Bove: Dell offers a Linux laptop, and I believe Wal-Mart is selling a Linux PC.

Some people, believe it or not, find installing Linux on a PC easier than installing Windows, because most Linux distributions install the applications, utilities, and tools along with the operating system. Depending on the distribution, it is possible to have a fully operating system in anywhere from 10 minutes to two hours. It is true that some Linux distributions are crude and ask too many cryptic questions about your graphics card, sound card, Ethernet hardware, and so on. But others, such as SimplyMEPIS (www.mepis.org), can recognize your PC components automatically and install the proper software drivers.

SimplyMEPIS and Knoppix are good examples of Linux distributions that offer the goods. Both are distributed on a single CD with everything you need, and you can even run the system off the CD without installing it on your hard disk. Mozilla is typically provided as the default browser, and in some cases (such as SimplyMEPIS), Macromedia Flash, Real Player, Mplayer, and Java are all set up to work automatically. These distributions also install OpenOffice.org, the open source alternative to Microsoft Office.

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St Paul, Minn.: With Microsoft churning out OS after OS every year it seems, are there any alternatives for an OS on the PC? I am not one of those people who needs to upgrade my OS every time a new one comes out. I still use Windows NT 4 on two machines and I just finally just upgraded my 3rd machine to 2000 Pro after using 98SE for over 4 years, only because I needed a better system for burning DVDs.

Tony Bove: Linux is a great way to squeeze a few extra years out of an aging PC that is still chugging along with the crash-prone and highly insecure Windows 98. To migrate from Windows 95 to Windows XP, you most likely need more memory or even a new PC. But you can install Linux, a web browser, e-mail, and other applications on an older PC for about $50. Computers starved for RAM (under 32 MB) can't really use it, but computers with 64 to 128 MB of RAM can run Linux with all its bells and whistles. By comparison, Microsoft Windows XP needs 128 MB or more.

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Atlanta, Ga.: I would love to switch entirely to Linux, but my two main concerns are compatibility of OpenOffice with Word and Powerpoint, and the lack of reference software like Endnote for Linux. I need to be able to write documents and make presentations that are portable to Windows and Mac. I have thought about switching to Mac, since it's got Unix underpinnings and is compatible with Office.. but I don't like the high cost of Mac hardware.

Tony Bove: OpenOffice.org offers a complete alternative to Office, including an alternative to PowerPoint -- OpenOffice Impress imports and saves PowerPoint files so that you can move your files into a non-Microsoft system and still share them with PowerPoint users. You can also use the OpenDocument Format for files, thereby guaranteeing that they can be opened in the future by OpenOffice.org and other open-source applications, or use Microsoft formats because most applications will support them somehow.

Have you also checked the "low" cost of the new Macs? For some, the cost difference between a fully-loaded Mac laptop and a fully-loaded PC laptop (with everything from large-capacity hard disk to wireless) is not much more than a night in a fancy hotel in Washington, D.C.

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Mitchellville, Md.: Which word processing software can compete with Microsoft Office suite?

Tell me and I will consider it.

Tony Bove: I use OpenOffice.org on a Windows machine and a Linux machine, which offers everything I ever needed in Office. I use NeoOffice on a Mac, which is a version of OpenOffice.org. This stuff works very well.

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King George, Va.: MS Office products are moving to xml in the next release; how will that affect compatability with other products?

Tony Bove: The creation of a fully documented standard derived from the formats, called Microsoft Office Open XML, will likely take about a year, according to Microsoft. Microsoft is submitting the format to the European standards body ECMA International (ECMA is a Geneva-based standards organization which issues standards and recommendations). While Microsoft wraps its public announcement in the mantle of "openness" the formats submitted are not open. Microsoft doesn't relinquish control of the Office formats to other companies. All Microsoft is promising to do is provide information about the formats and not sue anyone for using them.

Microsoft's strategy is to confuse the public by obfuscating the details involved in the standards process and in legislative actions, and by claiming its move will "open" these file formats. We're all supposed to wait another year while Microsoft finishes Office. The company could have supported OpenDocument in order to remain competitive with OpenOffice.org and other Office rivals, but instead, Microsoft is maintaining its monopoly position with Office by sticking with its own formats. How will this affect you? As you move your documents into future systems, you may want to rid yourself of Microsoft formats that lock you into using Office. At this point it seems that the OpenDocument standard is the only truly open standard that is guaranteed to work with other applications.

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Pittsburgh, Pa.: I agree with your basic premises and conclusions, but I think that changes need to begin with training. I believe that the major impediment to any changes in corporate policies is determined largely by what is currently "known."

What are your suggestions for changing how training is done? Are there any resources that might subsidize the teaching of alternate computing tools in the technical schools and community colleges?

Tony Bove: I think the simplest approach is the best, with regard to training: Google the Internet, which offers an extensive amount of information about open-source software. Linux and open-source software is already very popular at the university level. The next generation of programmers will all be savvy with open-source software.

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Lubbock, Tex.: Are there really alternatives to Windows XP Professional and Microsoft Office Professional? Which programs compare to MS ACCESS and Powerpoint? Is Linux an alternative to XP Professional?

Tony Bove: If you can afford to buy a new computer, get a Mac as an alternative to Windows XP (or wait another year and buy the new Intel-based Macs that will offer both the Mac OS X operating system and Windows side-by-side). Download OpenOffice.org as a replacement for Microsoft Office (on any machine, or try NeoOffice for the Mac).

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Anonymous: Isn't the use of non-MicroSoft products the only way to make MicroSoft improve their products?

Tony Bove: Good idea. Competition is healthy. That's why I wrote this book, "Just Say No to Microsoft" -- to promote competition.

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Frederick, Md.: Will Microsoft ever consider using celebrities, such as Jeff Gordon, to promote their products?

Tony Bove: Microsoft would probably get it wrong and pick the wrong celebrity. In 1995, the company launched Windows 95 with the Rolling Stones song "Start Me Up," which, as Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, noted at the time, "is better known for its catchy refrain 'You make a grown man cry.' This is a phrase you may hear a lot of over the next few days as millions of people start trying to install Windows.

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washingtonpost.com: Don't miss our discussion on OpenOffice.org , live at noon ET.

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Arlington, Va.: Just saw a survey of top 10 IT truisms. Something to the effect of "no one ever got fired for buying Microsoft" was on it. Microsoft has been the target of criticism for a long time -- why isn't anyone listening?

Tony Bove: Microsoft has a history of using Microspeak to manipulate the press -- such as the announcement on April 16, 1997 that it would continue to make its email service more useful by doubling its servers. In reality, the company was doubling its servers in order to recover from a failure that caused emails to be lost. America Online had similar email problems at that time and was skewered in the press, while Microsoft got off without even having to offer a refund, as AOL did.

The press generally accommodates Microsoft's "bum steers" about Longhorn -- now called Vista -- as if they were facts. Case in point: When Apple introduced Tiger (version 10.4 of Mac OS X) at the end of April 2005, a fanfare of stories appeared that compared it to Microsoft's future Longhorn. CNET News even ran the headline "Longhorn on Tiger's tail" and described some of the new features of Longhorn, many of which are supposedly Tiger-like. And yet, Longhorn won't be available until the end of 2006! Some of the features Gates demonstrated in April 2005 won't even be in the first release. Gates said himself at the press conference, "When I see those demos, I think, 'Gosh, let's get Longhorn done.'" Gee whiz, Bill! The press awaits with baited breath.

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Silver Spring, Md.: You wrote "new Intel-based Macs that will offer both the Mac OS X operating system and Windows side-by-side"...last I heard, Apple wasn't planning on including Windows and wasn't planning on facilitating that.

I'm sure that enterprising folks will figure out a simple way to do this, but you make it sounds like Apple will sell Intel-based Macs with Windows, which simply isn't the case. Have things changed very recently, or are you just speculating that Apple will shift directions?

Tony Bove: Everyone is speculating -- no one has any real answers as to what Apple will offer. However, people had spoken publicly that the Intel-based Macs will be able to "drop you into Windows" if you wish to use Windows. There is no prediction -- yet -- that Apple would offer Windows. But it would not be difficult for a version of Windows to run on the machine.

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Columbus, Ohio: I'm an attorney and manage my own small law firm. I've been able to avoid MS in many applications -- I use WordPerfect, Firefox, avoid Windows XP as much as possible, etc., but here are my hurdles:

1. Learning curve for Linux. I've set up a Linux box to play with and bought several books on Linux, but where does one find the time?

2. Many applications I need as an attorney only run on Windows. Many peripherals don't have Windows drivers. Macs? Pretty cool but I'm used to generic parts -- I swap motherboards, graphics cards, etc. all the time.

Suggestions? I won't be able to be on-line at 11 so I hope to read responses later.

Tony Bove: Actually I find it hard to believe that you would spend more time learning Linux than the time you already spend swapping motherboards, graphic cards, etc. A lot of the PC hardware we use today will look quaint and operate less than optimally when compared to new hardware coming tomorrow. I typically save time by getting the best hardware configuration all together (such as a Mac) and then running the best software. The learning curve is part of the problem, indeed, but so is the learning curve with new upgrades to Windows and hardware configuration problems.

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Baltimore Md.: With recent beta-launches of MSN's Adcenter and web service portal live.com, is the public aware of how Microsoft plans to use their user's passport information - the information they're required to enter when they purchase a new computer and/or register with windows XP - to target advertising and study individual web surfing habits?

Tony Bove: How about this for an idea: Let's give Microsoft all of our personal information to make sure it stays secure. Yeah, great idea. . . Given Microsoft's track record with its Passport authentication system, you'd have to be crazy. In 2001, software flaws in the security of Microsoft's Passport authentication system left consumers' financial data wide open. The company got slapped on the wrist for this security lapse. As part of a settlement agreement with the FTC, the company agreed to make "sweeping changes," which were, in reality, just changes to the company's privacy statements and promises to submit to audits. Fortunately, real punishment was meted out to Microsoft by the industry itself, which, for once, decided to say no.

At issue is Microsoft's Passport, a set of technologies that acts as a centerpiece for web services. Passport accounts are central repositories for a person's online data and can include personal information such as birthdays and credit card numbers. They can also act as a single key to access many online accounts. Microsoft uses Passport authentication for its Hotmail email service and its MSN Messenger instant messaging service. Other e-commerce services also rely on Passport; it's used in transactions in online gaming and for purchases of Microsoft Reader e-books.

Another flaw, discovered in 2003, could have allowed attackers armed only with a Passport user's email address to get that user's name, address, and credit card number. Passport lost its credibility quickly. Privacy organizations galore rejected it outright. The European Union demanded changes to give users more control over how their personal data is shared with partner sites. Then, in early 2005, eBay officially notified customers that it would no longer let them log on through Passport.

Today, Passport use is limited to Microsoft-owned sites and a handful of close partners.

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New York, N.Y.: I worked for Sun and never had a problem with Solaris running on my laptop, but now that I'm working freelance, how can I switch from Windows when the applications I need run only on Windows, or maybe Macs (FrameMaker, for instance)?

Tony Bove: FrameMaker used to be avail. for the Mac. Maybe it isn't supported anymore... But I would suggest moving on to a FrameMaker alternative. If what you want are multiple book support, check out the features of OpenOffice.org. I used to use FrameMaker for writing and publishing documentation, but I've moved on as most documentation is now in HTML format.

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Columbia, Md.: Tony,

I'm a long-time Linux user (since kernel 0.94). I used to work in a Unix environment, so I was familiar with Unix configuration and administration.

Now I'm working in a Windows environment and I'm finding it harder to keep my Linux machines up to date. What I really want is one personal machine that will let me work with my Windows-bound peers and still give me the freedom and flexibility I have with Linux

Some friends have suggested switching to Mac as the best of both worlds --- ease of use through OS-X with a BSD-ish Unix underneath for which I can compile many (or even most) Open Source applications (such as Emacs, TeX, SciLab, Python, etc).

What do you think?

Tony Bove: I completely agree with using the Mac as the best of both worlds. It is the most reliable form of BSD and hardware configuration, so that everything just works.

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Annapolis, Md.: You had answered a previous question about security and responsibilities of a vendor versus the OSS community.

IMHO, you missed a critical point in your answer in that while MS has a responsibility to address bugs they also have little incentive to do so. Their monopoly position is well protected, and barring really major security issues (i.e. lots of people lose money directly attributable to a security bug) they will never have the incentive to fix bugs.

OTOH smaller vendors, in this case Linux/OpenOffice/Firefox, must build a better product if they are to succeed in the marketplace.

Tony Bove: I agree completely.

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Burke, Va.: The "accountability" argument against open source is just silly. What benefit from accountability are you seeing when Microsoft holds back security patches in order to release them once per month (because the embarrassment from releasing the patches multiple times per month was killing them)?

When an open source program such as Mozilla is patched, the patch is available to everyone, immediately, and you (and the entire security community) can verify that the problem has really been fixed, and not just had a security-through-obscurity bandaid slapped on it that will become exploitable next month.

Tony Bove: I agree. Microsoft's "patch tuesdays" are reported dutifully by the press. But does anyone really understand why Microsoft can't fix software that is several years old now?

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Greenville, N.C.: Tony, and the rest of the audience,

Might I suggest a Macintosh as the best and most viable alternative to any Microsoft product. Apple's Mac OS X is secure, stable, and most importantly has an established and award winning support structure.

Also, let's not forget that Apple does make a desktop machine that retails for $499.00.

I can think of very few downsides of choosing Apple, and if there are any, they far outweigh the donwsides of Microsoft products, as well as "grass roots" products such as Linux.

Tony Bove: I agree. The Mac is usually the best solution for an individual, and a Mac network is usually the best solution for a small business or profession.

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Greenville, N.C.: What about backend corporate systems? It amazes me the number of large corporations that dump tons of money into proprietary Microsoft systems such as Exchange and Active Directory. Tony, do you think open source systems such as open directory, posfix, and such are ready for prime time?

Tony Bove: Yes, I think these technologies are ready. Linux users can use Samba (http://us1.samba.org/samba/), a free open source suite that provides filesharing and print services with Windows on a network. Samba uses the TCP/IP protocol to interact with a Windows client or server as if it is a Windows file and print server. It enables a Linux or Unix system to move into a Windows Network Neighborhood without causing a stir. Windows users can access file and print services without knowing or caring that those services are being offered by a Linux host.

Samba cannot only share directories on a Linux machine on a Windows network, but it can also manage a Windows domain as its domain controller.

Apple provides a server version of OS X that competes with the best Linux servers on the market as an alternative to Windows Server, supporting all industry standards and even proprietary "standards" such as Active Directory. In fact, Mac OS X Server can access account records stored in Active Directory without requiring any modifications to the Active Directory schema. Based on open source BSD and Mach kernel, Mac OS X Server includes a number of open source projects, including Mailman, Tomcat, JBoss, Apache, Postfix, Perl, Samba, and BIND, and integrates many of them into a central console application to make the entire system easier to use. It provides Mac-easy file management, user management, and print, Internet, and mail services for small business settings. It is a capable website server, grouping together simple hosting, broadcasting, and streaming controls.

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Columbia, Md.: I think MS' monopoly has spawned other monopolies in the sense that my organization is held hostage by the IT dept. I am fairly competent when it comes to getting this beast up and running. However, I am inundated with constant updates, software auto installed on my computer, warnings about not having the mandatory backup software installed (I backup every evening onto a USB drive), etc....

These people are incompetent for the most part because they have no inherent interest vested in the os. A stupid certificate is all it takes to join the IT team.

Tony Bove: I agree to a certain extent. Many IT professionals owe their jobs to having considerable Windows expertise (though the same could be said of Linux). They don't have a vested interest in alternatives.

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Nashville Tenn.: Is it true that Windows 98 and 98 SE are not as vulnerable to todays viruses, worms and spyware? Is this because the ActiveX vulnerability in XP?

AND why publish a list of known vulnerabilities like Microsoft does? Does that not make it even EASIER for the bad guys to exploit our code and violate our PCS? I have had a flood of keyloggers and spyware infections lately by the way.. !-!

Tony Bove: No, Windows 98 and older versions are MORE susceptible to viruses for a lot of reasons, including the fact that Microsoft does not offer patches. ActiveX, on the other hand, presents a whole slew of new vulnerabilities. You can't win.

Why publish a list? The bad guys already know this information -- the list is for good guys and innocents like us.

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Greenville, NC: How can you say Apple comes at a premium? They sell a desktop that retails for $499.00.

Even their $1299 - $1699 iMacs show great value once you factor in all of the software, I/O options, and functionality.

Apple certainly isn't perfect, but I think is the best alternative to Windows - especially for the general public.

Tony Bove: I agree.

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Tony Bove: Thank you, online questioners!

My book, "Just Say No to Microsoft" (No Starch Press) is for everyone to read, but not necessarily to follow in all ways. Only the brave might try Linux on a desktop. Many of you might switch to Macs, because it's easy to do and nearly always a rewarding experience. Still more of you will stick with Microsoft systems and software--but you can learn techniques gleaned from anecdotal experience that will help you avoid viruses and other catastrophes.

Thank you for participating in this discussion. You can follow this topic further by logging into my "Get Off Microsoft" blog at this address:

http://www.tonybove.com/getoffmicrosoft/blog/

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