ISSUE 461: THE HIGH-TECH OFFICE- Aug
Microsoft rules the world of operating systems
but the alternatives are worth a second look
You may have heard ru-
mours of a Microsoft monopoly in operating systems -- the key
for your computer to work and that gives it its look and feel. Indeed,
Windows 3.1, CE, 95, 98 and NT account for 90 per cent or more of the
home and business computers in use today.
But, ironically, at the same time that we're seeing
Windows everywhere, there are more non-Microsoft options than ever.
If you want something other than Windows,
traditionally the options were pretty slim. At the personal-computer
level, you probably got a Mac. Apple's Macintosh remains the
predominant non-Windows operating system. And while it requires
specialized hardware only available from Apple, with additional
third-party software, such as Connectix's Virtual PC, you can
even run Windows and Windows applications, right on your Mac desktop.
At the high end, there is a wide range of Unix
variants, also mostly requiring specialized hardware. These systems,
from companies such as Sun and Silicon Graphics,
remain the choice for users requiring more performance, stability and
security than they can get from the Microsoft mass-market systems.
But there are four alternatives to Windows for
garden-variety PCs, all offering a lot of power and performance.
IBM's OS/2 has evolved from its late-1980s
origins. It has become both more powerful and a lot slicker. Arguably,
it offers more customization options than any other system and is more
compatible with DOS programs than any Windows version. OS/2 can run
older Windows 3.1 applications, but not the latest generation of
Windows 95/NT applications. There is, however, a wide range of
OS/2-native applications. OS/2 has a strong user base in financial
institutions, for example.
Linux has grown from directly opposite roots. It
started out eight years ago, created by Finnish student Linux
Torvalds, as a free software operating system, mimicking Unix.
Recently, Red Hat and Caldera have produced commercial
distributions of Linux.
As well, Linux is being increasingly positioned as an
alternative to Windows NT. As a result, a number of commercial
applications, including Netscape's Web browser and server, Oracle
and Informix databases and Corel Word Perfect are being
offered in Linux versions.
The newest OS on the block is the BeOS. Originally
designed for PowerPC-based hardware, it was first ported over as an
alternative for Macintosh systems and, most recently, for Intel-based
PCs. Like Linux, it has a Unix-like core, with a smooth graphical
interface on top. Its powerful multitasking is typically demonstrated
by running a bunch of video clips at the same time -- as smoothly as a
Mac or Windows system runs one at a time, yet using the same hardware.
The BeOS isn't aimed at the general market. Instead,
it's pitched as a system for multi-media developers. As a result, don't
look for a wide range of general-purpose software for this system.
Ironically, the last alternative OS is the one with
the oldest roots: DOS. Yes, while Micro-
soft is trying to wean the public away from its 1981-era operating
system, new and im-
proved versions are attracting attention. Over the past year or so,
Caldera has sold three million copies of Dr-DOS, an alternative to
MS-DOS initially developed by Digital Research, and then sold
to Novell. But it isn't your parents' DOS any longer. The
latest version includes a graphical Web browser that can run on a 386,
networking support based on Novell's Netware Lite, multitasking, power
management and more. It's a powerful system for use on older computers
and network-thin clients. Caldera is pitching it for the growing
markets of handheld computers and embedded systems.*