--Alan Zisman

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 software necessary
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.*

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan