NWA-PCUG Newsletter Article, November 2004
The New, the Best, and the Worst
Collected by Pim Borman,
Editor and APCUG Representative, Southwest Indiana PC Users Group, Inc.

As we all know, Microsoft software is used on 90% of the world’s desktop computers. Over the years Microsoft has managed to include Internet Explorer with the Windows OS sold with almost every new computer. Microsoft Works or the more expensive Microsoft Office programs are bundled with most systems, at extra cost, but hidden in the total cost of a new computer. As a result, earlier successful programs such a Netscape, Word Star, Word Perfect, Database II, and Lotus 1-2-3 are still only used by a few dedicated fans. To this date it is almost impossible to buy a computer from a major manufacturer without pre-installed MS software. Most recently Dell has started to sell some computers with Linux-based Linspire pre-installed, but in Europe only. Dell is also offering some computers without any operating system in the US, allowing the buyer to install the OS of his choice. Some small, lesser known manufacturers also sell Microsoft-free computers. Still, it will take years, if ever, to overcome the domination of MS in the desktop computer market.

Microsoft has historically emphasized ease of use (with varying success) and addition of new features to program updates to keep the customers coming back for more. Now that it has become painfully obvious that the programs also should be resistant to tampering by malicious individuals, it is probably too late to correct the many vulnerabilities, given that there are millions of lines of code involved to be critically reviewed. SP2, a major security update for Windows XP, has now become available. Previewers describe it as a major security improvement for Windows XP and Internet Explorer 6, but the virus and worm kiddies will undoubtedly find new ways to bring down the system. SP2 reportedly introduces dozens of potential incompatibilities with your hardware and software. Also, the size of the update is between 100 and 300 MB, depending on the updates already installed on your computer. Such a download is not feasible for those with a telephone modem; it is expected that Microsoft will make the update available on CD, but the question remains: how many users will go to the trouble to get the update and install it? And how long will it take before most of us are up-to-date?

Since MS Windows and its programs are the fat and juicy sitting ducks preferably targeted by virus artists, a good way to protect yourself is to get away from it and to choose alternate software, not susceptible to common worms and viruses, and not targeted by script kiddies. The following are some possible choices.

Since most of the nastiness enters your computer through Internet Explorer and Outlook Express, choose alternate programs. Many users are changing to the free Mozilla Foxfire (http://www.mozilla.org/products/firefox/), an open source browser and e-mail program for Windows, Linux or the MAC OS. The browser is quite similar to Netscape and receives high praise from most users, who prefer it to Internet Explorer. Version 1.0, now forthcoming, also performs pop-up blocking and protection from spyware. Another popular choice is Opera for Windows or Linux (http://+ +opera.com), also a free download, although you must pay $29 to get rid of an advertising banner at the top of the page. I prefer Mozilla in Linux because it is less cluttered.

MS Office programs, especially Outlook, Word and Excel, have also been targets of hackers, making use of their macro features to cause haywire. WordPerfect Office 12 from Corel (http://www.corel.com) includes a word processor, the Quattro Pro spreadsheet, and the Presentations multimedia slide shows similar to MS PowerPoint. It costs $300 and is almost fully compatible with MS Word documents.

StarOffice 6.0 Office Suite from Sun Microsystems (wwws.sun.com/software/star/staroffice/6.0/) includes word processing, spreadsheet, graphics, presentation and database programs. It claims full compatibility with MS Office and costs $75. It is available for Windows, Solaris and Linux operating systems. I tried it several years ago, when it was still free, and didn’t like the way it took over my computer, including rearrangement of my desktop.

Finally, a promising newcomer is the free, open-source OpenOffice.org, currently at version 1.1.2. and also from Sun Microsystems (http://www.openoffice.org/). It is derived from StarOffice, with omission of code licensed by Sun from third-party sources. It is available for Windows, Mac OS, Linux and Solaris operating systems. In addition to the MS Word-compatible OpenOffice Writer it includes spreadsheet, database and presentation programs. I have been using the word processor in Linux and find the compatibility with MS Word formats quite good. It also supports saving and mailing documents in PDF format and supports mobile device formats like AportisDoc (Palm), Pocket Word and Pocket Excel.

The best way to avoid Microsoft-targeted worms and spyware altogether is not to use any Microsoft products at all. Apple Computer’s Mac Operating System is based on Unix and the Macs are therefore immune to PC viruses. The exceptions are MS Office for the Mac programs that are susceptible to the same malicious macros aimed at PCs. The Mac OS does not run on Intel or AMD cpu-based PC clones, so you’ll have to buy a new, expensive Apple computer to achieve trouble-free online communications. You may still need your PC for programs and games that are not available on the Mac.

A better alternative is to install one of the new, inexpensive, user-friendly Linux distributions on a separate partition of your hard drive, or on an older computer if you have one. I have used Linspire (http://www.linspire.com) now for a year on an old laptop. It connects by Wi-Fi wireless via my router to the Internet and to my printer. I use the Mozilla browser and OpenOffice.org Write for browsing and correspondence, and everything works flawlessly. I have transferred genealogy and checkbook data to corresponding Linux programs. I can play more solitaire programs than I know how to, including two versions of FreeCell. Many other games are available, including the addictive arcade games BreakOut II and Frozen Bubble. I even managed to install a free version of the anti-virus program f-prot (http://www.f-prot.com/) that protects Linux systems as well as Windows, but for lack of Linux viruses I have no idea if it works or not. There is a harmless virus-like test file on the f-prot Web site that I downloaded to test f prot. It worked as advertised. A longer discussion of my experiences with Linspire can be found in the July-August issue of the P-See UrGent (http://www.mozilla.org/products/firefox/)

So there you have it. Maybe it is better to switch than fight!

There is no restriction against any non-profit group using this article as long as it is kept in context with proper credit given the author. The Editorial Committee of the Association of Personal Computer User Groups (APCUG), an international organization of which this group is a member, brings this article to you.

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