Why? and other general questions about software

I just got my first new computer in 5 years or so, and I came away asking the same question I’ve been asking for even longer: how does Microsoft ever sell any software?

Now I do have to confess that I’m a bit biased, having watched MS grow from its very earliest days. My first PC was a Kaypro II, purchased in the early 1980s. It was a marvel of technology, being a portable computer of amazing power. It weighed only about 30 lbs. and had not one but two 5 1/4″ floppy drives (no hard drive, of course). The CRT was about the same 5 inches or so of white-on-black text (graphics? Of course — anything that could be represented with x, o, and -. Where do you think emoticons came from?)

Yet that clunky little machine could do everything a mainframe computer could do in a business office or classroom — word processing, spreadsheets, advanced scientific and mathematical calculations, even a few games.

The operating system, called CP/M, was developed by a tiny, non-Microsoft company in Colorado (I think).  CP/M was a model of efficient programming. It fit onto a tiny sector of each floppy disk.

Just a few years later, IBM came out with its PC (the first one to sport the name that now defines the whole industry) and chose the fledgling Microsoft’s MS-DOS for the operating system. (Reputedly because the CP/M company chief went hiking and missed the visit by IBM execs, who felt he failed to realize their importance.)

MS-DOS, the progenitor of MS Windows, was buggy and bloated, yet soon took over because of IBM’s advertising clout. As hardware advanced, Microsoft added more and more bloat to the operating system and seemed to add more and more bugs with each new release. But by refusing to adopt any proposed standards except its own and refusing to allow compatibility between its software and anyone else’s who hadn’t paid them handsomely, Microsoft soon conquered the software world.

They also forced everyone to buy new software periodically by refusing to make new releases backwards-compatible with previous releases. In other words, a file you created with MS-Word in 1987 would be inaccessible to you by 1990 or so unless you paid extra to convert to the new format.

All ancient history, of course, but it explains why I switched my home computer to Linux a few years ago, as soon as I could find a version that was easily usable by a non-geek like me. For the past 5 years, that’s been Ubuntu.

Perhaps that non-geek thing is why Microsoft still rules the world. Linux has been around for a long time, as well as other open-source software, but most of it was developed by geeks for geeks. People who just needed their PC to work were scared off by the thoughts of getting stuck halfway through installation and being told by the helpful instructions to enter a command line string that looks like Greek. And with Linux being free, there can’t be any decent support, right? (Actually, I find the online Ubuntu support easier to use than the Microsoft equivalent. My wife has a Windows laptop that has to stay that way because of her work, so I’ve had opportunities to compare them side-by-side.)

The version of Ubuntu Linux I installed on my old desktop five years ago was mostly pain-free, but I did have to wrestle through the process of finding workarounds for proprietary drivers from manufacturers of component hardware parts who declined to let the Linux community develop open-source variants. So while once installed Ubuntu ran quicker, cleaner, and more securely than Windows ever did on the same machine, I still recommended it to my friends with reservations.

But with my new PC, the experience was almost as painless as using the pre-installed Windows 7. I downloaded Ubuntu 10.10 from http://www.ubuntu.org, burned a CD of the image, and booted it in the PC.

(Note: as a precaution, I paid extra for a Windows recovery disk when I bought my laptop, just in case something went wrong and I needed to start over. As things worked out it wasn’t needed, but I still have nightmares about an experience years ago when I tried to upgrade my old Compaq to Windows ME and couldn’t recover when it wouldn’t run, so I tend to be cautious about anything that could render a PC inoperable.)

The Ubuntu disk lets you run the system from CD just to try it out. Keep in mind that it’s very slow when run that way, as it is limited by the CD speed. And you can’t save anything in trial mode.

The Ubuntu disk is also the installation disk. Once you press the install button, it allows you to create a dual-boot system, meaning Windows and Linux share your hard drive and you get to choose between them when you start the computer each time. That works well and lets you preserve your Windows environment and files. But keep in mind it also diminishes that amount of storage available for each system. I believe Ubuntu can access files in the Windows environment on a dual-boot drive, but I haven’t tested that.

The other installation option is to wipe the hard drive clean and install Ubuntu as the only operating system. That’s the option I chose for my new machine.

The installation process is very similar to that you may have seen if you’ve installed a version of Windows. It asks a few questions, then warns you that you are about to wipe out everything on the hard drive. Twenty minutes or so later, it tells you it’s finished. (By the way, if it asks whether you want to download proprietary drivers for components of your PC, answer yes. Those are the ones the manufacturers of sound cards, graphics cards, wireless network cards, etc., provide for your PC. Because they are closed-source or “proprietary,” Linux developers cannot modify them as they do the open-source software they support. Thus they must be used as-is.

Sounds kind of scary, but it’s no biggy in actual practice. Your PC needs them to work properly, and all of this is “under the hood” if you remember to say yes to the question.

But anyway, back to my new PC. After installation, I booted up and found that Ubuntu 10.10 takes less time to load than Windows 7. It also boots “quietly,” one of the things I love about Linux. There’s no litany of warnings, advertisements, and notices. No dire threats that “bad guys will empty your refrigerator within 24 hours if you don’t download and install this update NOW!”

In fact, Windows users might find the blank desktop intimidating. Don’t worry, you can customize it to your heart’s content, but the starting point is truly a blank slate. The menu at the top (it can be moved if you like) lists all the software and locations you need in easy drop-down lists.

And, oddly for people used to the Microsoft world where you have to pay through the nose for application software, the base install includes everything that a typical user will ever need. And there’s lots more available if you care to explore the Ubuntu software lists. I recommend exploring the base install before you look for things to add to it.

One key part of the base install is OpenOffice. I’ve learned over the years to prefer OpenOffice to MS Office for several reasons. One is compatibility — files created in OpenOffice are backward compatible. In fact, they are compatible with a variety of file formats–even PDF, which the last time I checked MS Office couldn’t handle without purchasing an add-on.

Therefore, for instance, you can edit files created in MS Office, convert them to the native OpenOffice formats (which by the way usually take less space than the Microsoft formats), leave them in the original format or convert them to a number of other formats.

In fact, I found that I could use OpenOffice to open old format MS Word files and convert them to the current MS Word format. It solved several issues when people I worked with had different versions of MS Word on their PCs and couldn’t figure out how to get a critical document to work on all of them.

OpenOffice is widely supported, stemming from the time a few years ago when companies and government agencies realized that the closed-source software world did not support long-term archiving. I worked in a company of 20,000 employees that suddenly discovered it could not open five-year-old documents and spreadsheets they needed because Microsoft no longer supported the old file formats. (In fairness, I think Microsoft and other software vendors have now addressed that problem so it’s not quite the issue it once was.)

Many governments world-wide then made open standards a requirement for any software they used, meaning that anyone could open old files easily. When Microsoft tried to preserve its forced upgrade model, OpenOffice became a de facto or official standard for many organizations, especially in Europe.

So it’s well supported, just as robust, more flexible than MS Office, and free. That brings me back to my original question: How does Microsoft sell anything anymore?

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