Windows in My Closet
Earlier this year, I installed the Red Hat version of the Linux operating system (Redhat.com) on the hard drive of my main computer. I had long been fiddling with different flavors of Linux and decided to switch over entirely because I was becoming increasingly uncomfortable with Microsoft. Bill Gates' company was getting too big even for its ample britches. It had been considering charging monthly rental fees for future versions of its office software, which is absurd--but, absent serious competition, quite feasible from a business standpoint. Moreover, using Microsoft Internet Explorer to surf the Web is a one more vote for Webmasters everywhere to disregard open Web standards in favor of Microsoft-specific ones.
Linux is not just an alternative operating system (OS). It stands as an alternative to the notion that relatively simple software, such as a word-processing program, is a scarce resource that can only be purchased (or rented) at considerable expense. Linux's source code is freely available, and the deeper the OS penetrates into the marketplace, the stronger the movement for openly available software. Plus, it'd be nice if operating-system software, something we use every day and depend upon, wasn't subject to the financial whims of one company.
But, like every other ideological decision to Do the Right Thing, using Linux can be a pain in the butt. And just as the most health-conscious dieter longs for a greasy cheeseburger, I long for the junk-software goodness of Windows.
To be fair, it is not Linux itself that I have a problem with. Linux is simply the core OS that drives the computer, and as such it works well. (For one thing, it's nearly crash-proof.) It's all the end-user programs on top of Linus Torvalds' creation that trouble me. Last week, for instance, I had to spend 20 minutes picking errant question marks out of a story I was filing to my editor--thanks to the desktop interface I use, Linux KDE. The question marks got in there when I pulled my story from my word processor into my e-mail reader. With Windows I could cut and paste between the two applications directly, but KDE can't consistently cut and paste text across apps. So I had to save the story as plain text and then export it, and in the conversion all the apostrophes morphed into question marks. Ugh!
And it's not only cut and paste I miss. It's all sorts of simple things. I long for the days when I could install a network card and not have to recompile the entire OS to use it. For when I could change desktop settings and not have the new arrangement fall apart afterward. For when I could use an Internet browser that was not so slow and bug-ridden that it made me want to log off completely. Recently, I've been sneaking documents to work so I can print them from printer-friendly Windows computers. And on these PCs, I can access Microsoft-only services such as the downloadable-audio store Audible.com or surf to Web sites that use multimedia enhancements that Linux doesn't support.
But me, use Microsoft? Naaah.
Lately, various Microsoft honchos have been speaking out against open-source software such as Linux. One exec went as far as to insinuate that open-source software was un-American. And in a May 3 speech reprinted on Microsoft PressPass (Microsoft.com), company senior vice president Craig Mundie vilified open-source software by saying it undermines the notion of intellectual property and, by extension, the commercial software industry.
To open-source advocates, this proves that Microsoft is starting to view Linux as a serious competitive threat. It also shows just how shameless the software behemoth has become. Who is Mundie kidding with that intellectual-property riff? This from the company that ripped off the Macintosh graphical interface for Windows; that did the same to Netscape for its own (admittedly superior) Explorer Web browser; that shamelessly appropriated Real.com's RealPlayer audio jukebox concept for its own Windows Media Player. And what was MS-DOS if not a dumbed-down Unix?
Microsoft has never been about heavy innovation, its multibillion-dollar research and development labs notwithstanding. (Anyone remember the company's run at pen-based computing in the '90s?) Gates has always fancied himself a mighty innovator, forging ahead with new technologies, but in fact his company has always been a popularizer rather than a pioneer, profiting by making existing technologies just a little bit easier. Microsoft is Kenny G to, say, Unix's John Coltrane--the entity that reaps big awards for simplifying and smoothing over the rough edges of other people's great ideas so they can be used by the masses.
And as long as Windows is slightly easier to use than Linux KDE, its place on most desktops is safe--at least on the desktops of those people for whom using appliances isn't an ideological issue. Microsoft doesn't make operating systems that innovate--but it does make operating systems that allow you to cut and paste. And as far as I'm concerned, that's no small achievement.
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