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Meet the challengers to Windows' throne

June 12, 1998
Web posted at: 11:11 AM ET

by Lincoln Spector

The way Bill Gates sees it, a market share of nearly 90 percent isn't a monopoly. In heated exchanges with the Justice Department, Microsoft's chairman has insisted that Windows has plenty of formidable competitors. Ralph Nader doesn't agree.

In early March, Nader and the Consumer Project on Technology asked six PC makers, including Compaq, Dell, and Gateway, to offer customers the option of a non-Windows operating system such as Linux (a UNIX variant) or BeOS (a newcomer to the PC platform). At press time, the CPT had not received formal responses from any of the PC vendors.

If you've never heard of these Windows alternatives, you're not alone. In 1997, according to market research company International Data Corporation, Windows owned an 86.3 percent share of the market for desktop operating systems. And unless the Department of Justice succeeds in halting the Windows 98 juggernaut, Microsoft could very well claim the remaining 13.7 percent of the market.

Why should you care about market share? Software vendors focus their development efforts on the most popular platforms, so that's where you'll see the most new programs. Moreover, using a minority operating system invites all kinds of compatibility problems when you want to share files and data with associates and customers.

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Limited Solutions

But what if you hate Microsoft and you're fed up with Windows' notorious instability? Such sore points are leading some users to seek out alternatives. Vicki Reeves, a system administrator for the Beauregard Parish Public Library in DeRidder, Louisiana, was writing a grant in a hotel room last year when she went online to check something. "When I tried to close the modem connection," she says, "Windows froze. I lost 2 hours of editing." Soon thereafter, she bought a new notebook that uses Linux.

But Linux is too difficult for all but the most technically savvy. Other solutions have their own limitations: The Mac is too expensive, the JavaOS is more convenient for IS departments than for users, and the BeOS is still too new to judge.

Though flawed, operating systems from Apple, Be, Sun, and others bring innovation to market. The best of those innovations can wind up in the mainstream.

Linux: Free, but Unfriendly

If Gates and company have anything to worry about on the OS front, the threat might be Linux--a variation of UNIX that comes with an unbeatable price: It's absolutely free.

Linux has acquired some high-profile industry support. Netscape cofounder Marc Andreessen has publicly praised the seven-year-old platform, and Corel offers a Linux version of WordPerfect.

Plus, you can now buy Linux as a commercial product (it continues to be available as a free download, too). Caldera and Red Hat sell it for prices ranging from $50 to $399 (depending on service contracts, number of licenses, and so on). What you're paying for, of course, is a CD-ROM, printed documentation, additional features, and somewhat easier installation. Both companies also sell Linux office suites, complete with word processors, spreadsheets, and such.

As a result of all this activity, Linux is the only non-Microsoft operating system expected to gain much in popularity. IDC predicts that Linux's share will jump from 1997's 2.4 percent to 4.2 percent by 2001, overtaking the MacOS.

Much of Linux's popularity stems from its use as a network OS, where it's proving a feasible--if not very popular-- alternative to Windows NT Server and conventional flavors of UNIX, especially for running networked applications and Web servers. Some system administrators find it more stable than NT and easier to control--even when you're off site. John Morris, an independent contractor in DeRidder, Louisiana, remembers administering a network with one NT server and five Linux servers. "If one of them crashed, odds are that it was the NT box. I'd then have to come out there at 5 a.m. and kick it. You can't easily reboot an NT box remotely."

Linux will have a more difficult time cracking the desktop market. At this point, most desktop Linux users are either computer professionals--the ones administering those networks. For an operating system to compete on the desktop, it has to be easy to set up and use--and Linux is anything but. In our informal tests with Caldera's OpenLinux, we found even simple tasks like reading a fresh CD-ROM to be nightmarishly cryptic.

The upshot: Linux is worth considering if your company needs a really inexpensive platform for network applications. But as a mainstream desktop operating system, it doesn't present a viable alternative to Windows.

Mac: Now a Niche

Though Apple's MacOS has lost much of its former market share, the vendor has plans to fight back. This summer, Apple will introduce MacOS 8.5, an upgrade that promises better Internet integration with new browsing capabilities, easier Internet setup, and faster file transfers. At that time, buying a Mac--and the MacOS that comes with it--will get cheaper: The company plans to ship the iMac, a $1299 machine that's aimed at the consumer market, in August.

Later this year, Apple will release a network operating system code-named Rhapsody, which will act as a server for publishing and Internet applications. Rhapsody is expected to run on a number of non-Apple platforms, including Pentium systems.

But the big news should come in the second half of 1999, when Apple expects to ship MacOS X, which the vendor says will combine the power and stability of Rhapsody with the desktop support of the MacOS. The product will include advanced features, such as preemptive multitasking and memory protection. It will also run existing Mac applications, though not with the advanced features.

MacOS X will be a little late to slow the Mac's decline, however. From 1996 to 1997, the Mac's share of the OS market fell from 5.6 percent to 4.6 percent, according to IDC--an 18 percent drop. The research company predicts that the MacOS's hold will fall to 1.9 percent by 2001.

As market share slips, developers will spend less money creating programs for the platform, resulting in a dearth of software. Eric Forster, a Los Angeles mortgage broker and longtime Macintosh user, learned this the hard way. Last year, he had to buy a Windows PC because a loan processing application called Byte Qualifier wasn't available for the Mac. "I now have a PC sitting next to the Mac," he admits.

Still, the Mac remains the best machine for professional-level graphics design or desktop publishing. For instance, the colors that it displays on screen are closer to what a professional printing system turns out. But for most mainstream business users, a Windows computer is clearly a better choice.

To Be or Not to BeOS?

It's hard to believe, but there's a new operating system for PCs. Be Incorporated shipped the first PC version of its BeOS in March (two earlier versions run only on Macs), and the company is planning another major release by September. Unlike Windows 95, BeOS offers true, preemptive, reliable multitasking. It can take advantage of multiple processors. And it isn't burdened by the past: Windows' DOS foundations have been around for almost 20 years; many of the OS's speed and stability problems can be traced to its need to be backward compatible with older versions of itself.

But the $70 BeOS release 3.0 is still not ready for the big leagues, thanks largely to a scarcity of applications and limited hardware support. Even the vendor's Web site warns that version 3.0 is strictly for "geeks, enthusiasts and the curious." But version 4.0, expected in September, promises to support more hardware and to be easier to use.

More important, applications are beginning to appear, including an office suite called Gobe Productive from Gobe Software. The package contains the basics--word processor, spreadsheet, and presentation graphics--along with some novel interface embellishments. For instance, you can adjust font sizes using a slider bar, and you can see multiple views of the same document simultaneously. Another product, BeatWare's Be Basics bundles a spreadsheet with a page layout program.

Be hopes eventually to be able to attract desktop publishers, Web designers, and multimedia producers--in other words, the Macintosh crowd. But you should defer making any decision about BeOS until version 4.0 arrives. Even then, it will be a risky choice. Dataquest analyst Chris Le Tocq describes the OS competition as "a game of musical chairs, and I don't think there's a chair for Be."


Sun Microsystems released the first network computers running JavaOS this spring; system vendors including IBM and Toshiba will be following suit. These low-cost Java machines give IS folks greater control over workers' computing environments than PCs do. Specialized versions of the operating system may also find their way into handheld computers, Web-compatible phones, pagers, and even car dashboards.

The JavaOS's main selling point is portability--a Java application should run as well on the CEO's Pentium II as it does on the designer's Mac or the secretary's JavaStation. But in reality, Java programs aren't always as portable as they should be: Programmers can speed up their Java apps by adding platform-specific code that will run on one kind of machine but not on another. Also, both Microsoft and Hewlett-Packard are backing their own versions of Java, which will not be 100 percent compatible with Sun's Java standard.

Not everyone will find a JavaOS NC practical. But if your company is investing in NCs, JavaOS might allow data entry staff to run software that will also work on a manager's Windows PC.

Windows Forever?

None of these alternative operating systems is going to dethrone Windows. But the products are worth considering under particular conditions. Desktop publishers will continue to go with the Mac in a substantial number of situations. If you have need of a low-cost Web server and are technically proficient, you may want to give Linux a serious look. Both BeOS and JavaOS merit watching to see whether they gather more industry support. In the meantime, Bill Gates isn't worrying about these upstarts. But you can bet he's looking to them for fresh ideas.

He Doesn't Do Windows

Name: Eric Forster

Job: Mortgage broker, American Discount Lenders, Los Angeles

Operating System of Choice: MacOS

His Story: Forster bought a Mac when the computer first shipped in 1984. "I understand the system and how it works."

Conclusion: Last year Forster broke down and bought a PC to sit next to his Mac. Forster plans to use Windows only for software that absolutely requires it and stay with his Mac for everything else. "I wish we had more software available so we wouldn't have to go elsewhere."

She Doesn't Do Windows

Name: Vicki Reeves

Job: System administrator, Beauregard Parish Public Library, DeRidder, Louisiana

Operating System of Choice: Red Hat Linux

Her Story: To cut costs, the library switched last year from SCO UNIX to Linux.

Conclusion: Reeves uses Linux on the library network because it's more stable than Windows. "We know [it] can handle multitasking without crashing." She also uses Linux and Red Hat's Applixware Office Suite on her own portable.

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