Is Microsoft's dominance a danger to safety and security? Yes, according to a report by computer security experts, CyberInsecurity. Presented at a conference hosted by the Computer & Communications Industry Association (CCIA), the report received national attention when a company with business ties to Microsoft fired one of the authors (www.washingtonpost.com/ac2/wp-dyn/A2328-2003Sep25).
CyberInsecurity (www.ccianet.org/papers/cyberinsecurity.pdf) argues that a computer monoculture where nearly all computers on the Internet use the same operating system is intrinsically dangerous. A monoculture makes it easier for worm and virus attacks to indiscriminately and uncontrollably cascade from computer to computer.
Safety and health professionals know that increased complexity means increased risk. The hazards in turning trees into paper at a pulp and paper mill are much greater and difficult to control than the hazards faced by someone using the paper in a laser printer.
This also applies to computer software, CyberInsecurity points out. Yet Microsoft intentionally builds complexity into their software to stifle competition. This designed-in complexity makes Windows much larger, with many more flaws, than competing operating systems. The authors hold that Microsoft Windows has become so complex that fixing one flaw is likely to create another, unknown flaw.
The report concludes that national security would improve if government and businesses used more Linux and Macintosh computers. They recommend the federal government hold software manufacturers liable for software flaws and make Microsoft release Microsoft Office for Linux.
Critics pan CyberInsecurity as a self-serving attack on Microsoft by competitors. For me, CyberInsecurity provided insight into my frustrations with the high cost of managing Windows in today's worm-crazy world. Yes, crackers and cyber terrorists are naturally attracted to the predominant operating system in government and industry. But Microsoft's record of loose security and problem patches clearly adds to the problem.
I'm tired of wasting time with the "worm of the week." I'm tired of keeping up with the patch of the month. I'm tired of plugging Windows' holes with third-party software. I decided I'd be better off without Microsoft.
Linux, a Unix variant, is at the heart of the Open Source movement. The Open Source movement holds that program source code should be openly available for all to see. That other programmers should be free to modify the code to create derived works. And licenses should not require a royalty for others to distribute the software. By opening the software up to the community, the community works to make the software better.
This is exactly what's happened with Linux. Initially dismissed by Microsoft and other proprietary software companies, Linux evolved and improved. It built a reputation for reliability and security and now 20 percent of all servers run on Linux. Amazon.com, Sherwin-Williams and other major corporations use Linux to run their core business.
Linux continues to improve and now is an attractive desktop candidate. Attractive enough that governments are switching in a big way. Munich, Germany is spending $35 million switching 14,000 computers to Linux and OpenOffice. Austin, Texas is evaluating Linux and OpenOffice as Microsoft replacements. The South Korean government plans to replace all proprietary software with open-source alternatives by 2007. Russia, Great Britain, Vietnam, China and others are investing in Linux.
Even the little guys are taking a peek. According to ZDNet, 25 percent of small companies are testing Linux.
Installing Linux on my computer was quick and easy. Within an hour, I was surfing the Web over my home network. The Linux installation disks came with a fantastic collection of open source applications word processors, spreadsheets, web browsers, e-mail clients, newsreaders, instant messenger and others.
Unfortunately, we live in a Microsoft Office world. Small businesses and consultants must be able to receive and deliver Microsoft Office-compatible files. One answer is OpenOffice (www.openoffice.org), a free Open Source office productivity suite that can open and save files in Microsoft Office formats.
I'm using OpenOffice for all my small business word processing and spreadsheet work. It does everything I need. But I don't do a lot of complex formatting. People who do complain about errors when opening complex OpenOffice documents in Microsoft Word.
The Apple Macintosh is another Windows alternative. In 1984, the Macintosh was the first successful mass market computer with a graphic user interface. The Mac is mainstream and mature.
The Macintosh is criticized for being more expensive than Windows-based computers. But Apple (www.apple.com) has done a great job developing Macs for cost-conscious consumers. Desktop Macs start at $799, notebooks at $1,099. Prices are even cheaper if you join a Mac User Group (MUG) and shop at Apple's MUG store (www.applemugstore.com). You can find a MUG near you at www.apple.com/usergroups.
Recently, I acquired the need for a laptop computer. My first thought was to buy a Linux laptop. Until I saw the price of those puppies (www.emperorlinux.com) $2,000+ was way beyond my budget.
I thought about installing Linux on an inexpensive Windows laptop. With a "dual boot" configuration, I could run both Linux and Windows on the same machine. Then my dusty old Powerbook caught my eye. Maybe I should go back to Mac.
I bought the cheapest Apple laptop available, a 12-inch iBook G4. It's an amazing machine. Macintosh OS X is elegant and easy to use, making Windows and Linux seem clunky in comparison. And OS X is based on FreeBSD (www.freebsd.org), an Open Source version of Unix with a reputation for reliability and security. OS X can even run Linux software, including OpenOffice.
I haven't installed OpenOffice because my iBook came with AppleWorks, Apple's office suite. AppleWorks is file-compatible with Microsoft Office. Hard core Microsoft Office workers can buy Microsoft's Mac version of Office.
The Mac comes packed with software that I'd have to pay extra for on a Windows laptop. Apple's iTunes and iPhoto programs are at the top of the class for managing music and photos.
I haven't had this much fun with a computer since I bought my first Macintosh in 1984.
Still Not Microsoft Free
Moving to another operating system is not easy. There are just so many details to manage. Moving e-mail addresses, browser bookmarks, Palm Pilot data and other issues take time. So, while Linux and Apple have reduced my reliance on Microsoft, Windows is still a part of my life. I still have applications, like financial management and mapping software, that run on my Windows XP box.
But at least I've made the first step. Now I can take the time to evaluate future options. And after all this work, I can make some sound recommendations.
Currently, the Macintosh is the best alternative for anyone wanting to make Windows a part of their past. It's simply a wonderful machine.
Linux is a solid alternative for more advanced users who are in touch with their inner geek. Not sure if you're geek enough? Get a copy of Knoppix (www.knoppix.net). Restart a Windows computer with a Knoppix CD in the drive bay and the computer boots as a Linux desktop. Remove the Knoppix CD and restart the computer and you're back in business with Windows.
The Knoppix CD includes hundreds of open source programs, including OpenOffice. Other live Linux CD distributions are available at DistroWatch (www.distrowatch.com/dwres.php?resource=cd).
Am I crazy or simply ahead of the curve? Interested in learning more about Macintosh and Linux and how they can run Microsoft Windows programs? Tell me what you think.
Contributing Editor Michael Blotzer, MS, CIH, CSP, is an occupational hygiene and safety professional, writer and computer enthusiast who brakes for animals on the information superhighway. He can be reached by mail addressed to Occupational Hazards or electronic mail at [email protected]