By Al Fasoldt
Copyright © 1999, The Syracuse Newspapers
A few weeks ago my wife and I had four Windows PCs in our family room. We now have only three, and soon will have just two.
But we still have the same four PCs in the family room.
Is this a riddle?
Not if you know anything about Linux. One of the PCs no longer uses Windows in any form, and the other will lose all its Microsoft underpinnings this summer. We will then have two Windows PCs and two Linux PCs -- a good combination, giving us two great entertainment computers and two reliable and solid-running workhorses.
How sad, in a way, that Windows has come to mean so little in so short a time. Once it was the common operating system for serious computing on PCs, but now it is rapidly running out of forgiveness. It is turning into a lame excuse for getting important things done on a computer.
You can blame Bill Gates and you can credit Linus Torvalds.
Gates had a chance and blew it. Gates turned himself into the world's richest dude -- $100 billion and counting -- when he could have been turning Windows into a safe and reliable operating system. There was no technical barrier to making Windows into a good operating system. Gates and Microsoft, his company, chose to keep selling an inferior product.
Enter Linus Torvalds. He knew Windows was smoke and mirrors, so he built his own operating system and made it much better. He called it Linux. That was in 1991. People laughed at Linux then. They're lining up to buy it now. Linux is on the way up and Windows is on the way down. Linux is hot and Windows is not.
Even Microsoft is paying attention. When reports surfaced that Linux is outselling Windows at some computer stores around the country, a Microsoft executive quoted a memo with that news at Microsoft's federal trial. The company was hoping for some sympathy, but the judge laughed it off. Of all the world's PCs, 90 percent are running Windows, so the company can hardly claim that Linux is driving it out of business.
And of course that will never happen. Microsoft will be in business a long time. But if it fails, it will fail not because of Linus Torvalds and his army of volunteers – Linux is free, and most of the software it uses is free, too – but because of the immutable laws of monopolies. When you have no real competition, you have no reason to improve your product or your service. Eventually, people get tired of shoddy stuff and someone rises up to offer a genuine alternative.
Microsoft knows this as much as you and I do. It can chart these things in its fancy software just like we can. Up is green and down is red. Microsoft's millionaires – there are hundreds on the staff, in case you didn't know – can see the sloping red lines in their financial-projection software. We can see them an easier way, just by using our common sense and our imagination.
So it has a plan: If you can't beat 'em, sell to 'em. Microsoft figures that someday all these Linux PCs are going to need Microsoft Word and Excel and Outlook and Access and all the rest of its porky programs. So it's putting 30 to 40 engineers to work on Linux versions of all the software in Microsoft Office.
How quaint to be so rich and so big and so wrong.
Linux doesn't need a word processor that takes up 15 megabytes of memory just to show the letter "A" on the screen. Or a spreadsheet that taxes the patience of a Pentium II, or an e-mail program that plays dead if you dare to close it right after you open it up.
Linux needs a lot of software. It's a young operating system, lacking a lot of stuff Windows users take for granted. But it needs independence even more. Luckily, Linux users have StarOffice, a suite of good programs that handle all the standard tasks (word processing, number crunching, planning, e-mail and so on). StarOffice is free. They will soon have an office suite from the people who make WordPerfect. And they'll have a lot of other programs of this kind.
And none of it needs to come from Microsoft. How times have changed!