BISSEX: Beating the System

Before Microsoft came under the hot lights of the current Justice Department antitrust proceedings, many computer users weren't particularly aware of the company's Windows operating system.This would seem to contradict the very fact that has put Microsoft in this spot: Windows is installed on close to 90 percent of the world's personal computers.But just as it's possible to drive a car without knowing what the motor looks like, it's easy to use a computer without thinking about its operating system (OS). Part of the mission of the OS, in fact, is to be sort of invisible, to facilitate our information-work but not to be the center of attention itself.Oh well. This particular operating system is, for now, center stage in a national debate. Yet the more visible Windows becomes, the more often thoughts of replacing it are entertained. The anti-trust proceedings have been an inspiration to quiet Microsoft-haters everywhere.Operating systems are a kind of software. Software can be burned onto a chip, stored on a CD-ROM, or kept on a hard disk. Most of the time, the term means "application software," programs written for specific tasks like creating printed documents or viewing web pages. But every modern computer has another layer of software: the operating system. The OS frees applications from having to handle low-level technical details; when your word processor saves a file to disk, it tells the OS, "save this to disk, thank you" rather than having to know anything about the particular disk on which the file is being saved.If you are a company that controls both an OS and many of its most prominent applications -- as Microsoft is -- you are in an excellent position. In the forthcoming Windows98, Microsoft has incorporated the Internet Explorer web browser directly into the operating system, threatening to make the current antitrust suit moot (although 12 states so far have said they are preparing to block sales of Windows98 until the antitrust issues are resolved).All this has fueled interest in alternative operating systems. Many of these multiply their heresy by not only being non-Microsoft products, but by being completely free as well ("open source," in the terminology of the free software movement I covered two weeks ago).It's probably the only strategy that has a chance of denting Microsoft's market share. The online magazine Feed recently asked several experts Microsoft opponents what might be better than the current situation; all replied with some variation on the open source concept.There actually is an existing OS in this category: Linux. It's a free, modern implementation of the powerful and popular Unix OS. An estimated 7.5 million people use Linux worldwide, and it is in running on thousands of web servers. Unlike Unix, which typically runs on expensive workstations and minicomputers, Linux's hardware turf is the humble PC, whose price is dropping and power is mounting continually. Nearly all PCs come from the manufacturer with Windows pre-installed, but more and more are getting it pulled from their hard drives to make room for a copy of Linux.This is Bill Gates' nightmare, and an alternative OS fanatic's dream. The success of Linux has inspired other programmers to believe that they might de their part to unseat Windows. In November, a group of coders fond of the Java language launched the JOS project, which aspires to create a free operating system that runs on any computer that will run Java -- which is to say, ideally, any nearly computer at all.Developing operating systems is a complicated and labor-intensive business. The creator of Linux worked two years before his project was solid enough to inspire other programmers to help him out. Today, development of Linux is done by programmers all over the world who coordinate their efforts via the Internet; this energy is all that keeps the project afloat.Competing with Microsoft's thousands of full-time programmers might daunt some, but not the intrepid creators of alternative OSes. After inspecting the web site of one particularly unlikely competitor, I sent a quick e-mail to the programmers. "How old are you guys, anyway?" Ten minutes later the reply came back, decorated with a sideways smile at the end: "Average age: 25." Look out, Microsoft. They're hungry.***Sites in my SightsTo keep tabs on the busy world of alternative OSes, you need go no further than your web browser. The OS News site (www.osnews.com) offers frequent concise news of important developments. The AltOS site (www.altos.org.uk) tackles the same themes from a more hands-on perspective. At the AltOS site one senses a bit of desperation; the specter of Bill Gates clearly haunts these pages. If you want to join the revolt yourself, go grab a copy of Linux (www.linux.org).Do know what OS you use? Do you care? Send a letter in care of this publication, drop a line via e-mail (pb@well.com), or visit the Cyberia website (www.e-scribe.com/cyberia).

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