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Where to start?

Are you a Windows user and want to gradually wean yourself off of a dependence on Microsoft? Download, make a copy from a friend (yes, it's legal), or order TheOpenCD which is a fantastic CD packed with a ton of great open source software that will give you a taste on Windows of what's available on open source operating systems like Linux. You will be getting a fully featured, free office suite, a powerful photo editor, a cutting edge web browser, and so much more. Start using these very high quality, non-Microsoft applications today on Windows and you can gradually decrease your dependence on Microsoft at your own pace. Every Microsoft alternative you use helps to keep choice and innovation in the software industry alive and it moves you one step closer to being free from everything that is wrong with Microsoft.

What Alternatives Are There to Microsoft?

If you're sick of the unreliability, the bloat, the insecurity, and the perpetual upgrading associated with Microsoft products you'll be happy to know that there are some excellent alternatives out there. The list below is meant as an introduction to Microsoft alternatives and as such it is by no means comprehensive.

The KMFMS recommended products are products that we here at KMFMS have personally used with great satisfaction. The recommended list does not necessarily reflect the value of other alternatives, it is simply a list of products that we can personally vouch for. Just because a product isn't recommended by KMFMS doesn't mean it isn't a great product - it may just mean that we haven't had a chance to extensively use it yet. You may also be interested in what other users have to recommend in the "alternatives" section of our discussion forums.

Legal disclaimer: all product names below are trademarks of their respective owners.

Quick Guide

Category Microsoft Product(s) Alternative(s) KMFMS Recommends
Desktop Operating System Windows Linux, Mac OS X, and many, many more Fedora (Linux), Mac OS X
Web Browser Internet Explorer Firefox Netscape, Opera, Lynx, ELinks, iCab, and many, many more Firefox
Office Suite, Word Processor, and Spreadsheet Microsoft Office, Word, and Excel OpenOffice.org, StarOffice, Corel Office, Lotus Smart Suite, Appleworks, KOffice, GNOME Office, WaveMaker OpenOffice.org
Email Client Outlook Thunderbird, Eudora, Pine, and many, many more Thunderbird *
<<< Discuss these & other alternatives >>>
Web Based Email Hotmail Gmail, Yahoo! Mail, Hushmail, KMFMS Email Yahoo! Mail
Server Operating System Windows BSD, Linux, Mac OS X, Solaris, and many, many more RHEL, OpenBSD
Web Server IIS, Frontpage Apache, Tomcat, lighttpd, Zeus, Boa, thttpd, Enhydra, and many, many more Apache, Tomcat, lighttpd
Game Console Xbox Sony PlayStation, Nintendo Sony PlayStation *
<<< Discuss these & other alternatives >>>
Internet Service Provider (ISP) MSN AOL, Earthlink, Speakeasy, and many, many more Within the USA: Earthlink for dial-up, Speakeasy for broadband
Email Server Exchange Sendmail, Qmail, Exim, Steltor's Outlook Connector Evaluation not complete
<<< Discuss these & other alternatives >>>

Operating Systems

Did you realize that older computers which can't satisfactorily run the latest version of Windows can be given a second lease on life by installing an operating system that better manages resources? Are you a home or business user who is tired of the instability of Windows or who could use the performance increase that a well written OS would offer? You may be interested to know that there is an OS out there called Linux which offers much better performance than Windows and without the overhead. Linux will breathe new life into hardware that you thought was obsolete and it will unleash the real power in newer hardware. Even Microsoft can't help but give Linux a glowing review as you can read in their internal memo that was leaked in October 1998. Oh yeah - Linux is free too.

Another excellent option to consider if you are buying a new desktop or laptop is Mac OS X. OS X combines the legendary ease of use and stylishness of Apple's Macintosh operating system with the rock solid stability and power of BSD. It easily outflanks Windows in ease of use, style, stability, security, and power. Mac OS X comes included with new Macs.

Are you an administrator who uses Windows as a server? If so, you should be aware that the alternatives are more reliable, much more secure, and much less expensive. Linux makes an excellent server with its stability and excellent performance. It's also easy to install and easy to administer if you get a distribution such as Red Hat's. If security is a concern (as it should be) you may also be interested in the OpenBSD operating system which is perhaps the most secure operating system in the world. It makes a great server and it completely blows away Windows (as well as most other operating systems) when it comes to security.

Linux and BSD (including Mac OS X) are our favorites here at KMFMS because they have proven to be excellent solutions for various projects. There are, however, several other non-Microsoft solutions that we haven't tried so those of you wishing to get a broad overview of what's out there check out the review of operating systems at tunes.org, the KMFMS forum on alternatives, or Yahoo's list of operating systems (by the way - Yahoo, one of most heavily used sites on the internet, also runs on BSD).

Editor's note: the following information on the Mac OS was accurate when it was first published in August 1999. Some information, such as current version numbers, has since changed.

A KMFMS Reader writes: For those of who want a professional-level OS, but don't want to spend all your time learning it, MacOS X Server is good. (It's ideal for a small network.) OS X Server is only at version 1.0, but is quite comparable to Linux. With your help, it can grow into something that'll make Microsoft shake in their boots. It sits upon the Mach microkernel and BSD.

Web Browsers

The best choice in web browsers for nearly all people is Firefox (although, Safari is also a good choice for Mac users). If you are on Windows you should use it because it has nowhere near the number of security exploits as Internet Explorer, it is packed with a lot of powerful features while retaining a very clean feel, it is quite stable, it won't bring down your operating system if it does happen to crash because it hasn't been forcefully shoved into the OS like Internet Explorer, and it properly supports Java (unlike IE). If you're not using Windows (good for you) then you're probably already using something else because Microsoft can't strong-arm you into using IE. Although Microsoft does have a version of IE for the Mac, they have no loyalty and you would do well to not rely on it being there going forward since they have already pulled the rug out from under users on other operating systems. Microsoft initially released a version of IE for Solaris so that they could claim that IE was "cross platform", but it didn't take them very long after IE gained a majority market share to drop the Solaris version entirely.

There are a ton of other browsers out there, some of which may be better than Firefox for certain situations. Several people consider Opera the ultimate lightweight browser and its speed and small size are very impressive if you're into that sort of thing. Also, Lynx and ELinks are both text only browsers which can be extremely useful for remote administration, but chances are if you have a use for them you probably already knew what they were. Finally, there's a whole slew of browsers at Yahoo that fit into other niche markets.

Office Suites, Word Processors, and Spreadsheets

Why would anybody spend several hundred dollars on Microsoft Office when there are high quality, free equivalents available? Save yourself some money by trying the free, high-quality, open source OpenOffice.org today. Not only will you save yourself a bundle now, but you'll save yourself even more on upgrades in the future as you will no longer be locked into Microsoft's viscous cycle of forcing MS Office upgrades by changing the "doc" and "xls" file formats (OpenOffice.org does a good job of keeping up with the newer MS Office file formats).

OpenOffice.org provides alternatives to many of the applications which make up the Microsoft Office suite including Microsoft Word, Microsoft Excel, Microsoft PowerPoint, Microsoft Access, and more.

If you work in a (physical) office that uses office suite software and you are worried about potential compatibility issues, try this: limit your MS Office installation to a single machine and install OpenOffice.org everywhere else. For internal documents and documents which you print (or otherwise distribute in hardcopy form) you can standardize on the OpenOffice.org format (which is an open standard and not proprietary). For the few documents that you want to electronically distribute outside your company, you can use OpenOffice.org to write the document in MS Office format and then use your single installation of MS Office to touch up anything that may not have converted perfectly. For incoming documents in MS Office format, OpenOffice.org will read most without a problem. If there ever are any problems, simply use your single installation of MS Office. This simple strategy could save even a small office several thousand dollars.

Email Client

There's a very good reason why Outlook has come to be nicknamed LookOut by seasoned users. Microsoft Outlook has a notorious security history with many a virus owing its ability to spread to Outlook's "features". Help slow the spread of email viruses and support software diversity by using another email program, such as the free and excellent Thunderbird.

Perhaps you use Outlook for more than just email and an address book. If you use Outlook for scheduling as well, you may also want to consider using Yahoo! Calendar in conjunction with Thunderbird or a web based email solution. This can provide quite a bit more convenience and versatility than using Outlook by itself.

Do you want to further explore combining alternatives to replace how you use Outlook? If so:

Web Based Email

When selecting a web based email service, you absolutely do not want to use Hotmail. Forget for a moment the large number of security holes that have been uncovered in the Hotmail service (including one that allowed anybody to read the email from any Hotmail account without using a password). An even bigger problem is that by using Hotmail you are very likely to become victim of Microsoft's typical lock-in tactics at some point in the not-too-distant future. MSN has locked out non Microsoft browsers before, forcing people to use Internet Explorer, so what happens if Hotmail starts doing this too? Don't think for a second that it doesn't matter because you use IE anyway - what happens when you're traveling and you stop to check your email via the web? What if you're visiting a friend who uses Firefox or you're at a web kiosk that uses Linux underneath for security purposes? You won't be able to use IE, which means you won't be able to use services that require IE.

Yahoo! Mail is an excellent alternative to Hotmail. It features exceptional functionality which many people consider superior to Hotmail (having never used Hotmail ourselves, we are relying on third party comparisons). Most importantly, it is not produced by a company that has a vested interest in forcing users to use a particular browser. In fact, Yahoo! has an excellent track record of making their content available to the widest possible audience. Yahoo! Mail is a good way to protect yourself against the software lock-in and incompatibility that you risk by using Hotmail.

Web Servers

If you're running a web server it's tough to beat Apache. Over half the web servers on the internet are running Apache (Source: Netcraft) , it has the largest number of developers developing for it (Source: Netcraft) , and it offers far more performance than most websites could ever dream of needing. It's also open source and free in all senses of the word which means it is more secure (because it is subject to peer review and doesn't rely on security through obscurity), it rapidly incorporates new standards, it is feature rich while at the same time capable of being entirely stripped down for maximum performance, it is well modularized for easy expandability, and it is guaranteed to have long term viability because it is not being used to drive a perpetual upgrade cycle. Add the PHP module onto Apache which makes dynamic content a lot easier to generate than with the CGI of days gone by, and you have a first class web server for no money down and no payments ever. For an even more elegant and highly scalable dynamic content system, check out the Tomcat servlet container for serving JSP and servlet content from Apache or other servers.

If you are fortunate to hit the performance limitations of the Apache web server, lighttpd is a compelling upgrade option. It combines the incredible scalability of next generation web servers with a high degree of customizability and the ability to serve dynamic content in many of the same ways as Apache. Like Apache, it too is free and open source, so you automatically get the benefits of peer review and long term viability.

Game Consoles

The PlayStation platform has a much larger library of games available than the Xbox. Furthermore, current incarnation of the PlayStation are still capable of playing games made for older PlayStations, which expands the available library even more given that the PSOne was one of the most successful systems in history.

Please note: this recommendation is under consideration for possible reconsideration. You may want to consider other alternatives as well, such as Nintendo.

Internet Service Providers (ISPs)

You should definitely avoid using MSN because it will force you into using Microsoft's software. As of this writing (November, 2001) you must use Microsoft Outlook or Microsoft Hotmail to retrieve your MSN mail and the MSN website portal recently made headlines by blocking most users who weren't using Internet Explorer (earning Microsoft a much deserved rebuke from Tim Berners-Lee, the creator of the World Wide Web). You would be much better off with a non-Microsoft ISP and there is practically no reason to go with Microsoft in this case as ISPs are all very standardized and Microsoft doesn't wield monopoly power in that industry (yet).

Your physical location will have a great impact on your choices of ISPs. "The List" is a very comprehensive list of ISPs which should help you find an ISP regardless of your location. If you are in the United States, you might want to consider Earthlink for dial-up access or Speakeasy for broadband access. Earthlink has a very large number of dial-up numbers throughout the US, which is good if you travel at all and have a laptop, and it is very easy to set up Linux to use an Earthlink account. Speakeasy is an exceptionally good DSL company (absolutely worlds apart from the Baby Bells, if you've had any experiences with them) with a surprisingly clueful technical support staff which actually supports Speakeasy on Linux.

Email Servers

The KMFMS evaluation of email servers is not complete enough to make a recommendation because expectations vary widely on what an email server is meant to do. Here at KMFMS we actually have considerable experience with email servers within the context of sending and receiving email. The problem is that enterprises might also want the email server to handle ancillary tasks, such as calendaring, and we only have experience using email servers for email. If you want a best of breed email server that outshines Exchange on what email servers are supposed to do (transfer email) look no further than the staples of the internet, Sendmail and Qmail. For email servers that handle more than email, we will reserve recommendations for a later date. For now, we will pass along the following pitch from a representative at Steltor who has informed us that Steltor's Outlook Connector is a "piece of client-side middleware (MAPI service providers) that allows you to replace Exchange with a standards-based offering consisting of a mail server offered by Steltor partners such as Sendmail, directory servers (offered by Steltor partners) and a best-of-breed calendar server offered by Steltor."

A KMFMS reader wrote in to highly recommend Exim writing that he strongly prefers it over Sendmail and that it has easy to use spam filtering.

Another KMFMS reader also wrote in to tell us about EMWAC IMS. He said that if you are stuck using Windows, EMWAC IMS is an excellent, free choice for a mail server. He used it at his own ISP which handled over 100,000 email messages a day on a Pentium 100 and he claims that it is very well supported in the community.

Do you want to further explore Exchange alternatives? If so:

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