Saturday, December 15, 2007

Computing In Small Business

In this article, we'll examine a few options for running your Small Business, pitting Microsoft's offerings against the alternatives.

Part of any business today is computing, and computing is an incremental cost, especially in a growing company. Lay out the money for the hardware, the printers, the office suite, the technician to take care of it all, the network, the server, and so on. In the Microsoft scenario, the costs get pretty high, and keep growing as your company grows.

What if you could just install everything once and have it work? What if adding software to your entire network (whether it's just three employees or three hundred) only took moments? Well, I'm going to look at some options where you can do this, and show you how much you can save.

For all scenarios, I'm going to allow for only five users in a very small office, just getting started, and rig them up with an office suite (word processor, spreadsheet, database, etc.), Internet access (browser and email) and shared access to files on a server. Then we're going to make the jump to 10 employees, and then 20, and see how the numbers scale. The comparison will jump up to 76 users, the point at which you have to get new licensing for a Microsoft Windows Small Business Server 2003. For contrast, I'll show scenarios with a server and desktop (or "fat") clients and a server and "thin" clients (where the bulk of the software runs on the server, not the client). In all cases, I'll keep the alternatives separate from the proprietary options, for simplicity. You can run a mixed environment, but this article is about maximized savings and utility.

A) The Usual -- Microsoft Server, Microsoft Clients

Here we have a very simple setup. You run out, you buy five computers, use the operating system already on them (typically Microsoft Windows Vista Business Edition), pre-loaded Microsoft Office 2007 (which will need to be activated after 60 days) on each and make up a few users on a Microsoft Windows Small Business Server 2003. Set up shares on each one and you're networking. Oh, and you'll want a switch for that, just to make sure everyone can get good throughput and have your computers operating at maximum efficiency and allow for future growth (and everyone wants to be on the 'Net at the same time, too, right?). Of course, you're probably going to want to print, too, so a mid duty networked laser printer should do the trick. If you're office is prewired, all you need is the patch cables to get up and running; if you're not prewired, save yourself future headaches and get it professionally done! This will be our basic configuration up and running, which assumes Internet access is connected directly to the network through a firewall of some sort.

B) A Little Different -- Windows Terminal Server

Being a bit more foresighted, you can realize the benefits of centralized computing by throwing some cash into a well-stocked server, toss Microsoft Windows Server 2003 Terminal Services on it, and attach Thin Clients, instead of getting into the PC upgrade cycle. No hard drives to worry about, no individual software to worry about your users playing around with, more security, and less possibility of theft. Initial outlay may be more, but you're off to the races, all clients installed with the same software in one move. Much easier to maintain and control!

C) The Path Less Taken -- Linux Terminal Server

You saw this coming, of course, right? Here we take the same basic approach as with the Microsoft Windows Server 2003 Terminal Services and substitute a Linux Terminal Server and Free/Libre Open Source Software (F/LOSS). Same essential configuration, same hardware, less cost for the software, and easier to maintain. I have to mention at this point, I've not included the prices of setting anything up. If you have to pay to get a PC set up in your office, you also have to pay to get a Thin Client set up; the cost would be marginally less for the Thin Client (it's basically a drop and connect affair), but not significantly different so it won't really matter. Where the savings in Thin Clients really shines is in the replacement cycle: replace a PC every 3 to 5 years, a Thin Client only when it dies. Also, keep in mind that a Thin Client is almost useless to most thieves.

D) Off The Beaten Path -- Linux Server, Linux Desktop

Here, in place of the Windows server and clients, we've substituted Linux-based solutions. This can be a bit tricky, because if you don't find the right vendor, you'll be paying for Microsoft Windows on your computers, then replacing that with your chosen variety of Linux. Dell provides a couple of decent machines with Linux preinstalled (Ubuntu), as do Walmart (gOS, Linspire) and smaller companies like Zareason. (Of course, in Canada, Dell and Walmart are not currently options.)

Using Linux on the Server and the Desktop isn't very complicated, but it does require a bit of know-how to get things right. The same can be said of setting up a Microsoft Windows environment. The primary difference is that Microsoft Certified Software Engineers are abundant while Linux Professional Institute Certified technicians are a bit more scarce. Luckily, finding such help is as easy as browsing through your local Yellow Pages. More computer support companies support Linux than ever.


With Scenario A, let's say your company is doing well and grows by five users. Well, as far as the Server goes, you're covered: Microsoft Windows Small Business Server 2003 can serve up to 75 clients. Add five more desktop units, outfit them with the same software as the ones you have and you're rolling. The real expense here is the time to install all the identical software as other computers on your network. The cost and availability of the software you run on your other machines will also be an issue; if the new units are bought a significant time after the original units, you may no longer be able to purchase the original software (which could lead to an entire office upgrade scenario).

Scenario B is dramatically different. Grab a few more Thin Clients, purchase the licenses you need for connecting to the Server and productivity software and presto! Network upgraded in record time. Pretty good savings over going the Server/Client route, eh?

Enter Linux -- Scenario C. Using the Linux-based terminal server, you pay nothing for licensing and the additional software needed to get those new users online. Total cost is for the Thin Clients only. Same speed of deployment as Scenario B, same ease of management, no licenses to keep track of or purchase.

Scenario D is a bit of a cross between A and C. Now you're working with free software and a free operating system. You still have to load up your Desktop with everything everyone else has, but doing so is usually with a simple tool that can automate the whole process. As for the Server, there is no license-based limit to how many clients you can run from a single server, so keep growing as much as you like until you feel your Server needs that extra RAM, CPU or Hard Drive space to keep pace.

The Numbers Game

The numbers will always change, and I want to keep this article as relevant into the future as it is today, so lets use units, not dollars, for comparing the work involved in the above.

  • Deploying a Thin Client is the easiest function, so we'll give it a unit of 1
  • Deploying a Windows Desktop is about four times longer than a Thin Client, so it gets a unit of 4
  • Deploying a Linux Desktop isn't as easy as a Thin Client, but not as difficult as Windows, so we'll give it a unit of 3
  • Deploying a Server, whether Linux or Windows, is tricky business and has to be done right, no matter how you slice it; no unit will be assigned for this function, but we'll give a unit of 1 to license tracking (yes, that's only a knock against Windows, and it's in increments of 20 after the first 5 clients)
  • Deploying Software is relative in all cases as well, but if we use proprietary software, there are licenses to track, so that will cost 1 unit per instance

Here's a table to outline the basic costs (details on configurations follow):

Scenario A
Windows Server & Desktop
Scenario B
Windows Terminal Server
Scenario C
Linux Terminal Server
Scenario D
Linux Server & Desktop
5 Users
26 units
11 units
5 units
15 units
10 Users
51 units
22 units
10 units
30 units
20 Users
101 units
42 units
20 units
60 units
76 Users
382 units
157 units
76 units
228 units

Obviously, I'd have to recommend going with a Linux Terminal Server for all your business needs. It scales well, costs less (effort and cash) and with all the cash you save you can definitely afford to train everyone. Linux Server and Desktop is a pretty good contender as well, being almost as effective as Windows Terminal Server. Ultimately, your needs will dictate exactly what you need your computing environment to look like. With a little effort put into it, though, alternative solutions can be found and implemented with minimal cost.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

How To Boot XP On The XO Laptop

Okay, this is usually a little beyond the depth I'd go into on this site, but given that the window for buying/giving an XO laptop within the U.S. and Canada is closing December 31st, I think any attention I can help bring to this little wonder is worthwhile. And everyone else is busy interviewing Nicholas Negroponte, so I thought I'd try something a little different.

Now, that initial waiver out of the way, here's another: I don't actually have one of these little marvels (although if anyone wants to send me one, I'd be very happy to set my kids on it). This tutorial will be entirely theoretical, and will depend largely on how Windows-compatible the laptop actually is. Since most hardware was designed with Windows in mind, this shouldn't be much of an issue, right?

Step 1
The very first thing we're going to need for this project is an SD card large enough to hold XP and your applications. About 4GB should be enough for basic functionality. Here in Canada, that goes for about $80 or so, but when the price drops to the right point, this may be feasible for the OLPC requirements.

Step 2
How do you get XP onto a laptop that has no CD/DVD drive? External USB CD-ROM drive sounds about right: another $80 and we're off to the races (okay, I'm not trying very hard to find the best price, here; just trying to make a point).

Step 3
Run your favourite virtualization software on the laptop (qemu is free and works fairly easily; VMware player is another option) and use the SD card as your hard drive.

Step 4
Boot the CD in the virtual environment, with settings to match the actual hardware as closely as you can; pay particular attention to the ACPI, APIC and APM settings. A default install should get things going initially.

Step 5
A long time after, you'll have an OS on an SD card. With the processing power of these guys, it may take a while to get the right configuration just to finish the install. When you've got the OS shoehorned in there, it's time to play with the bootloader: GRUB. Assuming you can set the unit to boot from SD, the unit should appear as one of the bootable hard drives in the BIOS. If so, add in a new stanza to your GRUB configuration to include:
title Windows XP
rootnoverify (hd1,0)


chainloader +1

That should do it. Now, here are a few reasons why this will fail.

  1. Not all SD cards are created equally. Some cards will be recognized and boot without issue. Some won't. And then there are the ones that work sometimes and with specific configurations.
  2. XP booting from a "normal" PC using an SD card as the boot device is reportedly slow. So slow that boot times on this low-end PC would be intolerable, especially for a 6 year old.
  3. By running XP on these devices, things like remote control, mesh networking and the built-in sharing mechanisms would need to be entirely recreated and made to work with a product Microsoft is in the process of abandoning.
  4. XP would have to be made to work seamlessly with the existing Sugar interface to ensure interoperability with units running the default setup. While the open source nature of the operating system and applications provided on the XO laptop enable this, Microsoft would have to accept working with a true open source environment in order to make this happen.
  5. As noted above, the additional costs required to support this configuration from the user's perspective almost double the price of the laptop. And then you're probably going to want to bump up the RAM, too.
What's your take? Is it really worth the effort to put XP on the XO laptop?

[Note: This piece was written well before Microsoft achieved shoehorning XP onto any XO laptops. It was written mostly to attract attention to the XO, which is still a fabulous little device that shows great promise for lowering the costs of computing in underdeveloped nations. I strongly believe XP on an XO laptop is a bad idea. As some of the comments point out, there are further reasons this particular method will not work; basically, Windows XP is not as flexible as Linux. The XO does not use LILO or GRUB and requires a custom Linux kernel to boot. I've seen Ubuntu booted from an SD card on an XO laptop, and it was quite a nice experience. Ordinary users can't just "recompile" XP to fit.]

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Computer Gifted

Planning on getting a new computer for the holidays? Here are a few things to consider.

My recommendation for any Windows-based computer setup is to immediately do the following:

  • if you are comfortable with the pre-installed antivirus solution your vendor has provided, enable it immediately, and make sure you keep an eye on the expiry date. Expired or not updated antivirus software won't protect you! Write the expiry date on the kitchen calendar, right away!
  • if you don't like paying a regular fee to keep your computer safe, download a free antivirus, like AVG Free Edition or Avast!, and keep it updated regularly.
  • install a spyware protection tool, like Spybot S&D; these aren't always perfect, but better to at least have the fix handy if something does crawl inside your computer's virtual innards! Spybot's TeaTimer can be a pest while installing all your new programs, but it can be disabled while you put everything you want on your new PC.
  • when connecting directly to the Internet (through phone modem or directly to a cable or DSL modem) always enable at least the default Windows firewall and pay attention to the warnings it gives. Another good option is to use the free version of Zone Alarm.
  • never open attachments in your email without verifying with the person that sent it that they meant to send it -- thousands of viruses, trojans and worms are lurking out there, trying to get into your computer.
  • if your computer doesn't come with a reinstallation DVD or CDs, find the utility that makes a backup of your installation and use it right away. You do not want to try find this after a hard drive glitch makes your computer unbootable. Once you have your install media, put it away in a safe place where you will be able to find it later. Much later.
  • unless you're ready to fork over a couple hundred more dollars, don't get used to the trialware installed by default on most computers; uninstall it right away! Saving your documents in some new format can be difficult to fix or retrieve when the software stops working at the end of the trial period.
With WalMart and Dell now offering Linux-based computers directly to the public, you're more likely than ever to get a PC with Linux as a gift. Or, if you have a Linux geek in your life, you may end up with both Windows and Linux (called "dual booting"). Take care of the Windows side of things as above, but keep these points in mind for your new OS:
  • although you are now safer using your computer than ever, you are not invulnerable to computer problems. Again, find that reinstall media and save it somewhere safe.
  • viruses and malware aren't a problem with Linux to date, but that doesn't mean you can be lazy about security; make sure your administrative account has a decent password and pay close attention to what you're installing on your computer.
  • if given the option to install updates automatically, try to opt for only security updates to keep the system as stable as possible.
  • be patient; it's not Windows, and if you've ever used Windows you will have different expectations. Some web sites won't load "right" or at all (due to Internet Explorer-specific extensions). Ask Microsoft to provide this browser for Linux, or try out IES4Linux if you really need to access Internet Explorer.
If by chance you happen to get a Mac this season, I'm afraid I'm no authority. I know a little about Apple's computer experience, but I'll refer you to someone who apparently knows much more about the experience than I. For good measure, here's an online magazine to whet your appetite, as well.

Happy Holidays!

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Holiday Helper

Recently I was working on a computer that had Windows XP on it and had a problem with a critical system file. The system wouldn't let me login to fix the problem, and I didn't have an XP CD handy to go into Repair mode and copy over the file I needed. Luckily, I've started carrying PendriveLinux on my USB drive lately, and it was a life saver!

Mind you, I'm not an expert in customizing this little tool, and that would have made it much easier to perform this operation, but with that little stick and a couple of web searches, here's what I was able to do.

Setting the BIOS to boot from USB, I inserted the stick and booted the default option. After a minute or two, the PC was booting into Linux and figuring itself out. Shortly, I had a GUI and access to the Internet (through the cable modem/router combo the user had set up). From there, I had to update the stick and install NTFS support (unfortunately not a default -- yet), mount the drive and copy over a backup of the SOFTWARE hive in the Windows system files.

The nasty details: In order to get at the NTFS partition, I had to load up the ntfs-3g drivers from a version of the stick called "Lenny" (Debian based Linux distribution). I had to edit the apt sources.list file and replace "etch" with "lenny", then apt-get update the works (which only took a moment). apt-get install ntfs-3g and I was done setting up.

Granted, this isn't amateur stuff -- but for semi-support people or even the pros, it could be a useful tool to carry. The only other ways to access an NTFS partition (that I'm aware of) are to use a DOS NTFS driver (which is a bit of a pain to try fit onto a single floppy, although USB drive booting is becoming a more common option) or something like the Ultimate Boot CD for Windows (which may be just slightly shady in terms of it's legality).

Apparently, Microsoft bought out Winternals, the company that made the only viable NTFS DOS driver available, and they buried it, so that's not much of an option. The questionable legality of the Ultimate Boot CD for Windows comes into play because Windows XP is only licensed for the one computer you install it on -- it's not made to be portable. Use at your own risk!

So, just to make the lives of ordinary people out there that want to be able to rescue their relatives files, or need to fix their own NTFS without a Windows XP CD handy, I'd like to put out a public request: can anyone update the Pendrivelinux USB image to include NTFS read/write support? Please?

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

The Hard Drive Question

Every now and then, the same question always pops up: is it better to leave my computer on all the time, or will my computer last longer if I keep the computer on constantly?

Well, we're going to answer this one for once and for all. Let's get started!

Let me clarify one thing: the most probable components to "die" in your computer are the power supply and the hard drive. Providing you have surge protection and don't do anything odd with your computer (like rub your feet on the carpet and shock it every chance you get) your power supply should survive the life of your computer without issue. So let's focus this question on the hard drive.

The first thing we need to do is figure out how long a hard drive (HD) is expected to be useful before failing (called the "mean time before failures" or MTBF ). If we hunt around at popular HD manufacturers, like Western Digital, Seagate and Fujitsu, we find that most modern drives have about 1 Million Hours MTBF; they're actually expected to last over 1 million hours of constant use!

Putting that into perspective, that's about 136 YEARS of constant use that the hard drive of your computer should survive. Not bad, eh? Mind you, older drives had less of a life expectancy, like around 1/3 that -- 300,000 hours. That's only about 35 years or so, but still pretty impressive.

Now, let's do a little frivolous calculating. Let's say you lose a day of life from your hard drive every time you shut it down and turn it back on (not that I'm saying that's what happens, but let's just play Devil's Advocate here). An average workday is about 8 hours, so we'll call that a "day" for purposes of this calculation. For every 8 hours of operation, you'd lose 16 hours of operation due to wear and tear on the physical mechanisms that operate the drive. Alright, so then you're going to lose some of the useful life of your hard drive, aren't you? Nope! Even with this over-exaggerated figure, you'd actually extend the life of your hard drive beyond 200 years, just by shutting it down at the end of the day! Even an old HD would benefit, extending it's usefulness up to 51 years. Now on to the real world...

In the real world, your hard drive is most likely to experience failure under normal operating conditions within about the first 3 to 5 years. If it doesn't fail under normal use in that time, you can pretty much expect the hard drive to outlive its usefulness. This would be why most manufacturers have 3 year warranties on their hard drives (although some offer up to 5 years). They know your drive is going to survive if you get past this age, and most of them do.

What can shorten the life of your hard drive? Dropping it is pretty high on the list, but the amount of shock required to damage a hard drive these days is getting fairly high for normal abuses. Usually hard drives need to run within certain temperature ranges, too. Keeping your computer within a range of 0°C and 60°C seems to be about the right temperature range to keep all the components in your system pretty happy. Airflow in and around your computer is the key here. Unexpected power outages can cause damage to your hard drive in some instances. If consistent power is an issue in your area, or if the computer you use is almost always on, you may want to consider purchasing a personal uninterruptible power supply (UPS). Sometimes little fingers finding the power button on an older computer can be an issue, as well; with newer computers this isn't as much of a problem thanks to the power button sending a signal to the operating system (OS) to shutdown instead of just cutting the power.

Regardless of your preference (on or off) remember one thing: always back up your important data, because no matter how reliable a drive may be, there's always the chance of failure. And it will most likely occur just when you need something important!

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

How To Buy A New Computer

Okay, so this hasn't been done before, right? Well, I gave it some thought and I believe there are still some areas that can do to have some light shed on them with this topic. Any computer geeks can leave the room now, because this is aimed at the "average user" who doesn't really know what they're getting inside the box.

First Things First
Before you even begin to think about getting a new computer, you should really consider why you want/need one. Did your previous computer die of some kind of hardware failure? Does your current computer feel slow? Is there some new feature you wanted to add on to your computing experience? How much can you afford to spend?

All other factors aside, if the only reason you are looking at a new computer is because of hardware failure, sometimes replacing the part can save you hundreds, even after you pay a technician to take care of the matter. For a simple thing like a burnt out memory stick or a hard drive that no longer boots, the replacement is fairly quick and painless. If you're happy with your current computer and can get the parts, this is a great, inexpensive option.

Second Thoughts
Of course, if you can't get the parts, this leads to the next best thing: buying a refurbished computer. I know, nobody likes to get "hand me downs", least of all from a stranger, right? Well, the fact of the matter is that a properly configured computer from a few years ago is really all most people need. If your primary uses are word processing, publishing your photos, surfing the web and emailing your family, there's nothing wrong with staying away from the "bleeding edge" of computing.

Several companies refurbish computers at a greatly reduced price from their brand new counterparts. If you look around, you can usually find them. Things to note are that the older computers tend to come with less RAM (or memory) and less disk space. If you're a photo buff you'll probably want to upgrade the default hard drive; adding a stick of RAM can speed up your computer considerably if you like to surf, email and run your word processor all at once.

If refurbished just isn't for you, there's always the clearance models. These are still new computers, but at the end of their production run. The benefit to you is that they still have the same warranties as new and are factory-fresh, but they're "last year's model" and won't be snapped up by the bleeding edge crowd. These also tend to be at a generous discount, and are a bit easier to find at major retailers.

Take Three
Okay, so you're not in the market for a new computer because something broke, you don't want something refurbished and you're not in the mood for a clearance sale. The next common motive for buying a new computer is that your computer is getting slow. Or there's something new out there that Microsoft or Apple says you've got to have. Here's where you make a judgment call: is your computer really getting slower in it's old age, or are you expecting more of it? When you run the same old programs you've run on it for years, does it actually take longer? If so, you may have a virus or some malware on your system that needs to be looked at. Instead of a new computer, have a trusted technician clean up your PC and whip it back into shape.

Computers don't slow down with age, they just seem slower in comparison to their newer counterparts. A clean bill of health for a slow computer probably means you've been exposed to newer computers and can no longer wait for the older processing speed to do the same old things. That's fine, and it's a perfectly valid reason to upgrade. Just be careful: buying a new computer with a new Windows OS on it will probably only be "zippy" for a little while before clutter begins to slow it back down to the same pace as your old computer! Once you add in the anti-virus, the anti-spyware, the firewall, your programs, the tools you usually have running in the background, etc. the overall system speed will decrease.

The same is basically true of any OS, Windows is just known for it more; load too much in the background and it will crawl instead of run. Basic OS X runs very nicely; add too many gadgets running around and it will slow you down. Default Desktop Linuxes run very nicely, as long as you don't add in a web server, too many applets, or an indexing service somewhere in the background to slow it down. The difference with OS X and a UNIX-like Desktop (Linux, FreeBSD, etc.) is the reduced need for malware protection.

Final Four
You're looking for the latest and greatest new toy and you want to have something modern and efficient and cool-looking. Well, you're in luck, because spiffy new computers come in three basic varieties (barring the options of laptop, notebook, tablet, desktop or tower!): Windows, OS X and Linux.

The first two you probably know a bit about and know where to get them. Pick up a Windows-based computer at any retailer that sells computers. Chances are, you'll get a flavour of Windows Vista, the shiny new offering from Microsoft. Apple, you can get in a few less places, but the Apple store is a good place to start.

And then there's Linux. Ironically, you can get it anywhere -- download a copy of it, legally, if you like -- but good luck finding a major retail store that sells it preloaded on their computers. Wal-Mart apparently sells some units, and Dell hides the odd Ubuntu or Red Hat Linux computer on their site (in the U.S. only), but for the most part vendors like Everex and Zareason are the easiest ways to get Linux preloaded. Likewise, look for smaller shops to support Linux, not the big guys. Which probably means your cost of servicing would be lower, too.

Ultimately, the choice depends on what you want in a computer. If you're not tech savvy and don't know the specific components you want in the physical hardware, don't worry too much -- any of the above options will serve you decently if you buy from a vendor you trust. What you run on it, ultimately, is your choice. Once you've made that choice, the choice of hardware it runs on is pretty much made for you.

Friday, November 9, 2007

But Everyone Uses It

Ah, the "everyone else has it" myth! How many times have we seen this one come up, especially when it comes to the ever-present Microsoft Office.

But wait... Does everyone really have a copy of Microsoft Office? Not so many people as you would think, and almost certainly not all the same version. Microsoft Office can be categorized in a number of different ways:
- Office 97 (a venerable but still useful version; forget about anything older than this!)
- Office 2000 (more recent, but less common)
- Office XP (the one where people start to get confused which version they actually have)
- Office 2003 (definitely more recent, but isn't it showing its age a bit?)
- Office 2007 (the latest and greatest, probably pre-installed for your convenience)

And this doesn't include the versions available for Mac, or the various combinations and add-ons you can get with Microsoft Office. The combinations are many! So, the odds of having the same version of Microsoft Office as anyone else you're interacting with are actually pretty slim. Although numbers you can find on the Internet vary, the distribution of users seems to fall into about 50% of people that have Microsoft Office use the 2000 or XP editions (or even older); 45% appear to be using the 2003 edition, and the rest are early adopters of the 2007 edition. Of course, this doesn't account for the entire market of users -- don't forget there are other office suites out there, like Corel WordPerfect, IBM Lotus Symphony, Sun's StarOffice (and the free OpenOffice it's derived from). So the percentages for individual Microsoft Office users, by edition, probably distributed just about as well as their competition. And you know what? The competition is very compatible with the mainstream editions of Microsoft Office in use.

Even the online Google Documents can read and write all the "common" Microsoft Office formats. This is a word processor, spreadsheet and presentation suite available on your PC, whatever your PC is running, wherever your PC is, and even if it isn't actually your PC! Just sign in and there you are! Amazingly, people will still pay hundreds of dollars to get Microsoft Office, or worse: they'll steal it, because it's all they've ever known.

Did you know that "casual copying accounts for a large portion of the economic losses due to piracy" -- in short, getting a copy of Microsoft Office (or Windows, or that favourite game...) from a friend, rather than buying it. I know the pressure. Schools use it, businesses use it, governments use it. And it's expensive. But there is (fortunately) a very inexpensive way to work around the problem.

Try this little experiment: download a free copy of OpenOffice and try it out for a bit. It's not that different from Microsoft Office, and if you already have Microsoft Office (whether purchased or otherwise) just try to avoid using it for a month. Save your documents in the DOC, XLS and PPT formats you're comfortable with, and just kick the tires a bit.

You may be surprised how easy it is to break your addiction. Life can actually go on without having Microsoft Office (and Clippy), and you can still be productive! Features come and go -- just look at the multitude of ways Microsoft Office has changed over the various versions -- but you have always adapted before, and you can again. And this time, you can make a choice to do things differently.

You don't have to feel guilty about taking something you didn't pay for. And you don't have to shell out a single cent. Welcome to freedom!

Office XP
Lotus Symphony
Google DocumentsYYYNY3N
1 - Only available with Professional versions of Microsoft Office
2 - Only available with Professional versions of Microsoft Office
3 - Integrated with Google Mail
4 - StarOffice comes with a complete clipart collection; OpenOffice comes with very basic clipart, but can be upgraded with the free OpenClipart collection

Friday, November 2, 2007

10 Reasons To Dump Windows

Just learning about Windows Vista? Here are ten reasons not to bother with it. You'll see why it's unnecessary, safer, and more worthwhile to ditch all Windows operating systems. Paraphrased from Microsoft's own site.

Find that file in a few quick clicks1) Find that file in a few quick clicks

You don't need to remember folder names to be organized anymore. Save time by instantly tracking down any document, photo, e-mail message, song, video, file, or program on your PC using Instant Search.

This would be exactly the same kind of search available even in a free Linux distribution. On a Mac it's called Spotlight. If you want pay for a new PC or an upgrade, the Mac would be a good way to go. If you want to keep your existing PC, get a friend to recommend a good distribution of Linux.

See everything you have open at a glance2) See everything you have open at a glance

Lost track of what files and programs you've opened? Flip through all your open files and windows with a simple click of your mouse using Windows Flip 3D—you're just one click away from everything you're working on.

Two words: eye candy. And you can get this kind of thing on (you guessed it) a Mac in spades. The Linux options are coming along nicely, too.

Keep photos organized—and ready to share3) Keep photos organized—and ready to share

Digital photo collection getting out of hand? You don't have to search through folders to track down the ones you want. Now you can tag your photos with a date, keyword, rating, or any label you choose so you can find them quickly and easily in Windows Photo Gallery.

You can also use dozens of free programs to do exactly the same thing on any OS you want.

Create a custom movie without a fine arts degree4) Create a custom movie without a fine arts degree

Making a great home movie just got easier. Use Windows Movie Maker to blend videos and photos into a rich movie, complete with your own soundtrack, titles, and credits.

Several free options exist that are adequate for this task on Linux and other free OSes. If you're really serious though, get a Mac.

Keep track of your music—and play it anywhere5) Keep track of your music—and play it anywhere

The larger your collection of digital music grows, the harder it can be to organize and keep track of it. But now you can easily scroll, flip, browse through, and play your entire music library in Windows Media Player 11.

And you can do the same with iTunes, or RhythmBox, or Banshee, or Amarok, or... You get the picture. Plus, any of the open source options tend to play more formats with less fuss.

Surf multiple waves of the web at once6) Surf multiple waves of the web at once

Like to jump from website to website? Satisfy your appetite for multitasking without having to open several browser windows. You can open multiple webpages in one window and easily click between them with the tabbed browsing feature in Internet Explorer 7—plus, you can see thumbnail images of all your open webpages at a glance with Quick Tabs.

Quick Tabs aside, sounds like Opera, Firefox, Safari and most other browsers that have had these kinds of features -- secure, stable and tested -- for a long time now. Avoid ActiveX!

Record and watch TV on your time7) Record and watch TV on your time

Watch TV on your own schedule—not the TV networks' schedule. If your PC has a TV tuner, you can record, watch, and pause live television on your desktop or mobile PC using Windows Media Center.

I haven't tried this on a Mac, but I'm guessing OS X has a feature or two that will handle this task. For Linux, check this Linux Media Center video out.

Bring your TV and PC together—and take home entertainment to a new level8) Bring your TV and PC together—and take home entertainment to a new level

Tired of huddling around the PC for entertainment? Connect your PC to one or more televisions in your home using a Windows Media Center Extender like Xbox 360, and enjoy all your digital entertainment on the big screen—from photo slideshows, home videos, and digital music to live and recorded TV shows and movies.

Did you watch the video in the last point?

Keep the things you need most at your fingertips9) Keep the things you need most at your fingertips

No need to open a web browser to check traffic and weather, open a calculator to add up a few numbers, or open an application to see your calendar. Now you can put mini-applications called gadgets right on your desktop, where you can see and use them whenever the mood strikes. Just use the Windows Sidebar pane to store and organize your favourite gadgets.

Okay, but what if you have a web browser open, or a word processor? This is stuff on your Desktop, folks. If you have nothing open, it's nice eye candy, but if you open a single app, usually this kind of thing gets covered up. Of course, it looks nice, so screenlets, desklets and other names fill the bill anywhere but Windows.

Help your kids stay safer10) Help your kids stay safer

Worried about your kids' computer use—or what they may encounter online? Now you can set boundaries on what your kids can do on the PC to give them a safer experience, using the centralized Parental Controls in Windows Vista. You can even restrict games and websites based on your family's values.

Plus, you can better protect your PC and your personal information, as well as your family, with built-in security tools like Windows Defender and anti-spam and phishing filters.

Mac has Parental Controls, too. In fact, OS X had them first. Linux takes a different approach: there are many tools out there for securing your child's Internet experience you way; block what you want blocked, and only install what you want your child to use. As for antivirus, antispyware, anti-spam, phishing, etc.? That's largely a Windows problem. Mac and Linux don't experience anything remotely close -- they have an actual security model to follow.

Well, if you aren't convinced by now, here's reason eleven: get your credit card out.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Driven To Distraction

I have to admit, the purpose of this site was intended to be a simple reference for good computing practices and resources on the web. I came across this interesting little page, though, and I just had to say something about it:

How much simpler can it get? For anyone wishing to try another way to use their computer, it's right there, one click away! Visit the link, click the big Debian logo and you're walked through the process of trying out a new operating system. It just couldn't be easier!

Friday, October 26, 2007

Everybody's Two Cents

It seems everywhere you look, there's another article written giving advice on how to best run your computer. "Do it our way, it's best!" or "Neat things to do with your computer" seem to be the trend. Fact is, there are just too many individuals out there, and just as many ways of maintaining your computer (be it a Mac or a PC).

One part I find really confusing about this is how authorities on the matter (like Microsoft, for instance) will write articles teaching you how to organize your computer, then come out with the latest and greatest in search technology, just in case you lose something. Seeing how Microsoft's latest program search feature works, it looks like they could do to read their own articles! But I suppose that's what they get for trying to keep up with the Mac.

Looking at the latest release from the Linux camp seems to follow this basic trend in trying to help everyone be organized, but falling back to "and we have a search feature if you misfile anything!" In the latest Ubuntu 7.10, there are folders for Music, Documents, Pictures, Video, you name it. Nice and easy to organize, if that's your style (most of my files will wind up in a Download folder somewhere, to be honest). And when I lose something, there's Tracker to get me out of a jam.

Of course, the rivalry across these three platforms doesn't end at just trying to be helpful and let you keep your life (and your files) organized. Oh no, there's much more than that, and they each try to one-up the other. Enter "bling!" Really, I think it was the Mac that started it all. It was that sexy graphical user interface (GUI) that first hooked Bill Gates on the idea, and the rivalry has revved up ever since*. Not to be outdone, the UNIX crowd developed a similar system, but until recent years it just hasn't cut the mustard.

Apple's slick interface, called Aqua, and made with yummy-sounding names like Cocoa and Java, is without a doubt the smoothest experience you'll see in computing today. Microsoft's Windows Vista is pathetic in comparison. And then there's Linux: trying to be everything to everyone, with a few nice tricks up it's sleeve, but master of none.

Computing today is light-years from where it began, and we still have so far to go. When you can organize a computer as well as (or as poorly as) you can organize your life, we'll really be getting somewhere. For now, I think we need a new metaphor. Perhaps something that reflects the real world better, instead of trying to compartmentalize everything into Folders and Files. A little less concentration on the splashy effects that require that we go out and buy brand new video cards and faster CPUs might be an idea, too.

But I guess that's just my two cents.

*And yeah, I know about the Xerox thing, okay? :)

Friday, October 19, 2007

Why isn't your computer secure?

I just came across an article the other day about how to check that your computer is secure. While reading it, it occurred to me that this is a fairly strange situation we've gotten ourselves into. If we buy a car, we have standards to guarantee it's safe to drive. If we buy a refrigerator, it comes with a warranty usually lasting years, and you know it's going to work for at least a decade.

But when we buy a computer, we have to buy additional things to make it complete, to finish the job of "securing" your computer before it's safe to use. This isn't life and death, but it's odd that we accept it as normal.

The very first thing the article mentioned was to install a firewall. If you're connecting to the Internet, this is a crucial thing, and it should be included at the operating system (OS) level. For any modern OS, this appears to be the case. OS X, FreeBSD, Linux and even Windows XP or later include firewalls in their basic OS offering. So far, so good.

Next: the article recommended using anti-virus software. Okay, for many people this seems like a normal thing to do. To many, it's not even a thought. And this is where I diverge with the article: I don't think anti-virus is the right approach to securing your PC at all. Viruses happen because there are vulnerabilities in software. Basically, virus writers take advantage of the fact that software can be accidentally used inappropriately. The count on the fact that the maintainers of the software won't get around to fixing the bugs they find and they don't have an efficient way to patch things up. So we have the bandage solution of using anti-virus software. Outside of the Windows world, free operating systems like Linux-based OSes have come up with ingenious ways to keep systems up-to-date and may not even need anti-virus software at all. Couple this with the proven POSIX security model that separates administrative functions from user functions and viruses are nearly impossible on these systems.

And tagging right along with that idea is what I'll call crapware: all that nasty software that either spies on you, tracks your web surfing habits, puts annoying pop-ups on your screen at regular intervals and generally slows down your computing experience. This should NEVER happen, but it does regularly on Windows-based operating systems. OS X (the Mac OS) and any Unix-like operating system (such as FreeBSD or any Linux-based OS) simply does not allow this to happen. To install software without your knowledge would require breaking into the main distributor's computers and placing the software there, to be mass installed at the next update. But with security measures in place, this just doesn't happen -- breakins are caught and tainted code removed before it has a chance to affect an ordinary user like yourself!

The article also mentions changing your browser security settings -- a uniquely Microsoft approach to web browsing. For Microsoft, the web browser is so closely tied to the OS that web pages actually have access to critical parts of your computer. Again, no other OS has this flaw, and there have been several warnings to not use Microsoft's Internet Explorer because the security model is so bad.

In parting, the article also mentions securing your wireless connection. This is a good idea, but not as critical to protecting your computer as the OS itself. If your OS is secure, the network it connects to is almost irrelevant. Protecting yourself is as easy as making a change: use an operating system designed to protect you. Amazingly, the alternatives are better at this than Microsoft, and getting better every day!