Kicking The Microsoft Habit

Tired of the cost and security concerns that result from using Microsoft products? Not to worry -- solid alternatives abound.

May 18, 2006

18 Min Read
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For many people these days, Microsoft is to computing as Kleenex is to facial tissues -- practically the same thing. Microsoft probably has no problem with this, but sticking with just one supplier is not always a great idea. Increasingly, there are solid -- and practical -- reasons to minimize our commitment to Microsoft software.

Kicking The Microsoft Habit

•  Introduction

•  Office Applications•  Mail And Personal Info•  The Internet•  Multimedia

For one thing, Microsoft software can be expensive. Why pay hundreds of dollars for Microsoft Office, for instance, when low-cost and even free alternatives are available?

Then there's security. As is often the case with the rich and powerful -- or at least the highly visible -- there are those who want to make trouble for Microsoft and its users. Many of the security threats hatched by these characters focus on the Outlook e-mail/contacts/calendaring program and on Internet Explorer, which has been the subject of a constant stream of security patches and upgrades in recent years. In addition, there have been viruses that attack Word and other Microsoft Office applications.

For true rebels, another reason to avoid or switch away from Microsoft is that, well, it's Microsoft. The company has a near monopoly, not only with its Windows operating system, but also with core applications such as Microsoft Office. A lot of people have trouble with the concept of monopolies.

I found all these reasons valid to varying degrees, so a few months ago I set out to wean myself from Microsoft products -- at least, to a certain degree. I decided to stay with Windows itself for a couple of reasons. First, like the vast majority of computer users, I'd already paid for Windows when I bought my PC. I seriously considered Linux and auditioned four desktop distributions, all of which are stable and delightful to use, but lack the multimedia support I need. Of course, Apple provides significant non-Microsoft options, but while its hardware is top-notch and Mac OS X is elegant, they're expensive and I'm a cheapskate.I did, however, find four categories of software -- office apps, e-mail and personal information managers, Internet tools, and multimedia programs -- in which strong alternatives to Microsoft products exist. I'll discuss two or three of the most solid alternatives in each category and share a little of my experience kicking the Microsoft habit.

Office Applications

Microsoft Office, a suite of business tools including Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and more, became the leading package in the 1990s when it started being bundled with new PCs. It didn't take long for Office to push aside once-dominant standalone applications such as WordPerfect and Lotus 1-2-3.

Although Microsoft Office's domination continues, there are solid alternatives. One of the best is, which is open source and, as a result, is available not only for Windows but also for Mac OS X, Sun Solaris, and Linux. And it's absolutely free.

OpenOffice includes a word processor, spreadsheet, presentation program, and drawing program. Even more impressively, it includes a database program, an application not included in the more basic versions of Microsoft Office. OpenOffice is a highly professional, powerful office suite. And while earlier versions were not perfectly format-compatible with Microsoft Office, those problems seem to have disappeared with the release of version 2.0.

A second option is Corel's WordPerfect Office. Back in the day -- the DOS day, that is -- WordPerfect held a Microsoft-like market share with its word processor. Corel offers a variety of WordPerfect Office versions, starting with a home version for about $80 that includes a word processor and spreadsheet as well as multimedia tools for managing digital images and video. Various versions of the suite offer different mixes of applications. WordPerfect Office also is increasingly being bundled with new PCs.

Kicking The Microsoft Habit

•  Introduction•  Office Applications•  Mail And Personal Info

•  The Internet•  Multimedia

An emerging but still immature alternative comprises Web-based office suites that you access and edit online with your browser. The advantage of this approach is that you can get to your files from any Internet-connected computer based on any platform. ThinkFree, for instance, provides free online word processing, spreadsheet, and presentation programs that it claims are compatible with Office. Also garnering attention has been Writely, which, as the name implies, is primarily a word processor. Recently acquired by Google, Writely has closed off new registrations until the handover is complete.

For now, though, even though they're an interesting alternative, these services aren't as powerful as Office apps, and there aren't as many types of applications available.

OpenOffice At Work

My chosen Office replacement is OpenOffice. Despite some initial reservations, I took right to OpenOffice with virtually no glitches. Given that I've used Microsoft Office apps since the days of DOS, I feared I would resist becoming accustomed to a new set of applications. I also was concerned that my large library of stored documents dating back more than 15 years might not be compatible. The first fear was easily overcome by OpenOffice's strong customization abilities, which let me largely replicate how I had set up my Office applications. And incompatibility problems, which I had experienced when I tested an earlier version of OpenOffice about a year ago, were completely gone in the newest version.

OpenOffice competes strongly feature-for-feature with Microsoft Office. It even has a few features, such as the ability to save documents in Adobe PDF format, that are missing in Office. On the other hand, it's missing a few features that Office has, such as a grammar checker in the word processor. Plus, if you've invested heavily in macros for Microsoft Office, the switch will take longer because you'll have to re-create those macros in OpenOffice.

Overall, though, I miss only one Office app: Outlook.

Mail And Personal Information

Before Microsoft Outlook, which was introduced with Office 97, there were e-mail applications and there were personal information managers (PIMs). Outlook combined the two, which made it hugely popular with both individual users and businesses that use Microsoft Exchange Server for centralized management of e-mail and PIM data.Barca from Poco Systems ($60) is one of the few programs for Windows that performs the range of tasks that Outlook does. Barca's interface will be immediately recognizable to Outlook users, and it has roughly the same features and capabilities. It also has a few extra niceties, such as a self-adapting spam filter, and a somewhat cleaner, more self-obvious menu structure than Outlook's. There's also a Barca Pro version ($80) that supports features such as network-shared calendars.

Some of the most important differences between Barca and Outlook are under the sheets. To display formatted e-mail, for instance, Barca uses its own HTML viewer instead of Internet Explorer, which is infamously prone to malware. It also uses the PocoScript scripting language instead of the more vulnerable JavaScript or VBScript. Although the different scripting language will make it difficult for some to transition from Outlook, for many that will be a small price for increased security.

Another option is WordPerfect Mail, which Corel started selling both separately ($69) and as part of some versions of WordPerfect Office about a year ago. Incorporating e-mail, spam protection, contact management, and calendars, this product is easy enough to learn, although its interface is somewhat different from those of Outlook and Barca.

Beyond Barca and WordPerfect Mail, it's a matter mixing and matching e-mail clients and PIMs to find a combination with which you are comfortable. The alternative e-mail client that probably gets the most attention is Mozilla Thunderbird. Particularly noteworthy are Thunderbird's adaptive junk mail filters, which become more adept as you designate more and more messages as junk.

Thunderbird has strong built-in RSS support and sports a clean, easy-to-understand interface and stronger search capabilities within folders than does Outlook. And, as with Mozilla's Firefox browser, you can add to Thunderbird's functionality with myriad free extensions created by an extensive developer community. Thunderbird is open source, which means it's available for Mac OS X and Linux in addition to Windows, and, of course, it's free.

Kicking The Microsoft Habit

•  Introduction•  Office Applications•  Mail And Personal Info

•  The Internet•  Multimedia

Other longtime favorite e-mail clients include Eudora, The Bat!, Pegasus Mail, and PocoMail from the developer of Barca. You can read more about each of these programs in our review, "Beyond Outlook: Five Alternative E-mail Apps."

Another popular option for e-mail are free Web-based services such as Yahoo! Mail or Google's Gmail. Gmail is arguably the best online e-mail service, with only one irritating feature -- it serves ads related to the content of e-mail messages. As with other Web-based e-mail, it is easily accessible from any computer, and Gmail is particularly noteworthy for its search capabilities. It also works well with standalone e-mail clients, a feat not all Web-based e-mail systems can manage.

All of these e-mail programs include at least rudimentary address books, but if you want more powerful contact management capabilities than they can provide, you'll need a PIM. At the high end of the scale are programs like Sage Software's ACT! ($200) and GoldMine from FrontRange Solutions ($180). These pricey applications are tuned for sales personnel and others who demand the most precise control over contact interactions.Popular but less powerful PIMs include Time & Chaos ($45) and PIMEX ($35). If your primary need is to keep track of appointments, a host of quick and sophisticated Ajax-based calendars has been cropping up online, the most famous of which is the new Google Calendar beta.

Mixed Results
My current solution is Microsoft-free but not entirely satisfactory. For e-mail, I happily use Thunderbird and have found it easier to use than Outlook. I particularly appreciate its adaptive junk filter.

For now, I am using Thunderbird's internal capabilities to manage my contacts. I can easily find specific contacts, but drilling down for more information about a contact requires that I right-click on the name and select Properties, then view the ensuing dialog box, which is clumsy.

I was using the Mozilla Calendar extension for Thunderbird but found it weak and inflexible. For instance, it doesn't support drag-and-drop operations. So I've recently switched to Google Calendar, which I like a lot, particularly since it's free. Even though it's a Web application, it supports drag-and-drop and all the basics that a calendar should handle, such as recurring appointments. However, it remains weak in some regards. For example, it has no "snooze" capability on its reminder alarms for appointments, and it lacks a "To Do" list.

Barca and WordPerfect Mail have the potential to be comprehensive solutions, covering e-mail, contacts, and calendaring. But in my tests, neither app imported all my data cleanly. Barca imported messages only from Outlook's Inbox and not from any subfolders, and WordPerfect Mail wouldn't import from Thunderbird, though it did import from Outlook. Still, if I find Google Calendar too limited, I might be willing to give one of these suites another shot.

The Internet

Web browsing is one of the easiest and most obvious places to move away from Microsoft. Few non-Microsoft products have received as much attention as Mozilla Firefox. That and Opera Software's Opera provide two free browser options that are clearly superior to Internet Explorer (IE) 6, although the jury is still out on IE7, which is currently in public beta.

Kicking The Microsoft Habit

•  Introduction•  Office Applications•  Mail And Personal Info•  The Internet•  Multimedia

Tabbed browsing, which enables you to keep multiple Web pages open in the same browser window, is one major reason legions of users have switched away from Internet Explorer. Another reason is the fact that both Firefox and Opera are generally more secure than IE. While neither is impervious to malware, hackers are more focused on Internet Explorer.

Tabbed browsing and security were the main reasons I switched to Firefox's first public beta the better part of two years ago. Prior to that, I used Opera, for which I still have a strong affection. At the time, Opera was ad-supported, while Mozilla was free, which encouraged my switch. Opera is now available for free without advertising and, despite the huge buzz around Firefox, it is worth a serious look. (See our review "IE7 Vs. Everyone Else" for more about Opera and Firefox.)

The other reason I switched to Firefox was its large community of developers who create free extensions to increase the program's capabilities. For instance, most of us need to keep one foot in the IE world because some sites work correctly only with Internet Explorer (although the number of those sites is decreasing rapidly). The IE Tab extension enables a tab in Firefox to behave precisely like an IE window. When the extension was first released, it didn't always work, but I have yet to find a glitch with the most recent version of this extension.

Other extensions I regularly use include:

  • Fasterfox, which tweaks various settings to increase display speed in Firefox

  • Tab Mix Plus, which enables very precise fine-tuning of tabs

  • Autocomplete Manager, which fixes the one disadvantage I've found Firefox has to IE -- in-line auto-completion of typed URLs

    For more great Firefox add-ons, see "Firefox Essentials: Must-Have Extensions."

    When IE7 is released, I'm sure I'll give it a look -- I'm a curious guy, after all. But it would have to be pretty remarkable for me to switch away from Firefox. Plus, while Microsoft claims that IE7 will be more secure, the hacker community is full of fiendishly clever people, and I remain suspicious that, even if the new IE starts out secure, it won't stay that way for long.

    Not Truly IE-Free
    A final word is in order about entirely eliminating IE from your life: It may not be possible. That's because many applications that provide access to the Web actually use IE code behind the scenes. (As I mentioned on the previous page, that's one of the attractions of Barca, the Outlook substitute.) There's an above average chance that, if you use money managers, multimedia programs, or other apps that access the Web at times, they may well be using Internet Explorer code and thus make you vulnerable to security breaches.


    Microsoft Office might be expensive and Internet Explorer might be insecure, but Microsoft's primary multimedia offering, Windows Media Player (WMP), is just plain clunky. Although WMP is in version 10, its interface is not always intuitive, and it provides sometimes-clumsy, slow access to your media files. (To be fair, version 11 of WMP, to be released this summer, features a vastly improved interface. At the moment, however, it's still in beta and rather unstable.)

    Not that WMP is lacking power. It not only plays music, but videos as well, and provides tools for organizing and managing all your media. It also can connect directly to some music subscription services, and having it installed is essential if you use software provided by music services such as Rhapsody and Napster. That's because those services, which enable subscribers to download music to their PCs and portable media players, use WMP for digital rights management (DRM).

    Kicking The Microsoft Habit

    •  Introduction•  Office Applications•  Mail And Personal Info

    •  The Internet•  Multimedia

    If you primarily listen to music and don't like WMP's clumsy interface, the subscription music services offer their own software to play and organize your music. I've tried most of them and find Rhapsody's software to be the best in this group. However, like the other subscription service software, it has weak video support.

    Perhaps the most comprehensive software offered by a music service is the free iTunes software from Apple. Designed for use with the iTunes store, it can import music you've already stored on your PC, rip music from CDs, and play videos -- or at least the video formats that are sold at iTunes.

    Two other options are worth looking at if you want to roughly replicate WMP's power. The one I've adopted is WinAmp from Nullsoft (free for the Basic version, $20 for Pro). This is the latest version of an old favorite, and it plays virtually all popular audio and video formats, including DRM'd music downloaded from subscription services. I particularly like its interface for managing my media library. It has, for instance, windows for artists, albums by the artist, and songs within each of the albums. It also does the best job of managing music, both ripped and DRM'd, on my Creative Zen Touch media player. Yet another advantage is that it has a large supply of free plug-ins that enhance its capabilities.

    I still don't entirely get WinAmp's interface, with its separate modules for managing music, playing music, and managing playlists. Each of those modules can be detached from the rest of the interface and resized or closed separately, which I find confusing. But that objection aside, I find WinAmp provides the best balance of functionality and stability.Another option is RealNetworks' free RealPlayer, which plays about the same mix of media types as does WMP. I installed RealPlayer with some trepidation because previous versions I tried were highly unstable. Since, like WMP, RealPlayer is up to version 10, I hoped that RealNetworks had worked out the kinks. Alas, it hasn't -- I still found RealPlayer unstable, particularly with my Zen Touch media player attached, despite the fact that the software supports that particular player. Plus, I didn't find the interface any easier to navigate than WMP's.

    Living A (Relatively) Microsoft-Free Life
    In any case, my reliance on WMP, while not eliminated, is now greatly minimized.

    Come to that, my Internet Explorer habit and what can only be called an addiction to Outlook and Office are now history. I am now more or less clean and Microsoft-free, at least when it comes to desktop apps. And that feels good.

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