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Is XP Bill Gates' gift to Linux, Mac and WordPerfect?

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This column originally ran in ComputorEdge on September 21, 2001

(Issue 1938, Computers, Kids and Education)

If you've not heard about the Windows/Office XP shenanigans, you will.

In a bald display of raw chutzpah, Microsoft has decided it is no longer in the business of selling software.

No, you see, a software sale is a one-time transaction. You make your profit, and then you're done.

Sure, that rather simple model has made Microsoft co-founder and chairman Bill Gates the richest man on Earth, and several dozen Microsoft stockholders rich beyond their most avaricious dreams.

But it's not nearly as lucrative as the business of leasing software. Especially if you don't admit you're now in the leasing business, and continue marketing and packaging your products as if your customers were still purchasing them.

This is the new XP business model – as in Office XP and Windows XP.

Under this new model, you pay the same price for the software, but rather than owning it, you now have a 6-month or one-year lease. When that time period is up, you find that your software no longer works – not unless you fork over more money to renew your lease.

Now, Microsoft's well-paid public relations staff will no doubt take offense at the above description of their new XP licenses, but that is the reality of it: You now purchase the privelege of using the software for a specified period of time.

This is a quantum change in the market. When you purchase Microsoft's Office 2000 or Windows Me, you own the software. You are under no obligation to ever upgrade it; if you choose, you can continue using that software for the next 20 years.

Now, most of us willvoluntarily upgrade more often than every two decades. But Microsoft has apparently decided that even, say, every two years isn't good enough for their bottom line.

As I mentioned last week, Microsoft is likely betting not on the home user, but on the business world. Most Information Technology department heads will find it easier to get a larger budget for mandatory upgrades/leasing renewals than to re-train the entire company on a new set of software.

And Microsoft may well be correct in its assessment of the business world.

But for the casual home user who buys Microsoft Office for the kids to do homework on, there is a world of difference between a one-time expenditure of $500 and an upfront payment of $500 followed by annual "upgrade" fees of $175 or more.

For those users, taking the time and making the effort to explore the other alternatives to Microsoft is going to be increasingly attractive.

And for the vast majority of home users whose primary purpose in having a personal computer is using e-mail, browsing the web and having the kids do their homework, there is simply no need to kowtow to Microsoft's new usuarious business practices.

If your computer is used mostly for the above purposes, in no way are you beholden to Gates and Co. In fact, you have quite a few alternatives available.

The easiest to use is undoubtedly Apple's iMac. With both Microsoft's Internet Explorer and Netscape's Navigator pre-installed, you already have the two standard Web browsers at your disposal. Thei iMac also ships with the AppleWorks office suite included – this column is being written in AppleWorks, and it's a very capable little word processor. Like Microsoft Office, AppleWorks also includes a database, spreadsheet and presentation program – plus a graphics program that Office doesn't have.

If you already own a PC with Windows on it, but don't want to get caught up in the XP perpetual upgrade cycle, you also have other options. You can, of course, stick with your present version of Windows (I'm still using Win98SE), and your current version of Office. For most home uses, this will work for the foreseeable future. One possible drawback to this is the fact that with every new version of Office, Microsoft introduces a new file format – an unimiganitve copying of Detroit's planned obsolescence, for if your workplace upgrades to XP, you'll no longer be able to open XP documents from work using your old version of Office at home.

Which is another good reason for swtiching over to WordPerfect. Corel, publisher of WordPerfect, hasn't changed its file format since WordPerfect 6.1. So even if your friends and family are using WordPerfect 2002, and you're still using WordPefect 6.1, you can still open their files. And Corel is very good about staying current with its filters for current versions of Microsoft Office – as new versions of Office come out, you can download the import/export filters from Corel's WordPerfect Web site.

Another neat feature of WordPefect is that under the toolbar settings, you can choose a toolbar that mimics that of Microsoft Word – meaning you won't even have to learn a new set of commands.

A more radical approach is to abandon Microsoft completely. The newest versions of Linux now coming out are being packaged with installation wizards that make putting Linux on your PC as easy as – or easier than – installing Windows on your PC. Corel Linux, in particular, may be the easiet PC operating system ever to install.

Obviously, most folks would rather not have to bother with switching software - especially something as germane to your everyday computing experience as the operating system.

But when a bountifully profitable company like Microsoft abandons its implicit compact with its users, when it changes the ground rules so completely and alters the economics of owning and using a personal computer by a factor of 100 percent or more – well, at that point, the hassle of learning new computer skills may become as unavoidable as writing a new check every six months will be for those who don't change.