Inside a Microsoft OS

What is it with Microsoft and their belief that consumers will allow them to do what they please? They appear to have teams of lawyers living in courts around the world constantly defending a series of lawsuits; this seems to be a way of life for Microsoft. Surely the easiest way to stop the drain on their reputation and give PC users a better deal all round would be to listen to the criticism and act on it.

They have long been accused of protecting the kernel in their operating system by hiding files, naming important files in strange ways to hinder people trying to understand it. From a business angle this is understandable, as they have spent many millions of dollars designing and perfecting (I use this word very loosely) it, they want to protect the patents etc.

Added to this they have thrown more and more utilities in with the operating system which compete with others available, like media players, internet browsers, email clients etc. Many novice users don’t know there are alternatives to these features, or know how to install and use them, which means they stick to what Microsoft give them ready to use. This is the source of anti-competitive behavior lawsuits Microsoft are constantly fighting. As Microsoft designed the operating system the programs run on, they know the little hacks and tricks to make it work very efficiently, whereas third party developers making a competing product to do the same thing have to try and figure out the tricks and hacks to get up to the same level of compatibility as the Microsoft version.

Some condemn everything Microsoft have touched as evil, and wrong. I am a Microsoft Certified Professional, so you’d think I’d defend them. I do and don’t. I do give them credit where it’s due, and condemn where it’s deserved.

The Microsoft Office suite is very good, although rather heavy on system resources to run it. It has a lot of features most users would never use, but overall, it’s still the best office suite available. When you compare it £ for £ it drops down the scale very quickly though.

There are free office suites like Open Office which are open source software (the source code is open to those who know what their doing to edit and change things to improve it and add features either for their own use, or to share with others). The open source license means the software is free for everyone to download and use. It is around 70% of the Microsoft Office suite, and is fully compatible with it, the 30% less are all the obscure options and settings in the Microsoft suite that maybe 1 in every 1,000,000 users would use, for most of us Open Office has everything we need and plenty left to discover.

I put a caveat on my praise for the Microsoft Office suite however. Since its first version it has gradually improved and refined adding new features with the same feel and layout; when you’re used to one version, you feel immediately at home in a different version (Open Office has the Microsoft feel too, so a quick transition between both is easy). This has been thrown out the window in the new Microsoft Office 2007. It has a totally new interface which looks very alien, I don’t know if Microsoft will see sense and allow it to work with the old interface by ticking a box in the options or not. If they don’t this new office suite may gather dust on the shop shelves.

Next up are the free programs Microsoft give you with their operating system; Internet Explorer, Outlook Express and Windows Media Player. This is a mixed bag of results.

Outlook Express is a very good email client, it has all the basic you would want from an email client, and not a lot else but unless you want to get really fancy with emails it will serve you well. It is a newsgroup client, as well as an email client. I personally prefer a separate newsgroup reader, but it works fine. The Microsoft Office version of Outlook Express, is just a beefed up version of the free client, with a whole host of features like a journal, and calendar. It’s functional, but very resource heavy to use. It does have a rather unnatural desire to be at one with MSN Messenger, whether you tell it not to or not. Like a lot of Microsoft products, options giving instructions seem to be treated as “suggestions” and ignored in favour of the pre-defined Microsoft way.

Windows Media Player is determined to do be a one stop shop for all your media needs, whether that’s playing DVD’s, CD’s streaming videos from the internet etc. It is very heavy on the resources, and is set up to contact the mothership as often as possible. When you rip your own CD’s to your hard drive for easier playing, it wants to write protect them, and rip them in it’s own format. Most people use the .mp3 format as it’s very versatile and it creates smaller file sizes. It wants to scan your media folders to find out what music, movies etc you like, when it queries for additional artist info on a music file it wants to sell you music making Microsoft money. It is trying to control your shopping choices. As a player is is decent enough, but there are much better players free on the market, like WinAmp.

Internet Explorer is a program I’d recommend no one uses unless they really have to. It is the village idiot of web browsers. Many websites have malicious scripts and programs on them, and try to give them to the surfer when the arrive. They count on most people using Internet Explorer as it will accept anything a site offers without asking what it is. These programs and scripts are written to exploit well known security holes in Microsoft operating systems.

The current version of IE (on Windows XP) is IE6. The new version IE7 will be bundled with the successor to XP; Windows Vista, which will be released in early 2007 if it stays on track. It has fallen back further and further since its original codename Windows Longhorn. Even the new IE7 is a few years behind what the competition were doing a few years ago. Mozilla have been making browsers for many years now, and have long been a far safer and lighter alternative to IE. They have improved so much that Mozilla Firefox is now light years in advance of what Microsoft haven’t released yet. Even Microsoft owner Bill Gates uses Firefox while his company promote IE, now there’s a vote of confidence in your product. When you know your product inside out and choose to use the competition as its a better product, how can you sell your product?

This brings me to Windows Vista. Microsoft’s ethos right from the beginning has been “ease of use” without needing a degree in computing and a “looks good, eh?” interface. This is fine in principle, but it does sacrifice security which have been exploited from day one. Microsoft operating systems are loved by hackers as “victims” because they are so many holes to get in though. Microsoft are forever finding holes in their operating systems and making patches for them to allow their users to update their PC’s. This is like designing a car with cardboard and sticky backed plastic which looks like a super car, and then offering weekly sheets of paper printed out in new shapes for you to cut out, and fold into the required shape and fit into place to improve it; the same improvements which should have been thought through at the design phase.

As Microsoft is installed on every new PC someone buys, unless they specifically state otherwise, complete with all these flaws and holes, people don’t trust Microsoft to protect them. so they turn to third party programs to do this job. Norton (as poor as it is) for an anti virus, or Zone Alarm for a firewall etc. Considering it took until Microsoft releasing Service Pack 2 a couple of years back to figure out the when you make a new connection to the internet that you should enable their own firewall by default, it’s no surprise that people don’t trust them.

To combat this Microsoft changed direction with Vista (they have recently backed down a bit due to the deafening avalanche of bad publicity) to lock off the kernel to third party developers, which means that third party companies like Norton have had to hack the kernel to get their security products to work. The kernel is the nerve system of your PC. It is the key to everything working the way it does. It’s also the part that’s built with all these security holes for hackers. When Microsoft locked off the kernel it meant that every Vista user would be relying on Microsoft to protect them, as no third party product (almost all of them doing a better job) would work. This was a key element in my decision to stay well away from Vista when it’s released. It’s an extremely worrying concept.

The other effect of locking off the kernel is that not just security program developers who have to be hack it to get their products working, it affects every developer. All third party programs from media players, graphic designers, web designers etc will be inferior due to the same restrictions. This gives an unfair competitive advantage to Microsoft, which was the reason behind the decision in the first place.

Personally I only use Outlook Express, and the Microsoft Office. All my other regular programs are third party, from Adobe Photoshop for my graphics, to Macromedia (now owned by Adobe) Dreamweaver for my web design and Macromedia Flash Professional for my Flash banners. I’d have to switch to Microsoft alternatives to these if I used Vista with this decision not rescinded. I have Microsoft Front Page but as a web design program, it is very basic and very limited. It’s a great program to learn on, but very soon you want more, which you just can’t get with Front Page.

Many who know of these angles are boycotting Vista, but those who can’t join the list are gamers, who will need the latest operating system, along with the latest graphics card, processor etc to get the best out of newer games will have no choice but to get Vista. Games makers do make Mac versions of their titles, but not in anywhere near the same numbers, they know their market are Microsoft users and have a limited development budget to get a game to market for any system. They need to get the return on it to make a profit and produce the next game. Mac users tend not to be gamers so it’s a loss leader.

The other new approach in Vista is a new look with lots of 3D windows, animated changes, transparent windows etc. This looks great, but to get this look it’s taking over a lot of your processor and memory for visual effects which deny you the use of those resources for what you bought the PC for in the first place. I don’t doubt you can switch a lot of these effects off to reclaim resources Vista has decided to steal for itself but that removes much of the added value that Vista offers you. It’s a catch 22 situation.

My answer (for my own needs) is to stick to Windows XP Professional for the graphical programs I use, like Photoshop, Dreamweaver and Flash and a second PC, running a Linux operating system for everything else.

*This was written before Vista’s launch.

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