So who am I to be saying any of this stuff?
Why should my opinion about Microsoft and their products/services matter?

Those are fair questions. Here's a bit of info about me and where I'm coming from with all this.

I've been around.
I've been using computers since 1980, starting with the TRS-80 and Apple ][... about the same time Bill Gates' tiny company in Redmond, Washington got the contract to write an operating system for IBM's new Personal Computer. Lacking Gates' luck, huckstering skills, and the amoral ambition to make use of them, I took a more modest career path: I'm a middle-class support specialist and computer user, rather than a big-money programmer-turned-executive. But I have a degree in computer science, earn a living as a computer geek, and have enough breadth and depth of experience in the industry to see Microsoft in perspective.

I'm open-minded.
(Yes, I do use some Microsoft software, after all.) Discussing software has been compared to debating religion. In that case, I'm an ecumenical agnostic. There are good things in most of the packages out there, and I figure each person has to find what works best for them. Which is why (continuing the religion metaphor), I'm leery of the only-one-way philosophy the "Redmond Catholic Church".

I know Microsoft products.
I've used software from Microsoft almost from their beginning. I learned programming with the BASIC interpretter young Bill wrote for the Apple ][. I've used every major version of MS-DOS and MS-Windows since version 1.0 of each (long before either of them was commonplace). I've actually liked some Microsoft products and I still use a few (out of professional necessity, if nothing else). But I've also lived, worked, and played without them. And I've seen some of my favourite products callously exterminated by the Microsoft juggernaut. So if I seem to be saying that the grass is greener elsewhere, it's because I've been there, and seen it. Personally, I'm trying to get back.

I know a lot of other products, too.
I haven't used all of the products I list here, but I've used quite a few of them; technology research and recommendations are one of things I do for a living. I've asked people offline and online for opinions about software and services, and included the ones that seem best. I've tried as many of them as I can, so I can get a sense of whether people might find them useful, and why. While I can't personally endorse all of them, each one has some unique good points (features, price, compatibility, etc.) that would probably make it a good choice for someone... perhaps you. Every last one of them has some advantage (often many advantages) over Microsoft's product. The closest I come to endorsements is marking the ones I use myself with a my choice... but just because I like it doesn't mean you will. That's part of the point: one size doesn't fit all; we need choices. Plural.

I'm a moderate.
I'm not a fan of intrusive government who wants to "punish Microsoft for being successful" (as their apologists and stockholders frequently whine). I'm all for a free market and healthy competition. But that's exactly the point: the market needs to stay free, and the competition needs to remain healthy. So just as there are legal limits on free speech (because that freedom can be abused), there need to be legal limits on free enterprise. I don't want big government running it all, and I don't want big business running it all. There has to be a middle ground... and we've strayed from it. Unfortunately, the federal and state governments (of both major parties) in the U.S. have shown too little backbone in actually enforcing the free-market-preservation laws Microsoft has broken.

I remember how we got here.
A lot of people find computers confusing and difficult to use. Back when I started using them, they clearly were. (I thought that was part of the fun... but that's just me.) I figured that in a decade or two we'd have that problem solved, and... we don't. Sure, we've gotten closer. But most of that progress came from the exchange of ideas and the competition for customers in the years (before 1995 or so) when Microsoft was just one of many influential players, including big corporations, non-profit researchers, and individuals. Since the days when Microsoft started seriously using its leverage to trample most of the other leaders underfoot (dragging us all in its wake), computers really haven't gotten any easier to use, and they've become progressively more baffling and difficult to support (which is what I do for a living). They crash for no apparent reason, accusing users of "illegal operations". The only way to correct problems is often to reboot or even to reinstall the software. User interfaces change arbitrarily from one version to the next (because the great "visionaries" at Microsoft are still guessing at what will work). Files from one one program won't open in another. Upgrades of one program break some other program. No wonder people find computers intimidating! Microsoft's near-monopoly is only making things worse.

I'm optimistic about where we can go from here.
There are a lot of people trying hard to resolve these problems. To be fair, some of them are at Microsoft, and are truly trying to make things better. (I see bits of their work shining through here and there.) But none of them are executives at Microsoft, and most of them work somewhere else, out there creating alternatives. The best way to help them - and help yourself - is to check out what they're doing, and use their work if it suits your needs.

signed: Todd VerBeek
intro page | "but how?"

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