Alternatives to Microsoft

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While we constantly hear about the evils of textbook prices, there is one area where students and non-students are being price-gouged: software from Microsoft. While Microsoft’s business ethics are constantly debated it is important to consider all of the costs to determine the value of Microsoft software. While Microsoft\’s dominance has had some clear benefits by creating de facto standards, their monopoly status has also harmed customers.
Microsoft’s software is virtually always more expensive than similar competing products, though it is debatable whether end users always get a better product. Security bugs for MS Office 97 went unreported for six years and Microsoft decided to never fix the problems. Even when Microsoft does fix problems, the cure is sometimes as bad as some of the problems that it is intended to fix. Take Windows XP SP2 for example. Problems for some users have been so bad that they lost data and made most of their software unusable. While such software is complex one could only wonder how much better the products might be if spending on development were a higher priority. Microsoft’s profit margins, according to SEC records in recent years for MS Office, is approximately 80 percent and 90 percent for MS Windows. While Microsoft does offer student discounting, the deal isn\’t nearly as good as it sounds. Microsoft Office is still $150 and you get stuck with something that can\’t be upgraded, so if you want to legally upgrade to a future version after you graduate you will have to pay $300 or more. There also are no cross-platform upgrades for even non-academic versions. With such customer-unfriendly licensing, is it any surprise that Bill Gates is the wealthiest man in the world? If there is at least one student outraged by soda prices there has to be at least a decent number in the UCI community who also find the prices outrageous.
Due to the costs some students have considered various ways to cut costs on software. While many students resort to software piracy, which is illegal, there are an increasing number of quality alternative products. The four-year-old OpenOffice has received numerous accolades for its low learning curve, compatibility with Microsoft Office and ability to create PDF files (not available for free with MS Office). The free price makes it a good option for students, as well. While OpenOffice currently lacks an equivalent to Outlook or Access, this isn’t too big of problem since few students need Access and Outlook’s security problems make alternatives preferable.
Not surprisingly, Microsoft lost a class action lawsuit against the state of California for over $1 billion in price gouging between 1995 and 2000. Apparently few are aware of the suit because before the original deadline (back in March) only 4 percent of the possible claimants had filed a claim. The deadline has since been extended to December. Considering that one can claim up to $100 without any proof of purchase, it is surprising that more people haven’t filed claims. Anyone interested in information about filing a claim can go to www.microsoftcalsettlement.com.
Even Microsoft’s \”free\” software is questionable. Internet Explorer is the bane of techies and technophobes alike. It is infamous for its numerous security flaws and its ability to pick up various adware and spyware. This years’ Download.Ject flaw went unpatched for weeks and there wasn’t even a workaround other than to use an alternative browser. Some security firms have noted security flaws going without patches for months, or even years! Even the Department of Homeland Security’s United States Computer Emergency Readiness Team has recommended users not to use Internet Explorer. IE’s problem of being susceptible to spyware is so bad that one poll of machines with IE done by EarthLink, Inc. and Webroot Software found that the users had an average of 29 pieces of spyware per computer. Among users of alternative Web browsers such as Opera or Mozilla, this is virtually unheard of. Not only that, but both of these Web browsers are years ahead, feature-wise. Considering the lower productivity that these problems cause, I am surprised how the university and its students don’t consider the unintended costs. In addition, according to Network and Academic Computing Services, the proxy for access to on-campus library resources doesn\’t even work properly in Internet Explorer. Mozilla, on the other hand, can use the proxy without a problem.
While Microsoft software certainly has advantages, one certainly needs to explore alternatives when considering software.
Shaun Augsburger is a fifth-year history major.