I recently wrote about Microsoft's monopoly in office software – the go to programs for typing papers, crafting presentations, and creating spreadsheets – in higher education, and how you can get by without the ubiquitous office suite. While there is some competition in the operating system marketplace, there really are only two mainstream choices for the software that runs our computers Microsoft's Windows or Apple's iOS. But what if you are not interested in either of those options, either on moral or ethical grounds, because you may have heard that there are better options, or just because you want to save some money? This latter point may be the case for many college students who are challenged to keep down the costs of their education to the point where spending hundreds of dollars to upgrade their operating system every couple of years simply isn't practical. The good news is that there really are other options available.
With an unused computer and the advice I presented in "How to Get by in College Without MS Office!" you can install a free operating system and continue along in your education without missing a beat. Your computer might even run better and be safer than it was under either the Windows or Mac OS too. Here are the options and how to guide for getting started.
Since Apple pioneered the graphical user interface in the early 1980s (rather than the text-based DOS that had preceded it), followed by the Windows concept a few years later, there have effectively been two operating systems that have dominated the home computer market – Windows and the Mac OS. There have been occasional rumblings about the need for alternatives and even a few under the radar options from the Linux family, but ultimately the big two have completely dominated the home computer industry despite security vulnerabilities, dramatic missteps, and other issues. Most discouraging about the lack of competition in the OS market is the steep cost of either platform and the ongoing costs of upgrading to the latest version that seems to surface every other year.
Option #1: Ubuntu
Ubuntu is my personal go-to alternative OS. Whenever Windows breaks down or becomes too bloated to run on older machines, I back up my data, wipe the hard drive, and install Ubuntu. What amazed me the first time I installed it was that when it had finished loading, my computer ran and was able to utilize all of its capabilities. As a counter point, any time I need to reinstall Windows on one of my machines, I need to visit the manufacturer's website and download and install between 50 and 100 additional drivers just to make everything work. Ubuntu is one download/install and done. Here is a bit more about the OS from DistroWatch.com:
"Ubuntu is a complete desktop Linux operating system, freely available with both community and professional support. The Ubuntu community is built on the ideas enshrined in the Ubuntu Manifesto: that software should be available free of charge, that software tools should be usable by people in their local language and despite any disabilities, and that people should have the freedom to customize and alter their software in whatever way they see fit. "Ubuntu" is an ancient African word, meaning "humanity to others". The Ubuntu distribution brings the spirit of Ubuntu to the software world." (DistroWatch.com)
Overall Ubuntu utilizes an open development framework that relies on a community of millions to keep it up-to-date, make sure it is secure, that it runs all the latest peripherals, and that develops new programs for it – usually all for free. Computer security is a major concern for most of us, and this community-based approach to OS development and upkeep makes Ubuntu one of the best options for running a safe and secure computer. The millions of users are constantly on watch for and actively testing vulnerabilities, and they create their own fixes and patches to the holes as they are discovered. Microsoft, in contrast, sends out occasional massive patches, often months after an issue has been discovered.
Others Options in the Rumor Mill
I have been hearing rumors of a Google Chrome operating system for years, and the popularity of the Android mobile OS sparks a lot of talk about using it on desktops and laptops. Because I was interested in researching mainstream OS alternatives, I decided to finally dig deeper into these rumors and see what the truth is about Chromium and Android for PCs. The results left me disappointed and with a belief that Ubuntu really is the only legitimate free rival for Windows and the Mac OS.
- Google Chromium – Chromium is built on a Linux base and requires that you have the latest version of Ubuntu installed in order to start working with Chromium. Beyond that, things get very sketchy. In short, you would need to alter some of the background coding of your system in order to even install Chromium and even then, there is no guarantee that it would work with all of your peripherals. If you are interested in Google's OS as an alternative to Windows or iOS, it is probably worth investing in a Chromebook, which has the OS pre-installed so the software is guaranteed to actually work with the hardware. Building it yourself is too complicated and risky. Here are some instructions from ZDNet if you have an old laptop lying around and want to try.
- Android – Because of all the hype surrounding Android and its upsurge in the mobile device market to rival Apple. I was very hopeful that installing Android on an actual computer would yield positive results because of articles like this one from NBC News. The trial build of Android X86 is available through Android-X86.org but is still a work in progress. For me, it was a failed process. I followed the instructions, but the build did not seem to be compatible with my machine, and despite my background in instructional technology, I lacked the technical knowledge to fix the problem. So, despite the hype and promise, Android was not a realistic alternative for me.
Ready to Make the Leap!
As I wrote in my post about breaking free of Microsoft Office there are real alternatives available if you are willing to make the effort to use them and get used to them. The same holds true for operating systems –to a lore limited degree. The only fully-developed alternative that currently exists is the Linux-based Ubuntu. If you are interested in saving yourself some money, moving to a more secure operating system, and breaking the shackles of corporate greed that bind you, you should seriously consider making the switch to Ubuntu. If I hadn't invested thousands upon thousands of dollars in Windows programs like Adobe's Creative Suite, I would make the switch in a minute. If you already have a Windows machine and want to try Ubuntu.