In many of the homes I visit I see the same programs being used: Windows, Adobe Reader, Microsoft Office, iTunes, and so on. For many of my customers, these names are synonymous with the tasks they do, and occasionally I’ll hear someone refer to a ‘Word document’ that has never been near a copy of Word, and doesn’t have the .doc file ending to suggest that Word was used to make it.
That may not sound like a problem, because everyone knows what’s meant, but could there be issues around using the same software as everyone else?
Less of a target
Windows, the Operating System on which your computer most likely runs, has had its fair share of critics when it comes to security. It’s claimed that Windows is an insecure system, poorly programmed just to provide ease of use. It’s as easy to install a virus by accident, the critics claim, as it is to install that video converter you intended. Defenders of the software often counter that Windows’ main flaw is that it’s so popular that virus-makers naturally target it, and that this is why so many viruses can be found out there on the Internet waiting to infect Windows machines rather than Macs and Linux computers.
Ditching Windows in favour of another operating system is a topic for a whole article in itself, but there’s something to be said for the fact that using the most common programs leaves you vulnerable, purely statistically. So using an alternative which does the job just as well may save you from a tricky repair job.
Another advantage of less-common software is that you’ll be using software from a company which knows it needs to beat more popular programs, whereas the market leader may become complacent, assuming people will download or buy it out of habit. That’s why I find the less common software is often faster, less feature-bloated, and more likely to have an interesting feature or two that the larger programs lack. These other companies have it all to play for!
There’s a class of software known as either Open Source Software or Free Software (note the capitals!). These programs are built by groups of volunteers and/or companies who group together to create software for mutual benefit. Because no one person owns the rights to these programs (hence ‘Open’ and ‘Free’) they are not only free in the economic sense of zero cost, but they are free from the influence of one powerful creator. Open Source Software is unlikely to nag you to upgrade to a more expensive version with more features, nor will it try to install other software and spyware along the way (as long as you download from the project’s own website). As with the software mentioned above, Open Source projects are often trying to compete with the colossi of the industry, and have to innovate to become popular.
Try some obscure software
Here are the programs I use for those tasks we do every day:
Mozilla Firefox and Google Chrome: I use these to browse the Web, instead of Microsoft’s Internet Explorer. They are faster, they introduced such features as tabbed browsing ages before Internet Explorer, and have a bigger selection of add-ons to improve your experience. Although Internet Explorer’s security it better than it was, the old browser will have to rebuild the trust it lost in the early 2000s before people forget the bad old days of IE’s dominance. Both programs are Open Source.
Mozilla Thunderbird: I use this to check my emails. The program is like Outlook Express – it manages email, contacts and calendar (though a Firefox-style add-on), but Outlook Express has historically been the target of malware due to its widespread use; Thunderbird is more secure, and Open Source.
Foxit Reader: This is a PDF reader much like Adobe Reader, the best-known in this class of software. Foxit Reader is much faster than Adobe’s product, while also boasting some extra features that you need to pay for in the case of Adobe. Examples include collaboration tools and PDF signing.
LibreOffice: You might have heard of OpenOffice.org, the project out of which (due to some artistic differences) LibreOffice split. For a while OpenOffice.org stagnated, and although it’s getting back on its feet these days it was out of the game long enough for a lot of people to give the newer suite a go. It looks a lot like the still-popular old versions of Microsoft Office, lacking the ‘ribbon’ interface that Microsoft introduced in 2007. LibreOffice does everything the Office productivity programs do (word processor, spreadsheet, database, drawings, slideshow) plus more. And it’s completely Free and Open Source.
Is it all good?
Of course, it’s not all sweetness and light when trying to tread the lesser paths of PC software. You might find your program saving files in an unusual format if you forget to specify something different. You might find it hard to get advice and instruction for software which is used by a smaller community (though this certainly isn’t the case for the products listed above). Finally, it might be that the software is less-used because it’s (whisper it) not as good as the most popular packages.
Still, many of these packages are free, and it’s always worth trying something to see if it works for you.
Perhaps you’ve got a secret love for a little program you discovered, and which few people use. If so, let us know in the comments so we can all benefit! After all, a diverse software base is a healthy one, so spread the knowledge!