Having so many options in the technology world makes the internet world seem more complicated than it really is. I’d like to clear up some of the confusion by defining a few of the basic software and hardware platforms out there. Then it’s up to you to decide what works best and just go with it.
Why do we need alternative platforms?
This is like asking, “Why look at different car models when shopping for a new car?” Some of the most cutting-edge technical enhancements are created on alternative platforms. If it weren’t for alternatives, we would still be working in a world filled with command lines. Alternatives have exposed us to market leaders like Windows (1995) and Internet Explorer (1996), and will continue to act as the breeding ground for future innovation.
1. Desktop/Laptop Operating Systems
Operating Systems (OSs) are the most important component of a computer system software set. This software interfaces with the hardware/network components and defines our “experience” with a computer. The most popular OS today is Microsoft Windows. More than 80 percent of all desktop/laptop systems in the world today use some flavor of Windows. This software supports most productivity and home entertainment software.
“Windows is not cool. So what else you got?”
After Windows, the most popular desktop/laptop OS is Apple Mac OSX. Macs are designed with coolness in mind. They are simple to use and offer the most common applications needed for work and pleasure. The word “fan-boy” is often used to define a Mac user.
“I am bored with common desktops, give me something new” or “I am a geek, and I HAVE to be different.”
This is the category where the most cutting-edge technology lives. The majority of OSs in this category are free and provide almost all of the features required for productivity and home desktop software. The most popular OS in this category is Ubuntu OS (based on the free Linux platform). Ubuntu is super-fast (faster than the above two popular options), easy to use and very safe in terms of malware/virus attacks. Ubuntu works with all popular files, printers, cameras and MP3 players, and comes bundled with thousands of free applications.
In today’s world, with almost all applications moving online, the internet has become more than just a marketing tool for online stores. Many people already run their businesses entirely online while others are working on moving their existing applications over to the web. As a result, the browser you use to connect to the internet is the most important application on your computer after the OS. In recent years, three top players have been constantly vying to achieve top browser status.
The Big 3
For more than 15 years, the most popular browser in the world has been Microsoft Internet Explorer (IE), mostly due to the free bundling with Windows. For years, IE was considered slow, bloated, and unsafe. This has changed in recent years, as IE has improved in all three areas while still maintaining its top position. Recently, the number one position has been challenged many times by the competition.
The next two in line for the title are Firefox and Chrome. Both are lightning fast and provide a compatible set of features and extensions for the end user. The choice between these two almost always depends on one’s personal preference.
After the Big 3, other alternatives include Safari (big in the Mac platform) and Opera. Both have dedicated fan bases and have most of the features of the Big 3.
3. Office & Productivity Suites
Traditionally, computers gained popularity with home and office users due to their productivity applications. These include software to check emails, write text documents, run spreadsheets and create presentations.
Once again, the most popular productivity app in the world is a product of Redmond, WA-based computer giant Microsoft: MS Office. Many pundits have written that Office is why any new version of Windows sells. This statement is pretty close to the truth. With every new version of Office, new features and revamped interfaces are being added. Although less than 5 percent of people actually use these new features, Office sales continue to climb.
With the advent of cloud computing, more and more traditional applications are being ported online. Productivity suites are one such example. With Google Docs and Office 360, you don’t have to buy bulky office suites and do (most of) your work through a web browser. These platforms allow multiple users to edit a document at the same time and provide storage space to back up your computer.
Apart from the above platforms, there are scores of paid and free Office suites to choose from. The most popular of the alternatives is LibreOffice (formally OpenOffice). This is a free office suite developed by the community and available on all major OSs. This provides compatibility with MS Office and other major file formats.
As technology continues to evolve, new platforms are constantly emerging. Over the last two years, the most noticeable growth in any computing product has been in the tablet market. And it’s not stopping anytime soon. Initially, tablets were very expensive and competed in the desktop computer space. This has changed in recent years as new form factors have come into play. Today, the tablet has become more of a consumer device, catering to 90 percent of user needs, and now allows users to edit certain content. This platform will continue to undergo many changes before it reaches perfection, but it’s on the way.
“Tablet – you mean iPad, right?”
By far, the most popular device in the tablet arena is Apple’s iPad. In just two years, it has revolutionized the post-PC sales category. As an easier-to-use device and safer way to connect, the iPad has redefined the coolness paradigm.
With the success of the iPad, all major software and hardware companies are working hard to develop their own versions of a tablet success story. Some products, including the great HP touchpad/WebOS, have died, whereas others are struggling to survive. Currently, the only viable competitor to the iPad is Google’s Android and its various incarnations, including Samsung’s Galaxy Tab and Amazon’s Kindle. The Android tablet remains a viable option with its application marketplace featuring the most popular apps and a highly modifiable platform.
5. Cloud Storage
With cloud computing getting more and more useful (and confusing), I will address its most common function – online storage. This is a service specifically designed to store consumer files, provide ready access to files wherever there’s an internet connection and as a way to automatically back up files from a remote location.
The most popular (and by no means the first) online storage platform is Dropbox. Dropbox is fast and readily available on various mobile devices, providing access to files from any location. An added benefit is that files can be shared with other users.
There are oh-so-many alternatives to Dropbox that allow different combinations of storage space, encryption, ways to access and cost structure. Popular alternatives include Amazon S3, Google Docs, Apple Cloud Drive and Carbonite.
As a computer user (read “geek”) for nearly two decades, the world of alternative computing platforms is what keeps me interested and engaged. The various alternatives listed above (and the looooonnnng list I haven’t shared with you) provide me with ways to improve my efficiency in various aspects of life. If this article inspires you to try out one new platform, my work here is complete. For now, I think I’ll browse the internet for a few more alternatives. Keep you posted.