Windows has an army of critics, mostly male and mostly having a hard time going through adolescence. In actual fact Windows isn't too bad. It makes extremely complex tasks very easy. Take dialling-up to the Internet as an example. Believe it or not, this is an incredibly complex task involving protocol negotiations and physical transfer layers. With Windows it's a one-click operation.
It's one of life's strange coincidences that just as Microsoft got tied-up in their anti-trust case - which accused them of monopolistic practices - a new and interesting OS popped its head above the surface. This was Linux and was written by Finnish student Linus Torvalds. It was based on Unix, an operating system used by people who wear lab coats and have 30ft satellite dishes at their place of work.
But saying Linux is based on Unix is like saying humans are based on monkeys. Nowadays Linux - pronounced Lin-ux - has the all-important X-Server which allows it to go beyond its command-line beginnings ('copy C:\doggy.jpg F:\doggy.jpg /i/d/a', etc.). It's developed into a fully-fledged graphical operating system and started a world domination campaign, albeit accidentally and purely as a result of PC users' reacting to Microsoft's notorious business practices.
But if Linux is so damned great then why aren't more people using it? Well, getting Linux up and running in its raw state is an act of courage. You need to repartition your hard disk, (without the right tools, this is like moving your house sideways in order to add a conservatory). And despite all the graphical cleverness, Linux is still more 'hands-on' than most people can deal with. Dialling-up to the Internet requires you to make sure your modem driver is custom compiled into the kernel. You also have to setup a dedicated point-to-point protocol (PPP) dialler. Confused? Then don't touch Linux in its unpackaged form.
There's also the important fact that Linux can't run Windows software. Instead it has a huge legion of programs written by hobbyists with the odd professional effort, such as the hugely capable Star Office suite, shining through.
But Linux does have one huge advantage. It's entirely free. It was written to be free. It's the wild horse galloping across the plains compared to Microsoft's pit ponies shackled to the cart of capitalism. And because of this, virtually all the software for it, including Star Office, is also free. With this in mind it's not too bad a prospect after all and certainly worth trying out, especially as more and more Linux packages are appearing with user-friendly installation routines (read some of our reviews for more information).
Another operating systems wanders the plains. This is BeOS, yet another free young upstart based loosely on the Macintosh operating system (perversely, a version of BeOS is also available for Mac, making it a cross-platform OS). However, unlike Linux, this OS has no designs on world domination. In fact, it only aims to conquer multimedia studios because it's primarily aimed at artistic types who use computers. And with very little software available - the list fits on one side of a sheet of A4 - it has as many users as most of us have toes. Perhaps that's a little unkind, but don't expect to see BeOS on an office machine near you in the immediate future.