With desktop market share still ranging from miniscule to small, relatively speaking, there's an enormous interest in Microsoft alternatives such as Linux and Mac OS X.
Most of us have been conditioned for so long that the Microsoft "platform" is essential that we scarcely pause to think about alternatives. But as long as we can perform our essential tasks - print that report, send that email - does the operating system really matter?
Today, most applications offer a browser-based interface and most of the popular browsers - Internet Explorer, FireFox, Opera - can be had free of charge in versions that run on non-Microsoft platforms. And running Outlook Web Access, for example, on an Apple Mac using either Microsoft's own Internet Explorer 5.0 or Apple's Safari browser is 99 per cent the same as running it on a Windows machine. With a few minor adjustments - such as holding the control key while clicking to download an attachment - you are on your way.
Basic email - most people's key application - essentially is operating system independent already. Those who require synchronization with central servers, such as Exchange, have a bit more to deal with - but more about that later.
In terms of importance, "office" functions usually are right up there on the list alongside email. While most of us are married to "Office 2003," we typically don't need to be. The document formats used for Word and Excel can be manipulated by "freeware" office suites such as OpenOffice and NeoOffice/J that run on Linux and OS X. If you just can't live without Microsoft Office you can get Office: Mac 2004 that will give you highly compatible versions of Word, Excel and PowerPoint.
In June 2005, Microsoft announced that the next version of Office - Office 12 - would introduce native XML file formats for Word (docx), Excel (xlx) and PowerPoint (pptx) that would - are you sitting down? - be "open" and even "documented." Thus, any current compatibilities are likely to disappear before too long.
But what about Access and Outlook on non-Microsoft platforms? There, things get more complicated. While there are quite a few good quality relational database offerings out there, if Access is a "must" then having a Windows operating system is a "must," as well.
Fortunately, these days, you can use products such as Microsoft's own Virtual PC for Mac or VMware's Workstation product for running on Linux. While this adds complexity and expense (you need to buy the virtualization product and license the Windows operating system) it does let you run a "native" Windows environment on your Mac or Linux machine. This provides the best bridge between the two worlds. And, at least in the case of Virtual PC, it is a breeze to share folders between the Mac and Windows environments.
Mac users of Exchange have another twist. Microsoft used to offer Outlook 2001 as a native client but in recent years replaced it with Entourage (as part of the office suite for Mac). While this is very compatible with Outlook 2003, it is not completely so. Core functions, such as messaging and scheduling, work fine but, for instance, public folder functions are somewhat limited.
Do operating systems matter?
In terms of short-term productivity, they probably do. Even easy systems such as a Mac take getting used to. And, if you need to reach out for help to your company's tech support for, say, getting your Citrix connection to work - well, you probably know better than to try. But most problems get resolved with a bit of experience.
Tolly is president of The Tolly Group, a strategic consulting and independent testing company.