Virtualization and the ubiquitous OS

The interest in Microsoft alternatives such as Linux and Mac OS X is growing stronger by the day and recent events – such as the alliance between Novell Inc. and Microsoft Corp. has done nothing to change this.

And when you think of it, as long as we can perform our essential tasks – print that report, send that e-mail – does the operating system really matter?

Today, most applications offer a browser-based interface and most of the popular browsers can be had free of charge in versions that run on non-Microsoft platforms.

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 e-mail – 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 e-mail. 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.

Last year, Microsoft announced that the next version of Office 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). Core functions, such as messaging and scheduling, work fine but public folder functions are somewhat limited.

Do operating systems matter? In terms of short-term productivity, they probably do.

Tolly is president of The Tolly Group, a strategic consulting and independent testing company. He can be reached at