Column: Under the Wire

UNDER THE WIRE

The Latest Software and Hardware Upgrades, Plug-Ins and Add-Ons

from the 5 June 2003 of edition of the Far Eastern Economic Review , (c) 2003, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.

History Scanned

The past is being digitized — fast. The ProQuest Historical Newspapers program has just finished scanning more than a century of copies of The Washington Post to its existing database. The database includes each page from every issue, in PDF files, from 1877-1987. The program has already done The New York Times (1851-1999), The Wall Street Journal (1889-1985) and The Christian Science Monitor (1908-1990).

Cellphone with Character

Somewhat belatedly, Nokia is getting into the handwriting phone thing, aiming itself squarely at the huge Chinese market. On May 20, it unveiled the 6108, created in the firm’s product-design centre in Beijing. The keypad flips open to reveal a small area on which Chinese words can be handwritten with a stylus. A character-recognition engine will convert the scrawls into text, which can then be sent as a message. The phone will be available in the third quarter.

Security Compromised

A new survey reckons “security breaches across the Asia-Pacific region have reached epidemic levels.” In a report released last week, Evans Data Corp. said that 75% of developers reported at least one security breach — basically any kind of successful attack on their computer systems — in the past year. China is worst off, from 59% of developers reporting at least one security breach last year to 84% this year. It doesn’t help that most of the software is compromised: Tech consultant Gartner has recommended its clients drop Passport, the Microsoft service that allows users to store all their passwords, account details and other valuable stuff on-line, saying Passport identities could be easily compromised. This follows a flaw revealed earlier this month by Microsoft after an independent researcher in Pakistan noticed he could get access to any of the more than 200 million Passport accounts used to authenticate e-mail, e-commerce and other transactions. Microsoft says it has resolved the problem and does not know of any accounts that were breached. Gartner’s not impressed: “Microsoft failed to thoroughly test Passport’s security architecture, and this flaw — uncovered more than six months after Microsoft added the vulnerable feature to the system — raises serious doubts about the reliability of every Passport identity issued to date.”

Son of Napster

Apple’s apparent success with iTunes seems to have prodded some action in the on-line music market. Roxio, maker of CD recording software among other things, said last week it would buy PressPlay from Universal Music and Sony Music Entertainment for about $40 million in cash and rename the whole caboodle Napster, which it earlier bought for $5.3 million. Pressplay offers radio stations and unlimited tethered downloads for $9.95 a month in addition to song downloads that allow for CD burning. My tuppennies? None of this will work unless companies put no restrictions on the files downloaded. Emusic does it that way and it’s why a lot of people keep coming back.

Column: USB and the CIA

Loose Wire — How to Steal CIA Secrets: It’s as easy as USB; Universal Serial Bus drives are getting small enough to hide in coffee mugs, and you can attach them to most computers and all sorts of other gadgets

 
By Jeremy Wagstaff
from the 5 June 2003 of edition of the Far Eastern Economic Review , (c) 2003, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
I got some flak last time I was rude about how implausible technology is in Hollywood movies, even supposedly authentic fare such as Minority Report, The Bourne Identity and Mary Poppins. One comment was “grab a beer and chill out, dude, it’s only a movie,” though that doesn’t count because it was from my mother.

But I can’t help venting my spleen, if that’s what you do with spleen, after watching The Recruit with Al Pacino and Colin Farrell. It’s a thriller revolving around a recruit (no, really) to the Central Intelligence Agency trying to smuggle a top secret program out of CIA headquarters at Langley. There are some neat gadgets in there, such as biodegradable bugs and a program that hijacks nearby television screens. But the premise is that it’s well nigh impossible to steal data from the CIA since none of its computers have floppy drives, printers or (presumably, if we’re going to get finicky) infrared ports or Bluetooth dongles. In short, how do you transfer data if you can’t download it? I wanted to shout out suggestions but my friends, alerted by previous visits to the cinema, had gagged me beforehand.

Anyway, not a bad idea and not a bad movie. Except (skip the rest of this paragraph if you intend to watch the movie) someone succeeds in downloading the top secret program by plugging a USB drive into a USB socket on a CIA computer (USB is a commonly used port that allows users to connect gadgets to their computer). She then hides the said drive — about the size of a lighter — in her aluminium coffee mug. I mean, duh! I can’t believe they have USB sockets in Langley and that the X-ray machine confuses a gadget for coffee dregs. Tsk.

Anyway, it made me realize that Hollywood really, really needs my help in making their scripts believable. So here are some ideas for future movies, all involving existing USB gadgets:

— Our hero penetrates high-security installation, wanders nonchalantly up to floppy-less computer, and accesses USB port (inexplicably left on computer despite it being responsible for massive security breach as revealed in The Recruit). Uncoils USB cable from watch strap, plugs into USB port, downloads data into USB watch from German company LAKS (between $40 and $95 from www.laks.com).

— Our hero wanders nonchalantly up to floppy-less computer, plugs USB drive into USB port (amazingly still there despite aforementioned movie and pioneering column from tech writer), and accesses own e-mail via newly released PocoMail PE ($40 from www.pocomailpe.com). Okay, this doesn’t sound that wild, but it’s a great plot twist if you’re using someone else’s computer and they don’t have an e-mail program you need, or, in the case of our hero, you don’t want to leave any trace of yourself (say at an Internet cafe or a public library).

— Our hero has made off with the data on a USB drive. But he’s caught by the bad guys. Being avid readers of this column, they know what to look for and quickly locate the USB drive. But our hero’s drive is a bit different: Made by Singapore’s Trek 2000 International (www.thumbdrive.com), his ThumbDrive Touch has a silver pad that requires the user’s thumbprint before data can be accessed. Unfortunately for our hero, but great for a plot twist, the baddies simply cut off his thumb and plonk it on the biometric pad.

— Armed with a $100 MP306 USB drive from Azio Technologies (www. azio-tech.com/azi0-root/products/MP 306.asp), our hero fails to access the CIA computer because his nemesis has installed a SecuriKey Computer Protection System, Personal Edition ($130 from Griffin Technologies at http://securikey.com/personal/). This looks just like a USB drive but in fact works like a key: If it’s not plugged into the computer, then the computer locks up. Confounded, our hero sucks his remaining thumb and admires the silver metal mini-briefcase that the SecuriKey dongle comes in. Resigned, our hero reaches for his Azio USB drive, dons earphones, kicks back and listens to MP3 music files stored on the drive. Fiddling with the built-in equalizer for improved playback quality, he hears footsteps and quickly switches the USB drive to recorder mode to eavesdrop on two CIA officers passing by, griping about their canteen lunch.

Okay, so not all these plots will win prizes. But one thing I’m willing to bet my DVD collection on: USB drives will replace floppy drives, those flat disks of old, as PC manufacturers add USB ports to new models and remove external disk drives. Prices will drop further, meaning gadgets smaller than lighters will carry gigabytes of data for peanuts. Already you can buy a 1 gigabyte model for $300: Expect to pay half that in a year or less. They will be so cheap people will give them away: Visitors to a recent launch in Britain of Microsoft’s Windows Server 2003 were given freebie press bags with 32-megabyte USB drives inside.

In future, folk will carry around all their programs and data aboard one dongle and run it from any computer they come across, effectively personalizing the computer for however long they’re sitting at it, but without leaving any trace. Wait for the futuristic movie where everyone’s life is stored on a USB drive and every computer in the world is for public consumption. Interested? Call my agent.

Column: the paper mountain

Loose Wire — Conquer That Paper Mountain: It’s time to get organized; Here’s some software to help you scan and locate photos and documents; But perhaps you shouldn’t ditch the filing cabinet just yet

By Jeremy Wagstaff
 
from the 29 May 2003 edition of the Far Eastern Economic Review, (c) 2003, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
I’m a little suspicious of programs that, adorned with images of bits of paper and photos disappearing into a smiling computer monitor, promise to give order to the junk that is my life. The paperless office never happened — we still make printouts because it’s so easy — and while everyone seems to be photographing digitally these days, that doesn’t sort out our cupboards full of snaps. And even if this stuff does find its way onto your computer, chances are it’s all over the place, in subfolders with obscure names. A sort of digital chaos, really.

I don’t promise an end to all that. And the programs I’m about to tout are not really a new idea, but they both do a better job than their predecessors of helping you to get organized, whether you’re trying to sift through documents already on your computer, or get a handle on your photos.

First off, Scansoft’s PaperPort (deluxe version, $100 from www.scansoft.com/paperport/). Into its ninth version, it’s a lot more sophisticated than its forbears. PaperPort and its competitors allow you to scan documents into the computer, and then let you organize and view those documents into folders of your choosing. You can then convert them to digital text, a process called OCR or Optical Character Recognition, which in turn allows you to move chunks of the original document into a word-processing file. In theory it’s a great way to get rid of paper clutter on your desk, helping you to find those documents — or parts of them — easily, or to convert them to something you can use in your spreadsheet, document or whatever. In practice, it’s too much of a fiddle. Most folk find it easier to locate the hard copy of a document (behind the bookcase, next to the dead cockroach) than the soft one (What name did I give it? What keyword should I use to find it?), so they just buy another filing cabinet.

PaperPort hasn’t resolved the riddle of why we can always locate something under a messy pile of papers, but never after we’ve cleaned up, but it’s a few steps closer to making it easier to handle documents on your PC. First, you can scan them in a format called PDF, short for Adobe’s Portable Document Format, a widely used standard for viewing documents. By working within this standard — rather than PaperPort’s proprietary standard — everything you scan in PaperPort can be accessed and handled by other programs, or by folk who don’t use PaperPort. Common sense, I know, and they’ve got there at last. Another common-sense feature is a search function that allows you to search through an index of documents, whatever format they’re in, within PaperPort.

For a long time I’ve used PaperMaster, now owned by J2Global, the Internet-faxing company, which promises to have an updated version available later this year. PaperMaster does pretty much what PaperPort does, but it’s been doing it a lot longer and it actually looks like a filing cabinet, which I find reassuring. But it doesn’t work well with Windows XP, and is looking somewhat dated. Most importantly, it won’t save your scans in a file format recognized by anyone else on this planet. What’s more, it sometimes loses whole drawers of documents, which kind of defeats the object of the exercise.

So check out PaperPort. It will handle photos too, but if you’ve got a lot of them, I’d suggest Adobe’s new Photoshop Album ($50 from www.adobe.com/products/photoshopalbum/). Album is elbowing for space among a lot of similar products vying for the burgeoning home-photo market, but it has features and a very intuitive interface that I suspect will put it ahead of the pack.

Basically, it can collate pictures from more or less any source — scanning, digital images on your hard drive, on a digital camera, on a CD-ROM — and give you the tools to touch them up, label them, order them around and generally beat them into submission. You can create the usual things with them — albums, video disks, printouts, slide shows and whatnot — all in as tasteful a way as you can expect from a homespun photo album. I particularly liked the way you could tag photos more than once so, say, a picture of your Uncle Charlie doing the gardening in his pantomime costume could be categorized both under Family and Environmental Pollution Hazard. All in all, a smart program, and not badly priced.

Gripes? They’re a bit stingy on the tools they provide to touch up photos, so all the facial blemishes of my adolescent years are still there if you look closely.

These programs won’t change our lives. They may only make a dent in a filing cabinet and photo drawer. But they’re good enough for what they try to do, which is to lend a little order to our pre-paperless lives.

Under the Wire

Under the Wire

The Latest Software and Hardware Upgrades, Plug-Ins and Add-Ons

from the 29 May 2003 edition of the Far Eastern Economic Review, (c) 2003, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.

Slow Upgrade Uptake

Have you upgraded yet from Windows 98 to XP? If not, you’re not alone. According to a survey by on-line-statistics analyst WebSide Story (http://statmarket.com/), XP has taken three times longer than its predecessor to reach the same portion of the market. Windows XP first reached 33% global usage share in late March 2003, nearly 18 months after its launch in October 2001. Windows 98, on the other hand, reached the same benchmark in January 1999, only six months after its launch. My thoughts: While XP is a lot better than 98, users are showing that they’re not just going to blindly follow upgrades any more: While a third of them now run XP, a quarter don’t. Still, it’s not all rosy on the other side of the fence either: Apple is running into some familiar problems with its music-download service. According to WinInfo newsletter (www.winnetmag.net), people have figured out how to use a software service that Apple built into its music player to illegally download music over the Internet from Macs running iTunes.

My column on MessageTag, a program that allows you to check whether folk have read the e-mail you sent them, elicited some interesting mail [Are You Being Read Or Completely Ignored, May 22, 2003]. One user of a similar, but more limited, feature that comes with Microsoft Outlook points to one pitfall of the process: Knowing more than you really want to know about what happened to your e-mails. Steven A. Gray, from the United States, e-mailed his governor, Mitt Romney, complimenting him on a recent TV appearance, only to receive the following message, triggered by Outlook: “Your message to Goffice (GOV) . . . was deleted without being read on Mon, 24 Mar 2003 12:39:52 -0500.” OK, so MessageTag may not work for politicians. Other concerns were raised: Patrick Machiele, from the Netherlands, reckons the service won’t work well for those who, like him, dial in to grab their e-mail, but read it off-line. The guys from MSGTAG say this is true, but that overall the percentage of such users is very low. While Patrick has definitely pointed to a weakness in the system, I have to agree with MSGTAG: I’ve noticed very few mismatches where an e-mail is read but registered by MSGTAG as unread.

Finally, Nigerian scammers have judged on-line shopping to be a rich seam of inspiration. Here are excerpts from an e-mail from El-Mustapha, who claims to be the ex-personal aide to the Iraqi minister of education and research, Dr. Abd Al-khaliq Gafar (“that died in the war”). Before the war, he says, they travelled to France to negotiate a contract for educational materials and components for the ministry. UN sanctions forced them to pay cash. “In gust [sic] of this he had cleverly diverted this sum ($28.5m) for himself and secured it properly with a security vault in Spain for safekeeping,” he says. He did ask me to keep the whole thing top secret, but I’m still reeling from the last scam I fell for, so anyone interested in helping him recover the loot should e-mail him at mustapha_el@mail2guard.com.

Loose Wire — Are You Being Read Or Completely Ignored?

Ever found yourself wondering if the e-mail you sent your boss/aunt/long-lost friend was actually read? Here’s some new software to help you keep tabs

By Jeremy Wagstaff, 22 May 2003

This column first appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review
(Copyright (c) 2003, Dow Jones & Company, Inc., used with permission)

If you have any obsessive/compulsive tendencies, you probably should stop reading now. If you don’t, I have a solution to questions you’re bound to have asked yourself at one point or another, such as “Has the boss read my e-mail asking for a raise yet?” or “How can I check that everyone got the invite to my Tupperware party?” and “Why hasn’t Auntie Mabel thanked me for my thoughtful, but somewhat cheap, birthday e-greeting?”. The answer: MSGTAG.

No, it’s not compulsory labelling for monosodium glutamate, that charming flavour enhancer. MSGTAG is short for MessageTag, and it’s a way to see whether or not e-mails have been read by the recipient. Right now, if you send an e-mail you have little or no way of checking whether someone received it, let alone actually read it. Some programs allow you to request an automatic acknowledgement that an e-mail’s been received — or even opened — but the option depends a lot on what software the recipient is using, and the settings. Most of the time you’re firing blind when you send an e-mail.

Enter MessageTag, from New Zealand software-development company eCOSM Ltd. Install the MSGTAG software and, in most cases, it will automatically reconfigure your e-mail software to add a glob of code to the bottom of any e-mail you send (to those of you in the know, it’s an HTML image reference) which assigns the e-mail a unique ID number. When the recipient opens their e-mail, the glob of code sends a message back to the MSGTAG server, or computer. That computer makes a note of the ID, and the time the message was received. It then matches the ID with the MSGTAG user, and the matching e-mail, and notifies the user the e-mail has been opened, and when. Voila.

I found it worked like a charm. The free version does the final step — sending a notification that an e-mail has been opened — by e-mail, whereas the fully functioning version, called MSGTAG Status, runs a separate program that lists all the e-mails you’ve sent, and then flags those that have been opened.

To me it’s a very useful tool. Having to alert friends that a party had been cancelled at the last minute, I was able to monitor who had opened their e-mails and who hadn’t. Sending e-mail to PR folk suddenly gets a lot easier since I can tell who has opened it and who is ignoring me, and who has either moved, died, or hasn’t yet figured how to use the e-mail program.

The basic idea is not new. Several other companies offer similar products: the most promising, HaveTheyReadItYet (www.havetheyreadityet.com), only works with Outlook and Outlook Express for now, though other versions are planned. The free version allows users to monitor the progress of five e-mails at a time; more than that and you have to buy digital stamps at $5 each. Another option is SentThere , which allows you either to send and monitor e-mails in the same way as MSGTAG, or to use a special mini-e-mail program. I couldn’t get this one to work. Other products, such as South Korea-based Postel and OpenTrace didn’t respond to e-mail queries, an irony not lost on me.

Still, after using MSGTAG for a week, I was hooked. Which is where the obsessive/compulsive bit comes in. I found myself eagerly monitoring my “Status” window to see whether my e-mail had been read, and then found myself wondering why the person hadn’t replied immediately. One guy, a friend I hadn’t heard from for nearly a decade, opened my mail but still, nearly a week on, hasn’t written back. He is definitely not coming to my wedding, if I have one. I can see all sorts of new neuroses coming out of all this.

That’s not the only danger. Privacy advocates claim it’s an invasion of privacy to covertly monitor when an e-mail is read. Beyond that, the argument goes, users could also find out other information about, for example, whether and to whom the e-mail may be forwarded and how long they spent reading the e-mail (“What? They only spent 10 seconds reading my account of my summer trip to Graceland?”).

I don’t really see this is a privacy issue. Send a text message from many hand-phones and you can obtain a message informing you of its delivery — which only works when the phone is switched on and in the coverage area. Likewise, sending registered mail, or packages, enables the sender to obtain similar information. Users may take some getting used to this, but I think it can only enhance the usefulness of e-mail to have some way of checking whether it actually ended up where it was supposed to.

That said, I do have some gripes: At $60 the Status program is a bit steep. And it will only work if you are using HTML e-mail — the fancy version where you can change font styles, insert pictures and view Web-page-style newsletters. And MSGTAG won’t, for now, work on Microsoft Exchange servers, undermining its effectiveness for corporate users. Having said all that, I found most MSGTAG e-mails worked, and now I’m not sure what I’ll do without it. Of course, I’m now losing sleep sitting in front of the PC monitoring whether my e-mails are getting read. Don’t tell me I didn’t warn you.

June 26 2003: MSGTAG is no longer available in a free version. Read on here.

Column: the Zire 71

Loose Wire — Zire: It’ll Set You On Fire: Palm’s newest PDA, the Zire 71, is funky, affordable and aimed squarely at the hip young crowd; But with features like a hidden camera and an MP3 player, grown-ups will be tempted to play, too

By Jeremy Wagstaff
from the 15 May 2003 edition of the Far Eastern Economic Review, (c) 2003, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
It’s been less than six months since I reviewed Palm’s Tungsten T — a sleek, metallic personal digital assistant that looked cool, felt cool, and had a pump-action mechanism that appealed to anyone who thought the movie Pulp Fiction was good, but didn’t have enough PDAs in it [Hand-held Power Pal, December 12, 2002]. But now Palm is back with something that makes even the Tungsten look a bit, well, dated. It’s called the Zire 71 and it should scatter any remaining fears you have about the fate of Palm.
 

Zire is Palm’s funky range for, in its words, “youthful professionals.” Its first offering was, well, the Zire, a simple noncolour unit that cost less than $100. Not a bad gadget, but strictly for the budget crowd. If you were a serious PDA person, you’d buy the Tungsten T, or even the phone-enabled W, both of which had important executive things like Bluetooth, recording capabilities, and, most importantly, couldn’t be confused for something your daughter or kid sister might carry around the schoolyard. [Palm seems to be sticking to this distinction by launching another Tungsten model at the same time as the Zire 71, the Tungsten C, which comes with Wi-Fi capability, allowing you to access the Internet and networks wirelessly]. The Zire 71 went on sale in Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan late last month. The Tungsten C will be available in Asia by mid-May.

What the Zire 71 and Tungsten C have in common are their screens: 16-bit, 320 x 320 pixel transflective thin film transistor, or TFT, displays supporting 65,000 colours. And if that means nothing to you [it doesn’t mean much to me either] let me put it more simply. These are the best screens I’ve seen on a PDA. The Tungsten T screen was excellent, a quantum leap from its predecessors, but even that looks dated alongside the Zire’s. It’s bright, the colours sing, it can be viewed from all angles [except the back] and in bright sunshine. For those of you with Sony Clies, it’s like their screens. Only, I suspect, a bit better. Palm screens have come a long way, very quickly.

The casing is a robust mix of metal and metallic plastic. The usual four buttons line the bottom of the device, the middle up/down button replaced by a small joystick. The chip running the whole show is fast, and the Zire comes with 16 megabytes of memory — a lot more than Palm’s basic predecessors, and enough to keep most of your data comfortably aboard.

What makes the Zire stand out — and, arguably, justifies its $300 price tag — is the camera that emerges if you slide the front of the hand-held upwards. Suddenly your normal Palm screen is replaced by a display of whatever the back of the Palm is pointing at, courtesy of the digital camera lodged in the back. Select your subject and press the joystick or small shutter button and you have a passable 640 x 480-pixel colour picture. It’s a neat trick by Palm, since if you weren’t told the camera was there, you’d probably never find it. Sure, it’s not must-have in a hand-held, but once you have it you’ll find lots of important uses for it. I just can’t think of any right now.

Predictably, given that it’s aimed at youthful professionals, the Zire 71 comes with a fully functional MP3 player [to play music files downloaded from your computer], as well as the ability to watch video. The screen’s good enough to support the latter, and with headphones the sound is fine. All these functions can be handled easily using the Palm Desktop software, though I must confess to being puzzled about how to get MP3 files aboard.

Downsides? Palm still hasn’t got its cases and power buttons quite right. The power button on the Zire 71 is too close to the stylus slot, meaning you’re likely to turn the unit off while hunting for the stylus. The joystick — which also turns on the unit when pressed — sticks out a bit, too, so the Zire will power on and off every time it touches anything in your bag.

Other grumbles: Don’t expect too much from the camera. The display is very slow to redraw, meaning you get a jerky picture when you try to frame a moving subject. The shutter takes a second to act, too, so don’t expect the picture to look much like what you thought it would, unless you’re snapping a corpse. And while I suppose it’s too much to ask in a gadget that’s only $300, I really miss the Tungsten T’s Bluetooth, a wireless standard that would let me tap out e-mails and text messages on my Palm keyboard and then transmit them wirelessly to my hand-phone.

But these quibbles are minor. The Tungsten T put Palm back into a game it looked to have lost, but the Zire 71 moves it nearer the head of the class. If Palm keeps coming up with hand-helds as good and as often as this, our only concern is going to be whether to buy one now — or wait for the next pleasant surprise.

Column: WordPerfect Office

 
Loose Wire — Office Challenge: Corel Software’s latest version of WordPerfect Office has some great features, including a dictionary to die for and fumble-free format switching; Is it time to ditch Microsoft?
 
By Jeremy Wagstaff, from the 8 May 2003 edition of the Far Eastern Economic Review (c) 2003, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
 
It requires a brave soul to take on Microsoft on its home turf. Even more so when one of the main selling points is a blue screen that nostalgically reminds users of their youth.

Enter WordPerfect Office 11, the latest version of Corel Software’s suite of applications that is supposed to be an alternative to Microsoft Office, the lumbering behemoth that accounts for more than 90% of the “desktop office-productivity applications” market (in other words: word processing, spreadsheeting, making slide shows to impress the boss). At $300, it’s quite a bit a cheaper than Microsoft’s offering, and with its flexible upgrade policy, it means you can more or less trade in any competing Microsoft program for about $150. Not to be sniffed at if you’re tired of shelling out for a whole department’s worth of word processing. Oh, and for legal eagles and apparatchiks who love the old DOS, blue-screen look of WordPerfect, there’s that too, along with most of the original keystrokes.

But does it really make sense to ditch Microsoft Office? There are plenty of reasons you might not want to: While the main elements of WordPerfect Office are similar to those of Microsoft’s, don’t expect to find all the commands and keystrokes in the same place. That means you and your cohorts will have to unlearn quite a lot. And there are bits missing: There’s no e-mail program in this version, for example. While I found some elements of the word-processing part of the suite useful, I encountered what can only be called weird formatting issues, which nearly cost me this column.

But there are some positives. It will run on operating systems from as far back (gasp) as Windows 98, whereas Microsoft Office 2003 will only run on Windows 2000 and XP (go figure: it takes a non-Microsoft product to run on a Microsoft platform). There’s a great thesaurus and dictionary, courtesy of Oxford, which together give you extended meanings, choices of usage, related words, antonyms and what-have-you. Quattro Pro is a sturdy Excel spreadsheet replacement, while Presentations is half graphics package, half PowerPoint presentation creator.

And Corel goes the extra mile in ensuring that you can switch between formats easily: Say you composed a document in Microsoft Word; you can easily open it in WordPerfect, edit it, and then save it in either format — or countless others. You can even save a file in the Adobe Acrobat format, a great way to ensure your documents look as good on other people’s computers as they do on yours.

This commitment to easy jockeying between formats is a major strength. But it’s only part of what may be the future of software, and, perhaps, the salvation of Corel: easy switching of data between computers, between programs and between platforms, using something called Extensible Markup Language. XML — an open-source language developed by a consortium of manufacturers and developers — is an improved version of HTML, the programming language used to make Web pages. Simply put, HTML uses hidden tags so that different browsers know how to present information in similar ways: The tag <Title>, for example, tells the browser to use whatever font and layout it is programmed to use for that style to display the title of the Web page you’re viewing. HTML tags, however, are preset — Title, Bold, whatever — whereas XML tags can be modified by the user. Under XML a tag can be very specific, classifying the data it refers to: <Explanation of technical term>, for example, or <Inventory of pigs’ trotters from the Russian Steppes>, or <Information given by tech columnist that is needlessly confusing reader>. Any document that uses those tags can, in theory, hook up with another document that’s agreed on the same tags, meaning data can be shared, compared and combined easily, without a lot of converting and other jiggery-pokery.

What’s this got to do with Office suites? WordPerfect seamlessly weaves XML into its component programs, so users can, with relative ease, save documents in XML format. And, while Microsoft in theory offers the same thing, there are signs that it’s not quite playing ball: Only the whizzbang top-level version of the upcoming Microsoft Office will support full XML capability, according to press reports — a step back from its present version.

The reason? No one’s saying, but it’s quite possible that the Redmond giant sees a threat to its de facto dominance of the Office market. Not because folk like Corel may be stealing a few customers, but because XML may end up replacing the formats that you save your document in. Right now, most documents are saved as Microsoft Word files, spreadsheets as Excel files, etc. This makes sense because most people use those programs. But what happens if people start using XML — open, flexible, free — as a format instead? Microsoft may be left out in the cold.

This may never happen. For all their faults — and there are many — Microsoft Office’s programs rule the roost, and part of the reason for this is that they are good. Well, quite good, anyway. And while folk may grumble, no one’s really challenging them. Corel is to be congratulated for pushing the envelope with version 11 of WordPerfect Office, but as of this month it’s struggling to find a buyer.

My advice? Unless you’re mightily sick of Microsoft Office, or desperate to save cash, don’t ditch it quite yet. If you are, you might want to try another option first: OpenOffice, a free suite of applications which, given that most folk use only a fraction of their Office suite’s features, may well be enough.