The Fate Of The Home Productivity Suite

I was asked by a PR firm on behalf of Corel to give my thoughts about office productiviy suites used in the home. I don’t always do that sort of thing, but I thought why not turn it into a blog posting, thereby avoiding any danger of being perceived as aiding and abetting a company I write about (hard to imagine that my ramblings might be seen as helpful, but you never know). Here, for what they’re worth (and I don’t think they’re worth very much) are my thoughts, post-long day at the office, post-chicken tikka and a Heineken, or, cough, two:

1. What is your perception of “the state of the nation” regarding Office Productivity packages used in the home?

Office [packages are] a waste of money for most homes, but often it, or something like it, comes packaged on laptops and desktops [anyway]. Most people use Outlook and Word, and a little Excel. Perhaps some PowerPoint to view something someone has sent them. All in all, a waste of software.

2. What would make an ideal home consumer productivity suite?

One that combined email, calendar and word processing and possibly a bit of finance. Outlook and Word are too much for most home users — Outlook Express is still a firm favorite, and many people see it as better than Outlook. But nowadays the home productivity suite needs to face new challenges from at least two quarters: synchronisation with other devices (phones, PDAs, other software) and to cope with the huge amount of digital imagery users have collected. It doesn’t mean the productivity suite needs to include image library and editing features, it just needs to fit neatly with them. This means that anyone taking a picture, sending an email/SMS/MMS, storing a contact on any device (PDA, iPod, smartphone) should be able to move that data all ways — onto their computer, onto another device, or back onto the device they originally created it on. It baffles users that they can’t do this kind of thing easily, or without buying some complex third party software.

Any ‘productivity’ software has to look beyond the platform [I meant desktop, or home, or office, or whatever the niche they’re aiming at is] they’re designing their productivity for, and think in terms of users’ productivity now being at least half the time mobile. No longer are people going to sit at their computers creating letters, invitations or other documents. They’re going to receive an email, reply to it and then want to save part of that email to their phone, whether it’s an image, a phone number or a map. That’s what productivity means to most people nowadays.

3. What could Corel improve compared to what we’ve done in the past?

I think i’ve answered this in 2. To add to this, RSS and blogging are terribly important, and the sooner these functions are included in existing software the better. it should be possible, for example, to create, organise and update blogs directly from WP/Word — what a waste of word processing power not to be able to do this (or edit webpages) easily. Browsers will soon incorporate RSS as standard, but RSS is actually the backend, not the front end, and I would expect to see a lot of interesting software that handles RSS in more creative ways than your average newsreader. Corel could be a part of that if they thought outside the perimeter a bit.

4. What areas are lacking in current office suites given to the home market (ie. Microsoft Office Student and Teacher Edition, Works, Microsoft Office — Standard, WordPerfect Office, WordPerfect Office Home Edition etc) that could be improved to make them better for that space.

See above. I don’t think any of these packages make much sense anymore, except for a limited audience. It’s old thinking: modern thinking would take into account that people just don’t work in front of the computer the same way they do in the office, so while I’m sure there’s some room for this kind of package, I would expect it to shrink further, and eventually be swept aside [unless it] links the software to
— Internet services more easily (say, for example, being able to save items of information in whatever format from the Internet or other programs; it’s no coincidence that Search is now a key industry, not just for the Internet but for one’s own files. This is good, but it’s a function of the failure of existing software to allow users to save and create information in a way that is easily retrievable. It’s not a new feature, it’s a BandAid to a bigger problem.)
— to other devices
— to programs that aren’t part of the package
etc etc.

Then I ran out of juice. But you get the idea. Mad ramblings, but some fodder in there. Thoughts very welcome, though not on my choice of food or beer.

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.

Loose Wire: Actually Bill, No,

Loose Wire: Actually Bill, No, I Can’t
By Jeremy Wagstaff

12/13/2001 Far Eastern Economic Review (Copyright (c) 2001, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.)

I’m frankly flabbergasted that the Microsoft antitrust trial in the United States is reaching such an ignominious end. But am I alone in my righteous indignation?
I won’t bore you with the details, but the Redmond giant is edging close to victory, via a settlement that contains so much wiggle room you could drive a truck through it. True, it faces opposition from nine U.S. states to its settlement with the Justice Department, and a host of other hearings and investigations. But chances are Microsoft will win out. And we users won’t.

What frosts my shorts up is that for all the teams of lawyers, miles of opinion, submissions and judgments there’s rarely been any mention of what I think is the main problem with Microsoft’s dominance of the software market: that users end up being worse off the more Microsoft products they use. We face the growing probability that if something goes wrong with one Microsoft product, the whole caboodle will come tumbling down with it.
Now this might sound slightly mad, but bear with me. The legal arguments have largely revolved around whether Microsoft has harmed consumer choice by what is called bundling, or tying, its products together. The main focus has been Internet Explorer, which Microsoft stands accused of intentionally binding into its Windows operating system to undermine rival browsers.

The problem is that this debate has, since its original airing in 1998, become largely irrelevant. Internet Explorer now dominates the marketplace — AOL Inc.’s once great Netscape Navigator now looks and feels like trying to drive a car with a fish for a steering wheel. It’s hard to imagine your average computer user waking up one morning and saying: “Hmm! I think I’ll remove IE and install BloggsBrowser today!” without thinking seriously about the likely consequences. (Don’t believe me? Try using Microsoft Money or Encarta without IE running properly. It gets ugly.)

What’s more, Microsoft increasingly dominates word-processing, spreadsheet, e-mail, contact-management, encyclopaedia and personal-finance software, blending so much of the code that your computer resembles less a multifunctional powerhouse than a tower of kiddies’ bricks. Pull out one and the whole thing comes crashing down.

Take what happened to me last week. When my laptop, running Windows 98, wouldn’t close down properly, I had to turn it off myself. When I turned it back on, I was faced with a scary message informing me my registry — the directory that stores settings for all the programs loaded onto the computer — had been corrupted and replaced with a previous version that was intact.

Now, this kind of thing shouldn’t be a problem. After all, it sounded as if my computer was in good hands. Wrong. The recovered version of the registry was apparently from a different era, blissfully unaware of the printers and other bits and bobs I had installed since the invention of the cotton jenny. Suddenly, anything with Microsoft’s name in it somewhere stopped working. Outlook — the e-mail and contact-management program — had mislaid all my personal settings and blithely assumed I was a new user. Microsoft Word, meanwhile, wouldn’t even leave the garage. Increasingly frustrated, I reloaded both Office and, when that didn’t really help, Windows itself. The whole experience has taken years off my life and I’ve started drinking again.

This is the direct consequence, in my view, of this bundling thing (the computer problem, not the drinking). All my other non-Microsoft programs worked fine despite the mayhem going on around them, making me grateful I hadn’t removed a simple old e-mail program I’d ditched for the bright lights of Outlook.

Where does this leave us? Well, I’d recommend doing two things. First, limit your exposure to bundled products by trying out alternatives, like Eudora, The Bat! or Pegasus.

Secondly, I’d suggest you submit your own comments to the court (microsoft.atr@usdoj.gov or www.usdoj.gov/atr/cases/ms-settle.htm) — something you’re entitled to do as a member of the public under a piece of antitrust legislation called the Tunney Act. Preferably using words like “flabbergasted” a lot.

Write to me at jeremy.wagstaff@feer.com

Column: Microsoft antitrust

Loose Wire: Actually Bill, No, I Can’t
 
By Jeremy Wagstaff , from the 13 December 2001 edition of the Far Eastern Economic Review, (c) 2001, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
 
I’m frankly flabbergasted that the Microsoft antitrust trial in the United States is reaching such an ignominious end. But am I alone in my righteous indignation?

I won’t bore you with the details, but the Redmond giant is edging close to victory, via a settlement that contains so much wiggle room you could drive a truck through it. True, it faces opposition from nine U.S. states to its settlement with the Justice Department, and a host of other hearings and investigations. But chances are Microsoft will win out. And we users won’t.

What frosts my shorts up is that for all the teams of lawyers, miles of opinion, submissions and judgments there’s rarely been any mention of what I think is the main problem with Microsoft’s dominance of the software market: that users end up being worse off the more Microsoft products they use. We face the growing probability that if something goes wrong with one Microsoft product, the whole caboodle will come tumbling down with it.

Now this might sound slightly mad, but bear with me. The legal arguments have largely revolved around whether Microsoft has harmed consumer choice by what is called bundling, or tying, its products together. The main focus has been Internet Explorer, which Microsoft stands accused of intentionally binding into its Windows operating system to undermine rival browsers.

The problem is that this debate has, since its original airing in 1998, become largely irrelevant. Internet Explorer now dominates the marketplace — AOL Inc.’s once great Netscape Navigator now looks and feels like trying to drive a car with a fish for a steering wheel. It’s hard to imagine your average computer user waking up one morning and saying: “Hmm! I think I’ll remove IE and install BloggsBrowser today!” without thinking seriously about the likely consequences. (Don’t believe me? Try using Microsoft Money or Encarta without IE running properly. It gets ugly.)

What’s more, Microsoft increasingly dominates word-processing, spreadsheet, e-mail, contact-management, encyclopaedia and personal-finance software, blending so much of the code that your computer resembles less a multifunctional powerhouse than a tower of kiddies’ bricks. Pull out one and the whole thing comes crashing down.

Take what happened to me last week. When my laptop, running Windows 98, wouldn’t close down properly, I had to turn it off myself. When I turned it back on, I was faced with a scary message informing me my registry — the directory that stores settings for all the programs loaded onto the computer — had been corrupted and replaced with a previous version that was intact.

Now, this kind of thing shouldn’t be a problem. After all, it sounded as if my computer was in good hands. Wrong. The recovered version of the registry was apparently from a different era, blissfully unaware of the printers and other bits and bobs I had installed since the invention of the cotton jenny. Suddenly, anything with Microsoft’s name in it somewhere stopped working. Outlook — the e-mail and contact-management program — had mislaid all my personal settings and blithely assumed I was a new user. Microsoft Word, meanwhile, wouldn’t even leave the garage. Increasingly frustrated, I reloaded both Office and, when that didn’t really help, Windows itself. The whole experience has taken years off my life and I’ve started drinking again.

This is the direct consequence, in my view, of this bundling thing (the computer problem, not the drinking). All my other non-Microsoft programs worked fine despite the mayhem going on around them, making me grateful I hadn’t removed a simple old e-mail program I’d ditched for the bright lights of Outlook.

Where does this leave us? Well, I’d recommend doing two things. First, limit your exposure to bundled products by trying out alternatives, like Eudora, The Bat! or Pegasus.

Secondly, I’d suggest you submit your own comments to the court  — something you’re entitled to do as a member of the public under a piece of antitrust legislation called the Tunney Act. Preferably using words like “flabbergasted” a lot.