Categories
All in the Mind Computing

Twitter Mob: Don’t Blame the Users

How lobbies have turned consumer groups into victims

Twitter does not exactly lend itself to critical analysis. I doubt many people have changed their minds on anything after reading a mere 140 character tweet. Such short messages tend to reinforce existing prejudices and opinions and often build on concerted advertising and awareness-raising campaigns. You can tweet a link to an article, but usually only those sympathetic to your cause will read it. Twitter also encourages conformity as nobody wants to be unpopular or offend their virtual friends. It's fine to support widely publicised causes, but not to voice views that others may easily misinterpret. When issues are simplified, many will readily interpret any divergence from the mainstream view as an act of tribal betrayal, like a crowd of Glasgow Rangers supporters spotting a loner wearing a Celtic scarf.

As I often take nonconformist stances, I've grown used to the devious tactics employed by seasoned opinion leaders, such as dismissing any embarrassing evidence against their case as mere conspiracy theories. However, another very effective tactic is to champion the rights of consumer groups to consume the very product or service that some dissident suggests may harm them.

By this logic, nobody could have ever exposed the harmful effects of cigarette smoking simply because millions of consumers enjoyed, or rather believed they enjoyed, this product. Smoking relieves stress and helps people befriend other smokers. It often serves as a great socialising tool and an act of defiance against an increasingly invasive nanny state. Indeed there is much evidence suggesting nicotine acts as an antidepressant, which might explain why so many smokers find it so hard to quit. This vice may be a little outmoded today, but fifty years ago non-smokers had to tolerate smokers at work, in their extended family, neighbourhood and in many public spaces like pubs, cafés and public transport. Some would complain, but generally had to keep quiet in many everyday social situations. Indeed some would have to claim to suffer from a special medical condition to persuade a friend to refrain from smoking in their presence. Yet as evidence mounted that smoking has all sorts of nasty side effects, smokers began to quit and non-smokers became much more proactive in reclaiming smoke-free areas. More recently smokers have been turned into outcasts, often having to escape outdoors in cold rainy days to indulge in their filthy habit.

Fast forward to the 21st century and antidepressants are not only a multi-billion pound industry, just as tobacco was, but they are actively endorsed by celebrities and state-sponsored healthcare institutions as the primary treatment for the growing number of people who feel stressed or depressed. Yet as smokers, alcoholics and recreational drug users know, mind-altering chemicals may offer you a temporary escape from your melancholy, but they come at a huge price in terms of long-term ill-health and some rather unpleasant neuro-psychological side effects. This change of public opinion, from the largely psycho-social model of emotional distress to the mainly biological model, is largely the result of a four decade long campaign to associate in the public mind a chemical imbalance with people's nonfunctional states of mind. Human feelings have been medicalised, although there remains scant proof of a link between natural serotonin levels and state of mind. Many substances we ingest can affect our natural mood-regulating compounds (serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine and epinephrine). It should come as little surprise that many diagnosed with clinical depression, anxiety disorder, bipolar disorder, OCD etc.., have a bad diet and have indulged in booze and other recreational drugs. Often bad lifestyle choices arise from a downward spiral of emotional insecurity and a tendency to seek solace in anything that turns your mind away from the immediate cause of distress. As our expectations for higher material goods and personal achievements grow, so does our sense of inadequacy and isolation, when we fail to reach these goals. We are not all blessed with perfect athletic bodies, excellent hand-eye coordination and extraordinary musical talent. We will not all be premier league footballers, Olympic medalists, world-famous pop singers, TV celebrities or fashion models. Most of us are fairly average with relative strengths and weaknesses, but our current obsession with status symbols turns minor personal deficits into medical conditions that require treatment. How personality traits develop has long eluded neurologists. Why are some people so gregarious with an upbeat and ebullient disposition, while others have a more reclusive, independent and sobre character and tend to reflect on events and observations in greater detail? If worrying about things were so bad, then why would such instincts evolve in the first place? In essence worrying is about caring about yourself and loved ones. If we didn't worry about anything, we would lack motivation to try harder. Most creative types need plenty of time for introspection. As we obsess more with image and social networking, detailed analysis can fall by the wayside. While some may be enhancing their social status through better presentation and socialisation, others prefer to build a better life through hard work and contemplation. However, in the age of industrial automation and outsourcing, many lack the motivation to make or even repair things themselves. In today's perverse world, a non-productive lawyer not only earns more than her cleaner, but also more her car mechanic and all the other manual workers who helped make her lifestyle possible. Yet many higher-earning professionals in the burgeoning hot-air sector succumb to work-related stress and even depression.
There may be a good argument for short-term medication to wean people off junk food and booze or simply to get the out of bed in the morning, but little evidence that the any pre-existing chemical imbalance caused them to make bad lifestyle choices. Millions now believe antidepressants are essential medication for anyone whose relative lack of cheerfulness or bad moods cause others so much distress. We have thus wished away the underlying causes of depression in our incessant drive to promote mandatory bubbliness, i.e. where we all feign happiness through fake smiles and frequent giggles ? Casual observations would suggest offices have been transformed from relatively sombre places of work into comedy workshops. 50 years of TV satire and now endless YouTube gags have had their effect on the collective psyche. Yet, we are not all born actors. If you fail to take part in mandatory amateur theatrics, your jovial teammates will soon write you off as a loner. Whereas 50 years ago a lack of practical skills could prove a handicap in all but the most privileged families, today it is a perceived lack of social skills that sets many at a distinct disadvantage. Social anxiety, here in its literal non-psychiatric sense, is a prime cause of social alienation, leading to a lack of self-worth, a sense of inferiority and inevitably melancholy.

Handing out free antidepressants to address social alienation is like distributing morphine tablets to combat tooth decay. They may temporarily alleviate unpleasant symptoms, but they fail to address the root causes of the problem and may have very nasty adverse effects with prolonged use. Suggesting that opposing state-subsidised mass-medication of unhappiness offends the unhappy is like accusing an opponent of hydraulic fracturing of condemning the elderly to freezing homes in winter (the elderly would be the first to suffer from polluted tap water). These quick fixes are simply not the solution.

For more on this theme may I recommend Anatomy of an Epidemic by Robert Whitaker .

Categories
Computing

What is Open Source and why should you care?

Operating systems and productivity software are very much here with us to stay. The millions of person hours invested in the development of the powerful programmes many of us use every day will serve hundreds of millions of users for generations to come. Only five years ago a typical desktop system may have cost as much as £1000, so possibly investing £200 in software may have seemed, relatively speaking, a small price to pay for professionals relying on mission-critical applications. However, when hardware prices plummet as low as £200 for a basic system and software becomes as ubiquitous as word processors, spreadsheets, databases, drawing and photo editing applications, it becomes harder to justify such price markups and with the expansion of the Internet practically impossible to safeguard proprietary source code. Sooner or later someone will find a way of pirating pervasive productivity applications. However, a huge lobby of software multinationals, principally Microsoft, but also Apple, Adobe and to a lesser extent Oracle and Sun Microsystems, has vociferously promoted the concept of intellectual property, e.g. if you write a book in Microsoft Word, Microsoft owns the copyright for the format in which you saved it. Some may argue the last three companies may have belatedly embraced open source out of sheer opportunism to beat one well-known leviathan.

As millions of users simply take the omnipresence of leading proprietary packages for granted, many myths about Open Source software abound.

  1. Open source is bad for software developers: Open source software is not necessarily free, but its source code and file formats are made publicly available so that other programmers can improve on and interoperate with the application. Usually you pay for support, but may download the software for free.
  2. Pirated software is against the law: Open source is 100% legal, unless you infringe the terms of the licence (GPL = General Public Licence or GNU GPL), which usually means reselling the software. Do not confuse legal open-source software with pirated closed source programs. To some extent the major players tolerate some degree of pirating in order to get the public hooked on their proprietary formats and reap huge rewards from commercial users legally obliged to have licensed software. Open-source simply has different kind of licence.
  3. Open source is a bug-ridden and virus-prone: Very few viruses have ever originated from open source programs. Viruses tend to come as e-mail attachments or are planted on your computer via decptively marketed malware such as Winfixer. The leading open-source projects Mozilla Firefox, OpenOffice, The GIMP and Clam Anti-Virus (all available for Windows and Linux) will not leave you with an unworkable machine. Compare and contrast this reality with numerous trojan horse programs that install themselves due to inherent weaknesses in leading proprietary applications.
  4. My employer won't allow it: IT departments that restrict use and installation of open source software may offer excellent excuses for doing so, but ultimately they serve the interests of large multinationals who make a fortune out of their quasi-monopolies. Why should tax-payers subsidise Microsoft so that social workers and teachers can use Microsoft Office instead of a perfectly functional and user-friendly, but much cheaper, alternative like OpenOffice?

Now let's tackle the issue from a different perspective. Do we pay the Prussian inventors of the printing press copyright or licensing fees over six hundred years after their revolutionary innovation? Of course we don't, but we still use technology that has been gradually adapted by different engineers in different places over the centuries. If I use a Hewlett Packard Laserjet printer to reproduce my scripts on paper, HP involvement begins and ends in the transfer of information from an electronic to a paper format. If the HP printer breaks down, I could just buy a different make of printer to do the same job. If I wish to reproduce the same text as HTML, PDF or Microsoft Word 97/2000 (soon to be superseded incidentally), I should surely be able to choose to use the most convenient and cost-effective tool and should not have to buy constant software upgrades to interoperate with others who use these formats. HTML has always been an open standard. I may handcode it in any rudimentary text editor or use a wide array of free open-source programmes to generate HTML for me. Like Postscript, PDF started life as a proprietary industry standard, but Adobe has since open-sourced it. Linux and Mac systems will let you output any text or graphical output as PDF. If I want polished professional output I may choose to invest in Adobe Illustrator or InDesign, or I may go with Corel Draw or Xara Xtreme. Even OpenOffice Draw will output perfectly adequate PDF. So why do I need to donate some of my hard-earned cash to one multinational just to ensure complete compabitility with the latest incarnation of its flagship office suite whose admittedly pervasive formats have no inherent benefits over open-source alternatives?

The OpenDocument Format is the result of collaboration between major players in the software and information business. Its committee includes not just IBM, Sun, Corel and Oracle, but Microsoft too. The specifications of the human-readable XML-based standard are in the public domain. Anyone may implement and support it. Some analysts claim that the principles behind ODF are fine, but in the real world ODF will suffer the fate of Esperanto faced with competition from English. ODF resembles (but predates) Microsoft's new Open-XML (note the confusing name) much more closely than the old Word 97/200/2003 format, but it is this latter standard to which the business world is addicted. This offers advocates of open standards a huge window of opportunity.

Format Lock-in

At times it seems that those who would stand to benefit most from open source software are those who are least aware or worst-informed about it. Many professional writers have used freely downloadable OpenOffice Writer for 600+ page books, replete with a table of contents, footnotes, indices, bibliography and neatly formatted to pre-press standards. Many successfully collaborate with other writers using rival proprietary software such as, err, Microsoft Word. Yet your run-of-the-mill desktop user with much more modest needs feels obliged to purchase the latter application, allegedly to ensure compatibility with documents that others may send. In a rational world lightweight users of word processors would be content with an application bundled with their pre-installed operating system, which ideally should not exceed 10% of the outlay for a new computer. Conversely, someone who writes for a living might actually splash out to acquire the best tools of the trade (there are other heavyweight proprietary tools such as Corel Word Perfect and Adobe Framemaker). When people are forced to buy a proprietary package just to import files created by others or fear that migrating to an alternative package would lead to extra costs in training and user familiarisation, we call this vendor lock-in. Indeed some public sector organisations sign contracts giving them discounts on proprietary software, which already have highly inflated prices, in exchange for a commitment to use this software exclusively for a set period. This is in effect a huge public rip-off.

Open standards, freely usable by any user or vendor.

Proprietary Multi-Vendor Multi-Platform Standards, effectively open-source but with licensing limitations

  • Rich Text Format (.rtf) (MS)
  • Mp3 audio
  • Mpeg 2 and 4 video
  • .wav audio file format (MS)
  • .avi video file format (MS)
  • GIF (theoretically still owned by Compuserve)

Common Proprietary Formats

  • MS Word (widely supported by rivals but with varying degrees of fidelity in the finer aspects of presentational formatting. This format is, however, soon to be superseded by an XML format very similar to OpenDocument.)
  • MS Excel
  • MS Power Point
  • MS Publisher (not supported by major rival products)
  • MS Access
  • Oracle
  • MS SQL Server (sometimes confusingly abbreviated to SQL)
  • MS Windows Media Video
  • Real Media Video
  • Apple QuickTime Video
  • Adobe Photoshop .psd
  • Adobe Illustrator .ai and .eps
  • Adobe Flash (vector graphics, interactive animation)
  • Adobe Shockwave (interactive gaming and e-learning)
  • MS ASP.NET server-side programming with C# or Visual Basic
  • MS IIS with Windows Server 2003

OpenOffice, currently version 2.0.3, offers excellent compatibility with Microsoft Office file formats, but omits support for the MS Publisher format. People use this substandard application (OpenOffice Draw is simply a superior product) because it is bundled with MS Office and widely used in public services. Once familiar with its interface and having mastered a few tricks to get it to yield the desired results, many users are loathe to switch to something else. This means effectively that professional printers need a copy of this program though they'd never dream of using it themselves. Many interopability issues could be solved if in their infinite wisdom Microsoft endowed this program with an integrated PDF export feature (standard on all rival applications such as the freely downloadable Scribus). So rather than waiting for the Redmond Giant to embrace open standards, we should switch to alternatives that do. You should value your Word documents not for their proprietary binary format, but for their actual contents, so opening the same files in OpenOffice and saving them in the OpenDocument Format or PDF will not change your creation, but merely free you of reliance on one software vendor.

Nobody should be compelled to purchase a program or even download a trial copy just to view a file that could easily be reproduced in an open format. Consider HTML. The W3C may regulate it and browser vendors amy implement support for it in slightly different ways, but nobody owns the standard. If I feel a proprietary HTML editor is signifcantly better than an open-source alternative, then I might invest in it, but there are plenty of open-source HTML editors such NVU which will work fine for most users. If you only edit a few holiday snaps, then The GIMP or Google's Picassa will do fine. If you have more sophisticated requirements, then you might just go for Adobe Photoshop, Xara Extreme (now available for Linux too) or PaintShop Pro.

Open Source Alternatives

Microsoft Word
OpenOffice Writer, KWord, AbiWord
Microsoft Excel
OpenOffice Calc, Gnumeric, KSpread
Microsoft Access
OpenOffice Base / MySQL / PostgreSQL
Microsoft Power Point
OpenOffice Impress
Micosoft Visio
OpenOffice Draw, Dia
Micosoft Publisher, Corel Draw
Scribus, OpenOffice Draw. Both excellent alternatives. Draw integrates nicely with OpenOffice, while Scribus provides features that rival Corel Draw and even Adobe InDesign. Sadly neither imports your Old publisher files.
Adobe Framemaker
OpenOffice Writer (yep, it's that powerful)
Adobe Photoshop / Corel Paintshop Pro
The GIMP, Xara Extreme
MSN Messenger / Yahoo Messenger
GAIM
Internet Explorer
Firefox / Sea Monkey / Opera
Outlook Express
Mozilla Thunderbird
Full MS Outlook with scheduler
Gnome/Novell Evolution (fully compatible with MS Outlook Exchange Server) or Thunderbird with Mozilla Sunbird (fine for small offices)
MS Front Page / Adobe Dreamweaver
NVU (all platforms) / Blue Fish, Quanta (Linux only)
Adobe Flash MX Development Application
No real competition for advanced stuff, but try Flash4Linux and OpenOffice Impress will export slide shows to Flash.
Adobe Illustrator, Freehand, Corel Draw
Inkscape, excellent SVG and PDF support but not quite as refined as industry-leading proprietary alternatives
Final Cut Pro, Adobe Premier
Some good projects such as Kino are promising, but as yet if you want professional video editing software, you still need to go proprietary.
Categories
Computing

Why are you using still using Microsoft Internet Explorer?

You may just be wondering why it matters. Microsoft have their operating systems on over 90% of the world's desktops and these just happen to ship with IE as the default browser. Not only that some sites use code specifically designed for Microsoft technologies like Active-X, so why not just take it easy and reap the benefits of interoperability that stem from the dominant browser? Why not just leave Firefox to the geeks and besides "If the guys at Mozilla want to compete they might consider embracing Microsoft-compliant code".

First let's get a few facts straight.

  1. Firefox is simply better: Gecko-based browsers are way ahead of IE6 in their support for XHTML and cascading style sheets. IE7 may have copied tabbed browsing from Opera and Firefox but it hasn't fully embraced CSS 2.0.
  2. Firefox is almost infinitely extensible and customisable: Besides RSS feeds, multiple search bars, multi-coloured tabs with progress bars, image zooms, Wysiwyg HTML editors, you can even have a full integrated FTP client, automate the download of whole sites for offline reading, hundreds of themes or skins to choose from and more.
  3. Firefox blocks unwanted popups: by default Firefox only allows user-activated pop-up windows.
  4. Firefox does not let in viruses: As the browser shields itself from the operating system and does not use Active-X, you can only install viruses if you run a file that has permission to execute on your computer. This is primarily a problem with Windows, but user stupidity can wreak havoc on any system.
  5. Firefox lets you resize all text: Many Websites use absolute font sizes that IE will not resize without additional software. In Firefox just press Ctrl/Cmd with + or – to increase or decrease font size.
  6. Keep everything in one window: With the Tab Mix Plus extension you can easily force all external links to open in a new tab within the same window with tabs spanning multiple rows if necessary. Next time you restart your browser, it will restore your previous browsing session for you.
  7. What about e-mail integration: If you want an integrated mail client to replace Thunderbird (open-source alternative to MS Outlook), you can always install Sea Monkey with an advanced HTML editor and IRC chat client.
  8. Microsoft uses older technology: Only sites still using Active-X (which Microsoft is phasing out in IE7 and Windows Vista incidentally) and non-compliant J-Script as opposed to standard Javascript become unworkable in Firefox. There are no special tricks that can only be achieved in IE, only bad coding is responsible. The most notorious sites that caused problems with Firefox last year included http://www.jobcentreplus.gov.uk and http://www.odeon.co.uk . Both have now been upgraded. At one stage users of Yahoo's Web-mail service could not add rich-text formatting to their emails in Firefox. No longer, Yahoo has made its services Firefox-compatible. As many web designers know, with more sites now relying on style sheets for layout and ditching old in-line markup, you're more likely to encounter quirks in IE than Firefox. Consider this site, the Tux penguin below the menu has a transparent background in Firefox and Safari, but a appears on a white rectangle in IE.
  9. Firefox is free and open source: Anyone can download, install and redistribute it. Not only that the source code is publicly available.

So if you still think Firefox is just for Microsoft-bashing nerds, why on earth would the Redmond Giant want to turn its next version of Internet Explorer into Firefox Light with a legacy Microsoft quirks compatibility mode?

Download, install and try it! If you don't still like it and prefer IE, Safari or Konqueror, simply reset your preferred browser as default. But if you like surfing as much as I do, the only real competition is Opera.

What about Netscape?

Well, it's still around, but in 1999 AOL bought it and shortly after discontinued independent development of the old 4+ code base, promoting its own branded version of Internet Explorer instead. Back then IE had better support for W3C standards, as Netscape included a number of non-standard enhancements such as layer instead of div tags. User numbers dropped rapidly to under 3% until 2000 when Netscape 6.0 appeared with a beta Gecko engine at a time with few CSS-layout sites. Version 7 saw some improvements, but in an era of almost complete IE domination. The latest offering outsourced to Mercurial Communications but distributed by AOL combines Firefox's Gecko engine and IE's Trident engine with a few bells and whistles that you could add to Firefox simply by installing extensions. Moreover, Netscape 8 is only available for Windows XP. Current figures show Firefox with over 10% of browser usage and considerably more in continental Europe with Netscape still under 1% and both Opera and Safari gaining niches between 1% and 3%. However, as of this writing Firefox tends to appeal to heavy users and web developers (just consider the way the Web Developer's tool bar lets you deconstruct and analyse a Web site), so fewer than 10% of computer users have adopted an alternative to IE. Remember the web is yours and not the sole domain of one multinational corporation.

Categories
Computing

Non-Web Formats

The Internet is a collection of interlinked documents distributed in open formats compatible with the greatest number of heterogeneous operating systems and devices. The World Wide Web's standard text markup language is HTML, which has undergone numerous revisions since the Internet's rapid expansion in the early 1990s. XML, in many ways a descendent of the more complex SGML, is the default standard for data exchange between diverse systems. Almost any kind of data can be marked up and accurately described using a specialised dialect of XML. Applications range from MathML for mathematical notation, RSS for news feeds, MusicXML for faithful representation of music, CML for chemistry to SVG for scalable vector graphics. Recently HTML has morphed into XHTML combined with cascading stylesheets to separate style from content and customise formatting for different devices and media. All Web browsers render HTML and most modern browsers reproduce XHTML with CSS reasonably well. More important not only do all Web editors output HTML, but so do most word processors and desktop publishing applications. Besides numerous user-friendly Web tools can be downloaded free of charge to enable almost anyone with access to a computer to produce their own Web pages without learning a single HTML tag.

So why does the Internet abound with PDFs and Microsoft Word documents? Both are proprietary binary formats, although Adobe developed the Portable Document Format to allow cross-platform compatibility and has been keen to allow other vendors to provide a PDF export option. PDFs are admittedly often the only realistic way to reproduce complex formatting on diverse systems. Until Scalable Vector Graphics and CSS3 with multi-column layout are fully implemented in mainstream Web browsers, PDFs will remain the only practical solution for the accurate reproduction of the output of desktop publishing applications via the Web. But surfing the Web is not the same as slowly contemplating a glossy magazine, it's about navigating through a web of hypertext pages to gain fast access to related information.

  • PDFs are nearly always much larger than equivalent HTML pages, sometimes 10 to 20 times larger just to include a few small logos or photographs.
  • Software used to convert word processor and desktop publishing files to PDF (notably Acrobat Distiller combined with MS Word or Publisher) converts most graphics, including custom frames and borders and often non-standard fonts, to bitmaps further boosting file size. In reality only graphics applications like Illustrator, InDesign, FrameMaker, Freehand or Corel Draw can produce polished graphics taking full advantage of PDF's vector graphics rendering capabilities.
  • Embedding fonts further increases file size, by 30 to 40KB per font.
  • PDFs are designed to reproduce formatting, not semantic information and structure.
  • Adobe Acrobat Reader is a memory-intensive application, which even in the era of 3GHz CPUs can take over 45 seconds to load, cause computers to crash or force the user to close the browser in which it loads.
  • PDF files interrupt the general Web experience. Inexperienced users are confronted with a radically different interface without the usual navigation features and even the back button will not work if it loads in a new window.

Most programs used to write Web content can convert text more easily to HTML than PDF. Most notably Microsoft Office applications lack a native PDF conversion capability (you'll need to buy Adobe Acrobat Distiller or Jaws PDF for that feature), but will save to HTML, albeit Microsoft's implementation thereof. OpenOffice and Corel PerfectOffice will let you save any document in both formats and even Adobe InDesign and PageMaker have HTML-export facilities. So if you think PDFs are better, why not let users choose. If they just need information, most will stick to HTML, but if they genuinely wish to view or print the full splendour of your artwork they can wait a few minutes to view your graphics-rich PDF. One should never need to download a PDF just to read a bus timetable, the agenda of a meeting or even a lengthy report. HTML is a much more versatile and lightweight way of distributing textual information. Savvy readers can easily adjust text-size without needing to scroll horizontally or change background colours.

Even worse is the profusion of Microsoft Word documents, especially in public sector, research-oriented and academic sites. In many portals a site-wide database search returns a list of relevant Word, Excel and PDF documents. To view the actual content you need an application capable of reading these binary formats. At fault is usually the content management system, members of staff are simply allowed to upload documents, so they publish their files in their original format. All too often one reads statements like for the minutes of the last meeting please read minutes67.doc. Although even in the non-Microsoft world one can view 99.9% of Word Documents in OpenOffice, it means starting a memory-intensive application just to load a file, many orders of magnitude larger than an equivalent HTML document, and in the vast majority of cases with no formatting that could not be easily reproduced in standards-compliant XHTML with CSS. More important very few users will need more than the information contained in the document.

Myths and Excuses

Claim 1: HTML documents print badly.
Truth: HTML documents using absolute-sized tables for layout without a print stylesheet print badly, often extending beyond the page width. Sites built with separate print stylesheets can easily reformat a page to hide menus, headers and footers and print only the main body, neatly spanning the printable width of a page. Browsers like Mozilla Firefox can interpret many advanced CSS2 printing properties and let users customise the way a page prints.
Claim 2: PDF Files are accessible:
Truth: Just add 30 sec. to 5 mins to the average download time and factor in the inconvenience of another application starting in the background.
Claim 3: Publisher files can be distributed as PDFs:.
Truth: First you need an extra application such as Adobe Acrobat Distiller to communicate with Microsoft's PostScript driver to do that. Second the results are often very unprofessional with pixelated bitmaps replacing smooth curves. Third the resulting file size is often ginormous even if you select Screen-optimised.
Claim 4: Everyone has Word
Truth: Many users are not using a computer (e.g. Web TV or 3G phones) or have restricted access to external applications e.g. in a library or Internet Café. Word is also a hugely overpriced application and since Word 2000 requires product activation, limiting use to a single machine. Most other Word processors will open MS Word documents, but often tables and textboxes are poorly aligned. Word is simply not a Web format! Indeed Microsoft only belatedly introduced hyperlinks in 1997 (Word 95 required an add-on utility for this functionality).
Claim 5: What about Document Exchange, such as application forms that people need to return in the same format?
First in many cases HTML forms let users with only a Web browser, complete complex and well-structured application forms. Emerging standards like XForms (supported by OpenOffice 2.0) will greatly enhance the ease with which visitors can submit information to and interact with Web sites. Second, any HTML page can be literally cut and pasted into a word processor, edited and saved as HTML. Third, admittedly some complex table and multicolumn structures are still hard to render in HTML, but since the late 1980s we have had a cross-platform word processor format, RTF or Rich Text Format, that will faithfully reproduce all textual content, including tables, indices, headers, footers, as well as embedded graphics with full support for styles. Indeed even MS Word uses RTF to convert to earlier versions of Word. Unless you want to impress employers with WordArt, rtf files will load fine into any word processor. Besides the future lies clearly with XML.
Claim 6: Staff are not trained in HTML!
Truth: Most users of word processors are not trained in ever-changing binary formats like MS Word either, which are conisderably more complex. They simply type, apply headings, bulleted lists, highlight, add a little colour and change fonts. How long does it take to teach someone to select Save As HTML from the file menu? You can even get macros to automate the task completely and insert the HTML output directly into e-mails, rather than annoyingly attaching a bloated Word document.
Claim 7: I need my spell checker!
Truth: These days, spell checkers are integrated into most applications that process text, e-mail clients, desktop publishing suites, word processors and HTML editors. Besides once you've used your favourite word processor to verify your orthography, you can save your document as HTML.
Claim 8: HTML does not support WordArt
Truth: HTML is about conveying information. All headings should be reproduced as text enclosed in heading tags and not as frivolous graphics. Of course you can add fancy text as an additional graphic, but you'll find much better tools than MS Word for that purpose. Currently this means using PNG, GIF or JPG bitmaps, but when major browsers support SVG, many Web pages will begin to resemble the creations of high-end desktop publishing programs, while being simultaneously viewable in text-only mode.

Structural Formatting

Most users of word processors just use icons and drop down menus to change fonts, sizes and colours or occasionally add bulleted lists and tables. By contrast strict HTML, and even more so XHTML, insists on structural mark-up. A heading is simply not a line of text with inline formatting to change its appearance. It is an element marked up as a heading. The same goes for other structural elements like paragraphs, lists or tables. The structure tells us how the elements relate. Let us consider two simple examples. First we wish to generate a table of contents. If we have marked up all headings as a hierachical sequence of headings and subheadings, many applications (including OpenOffice and even MS Word) will automatically generate a Table of Contents for us. Now consider a seach engine trying to make sense of millions of words in thousands of documents on the Web. How does it rank documents responding to the search terms snails and evolution? Clearly thousands of documents will contain both terms, but if these terms appear in identifiable headings they will be ranked much higher. An article containing both in the main heading would be ideal, e.g. The Evolution of Snails, but an article containing evolution in a main heading and snails in a subheading would also rank high. Now suppose a hastily converted article contains evolution of snails in a normal paragraph element, to which the word processor applied inline formatting to make it stand out. The search engine would just ignore the inline formatting and treat it as a normal line of text, thus giving it a much lower ranking. As a rule word processors will only convert lines of text that look like headings into real HTML headings if you use styles. Fortunately this feature is easily accessible in all leading word processors, through completely ignored by most casual users.

Modern Web sites like to maintain a consistent look and feel with stylesheets. Additional inline formatting added by many leading word processors (most notoriously by Word 2003) not only considerably boosts file size, but overrides the default stylesheet limiting HTML's inherent versatility. In this case one should save as plain or filtered HTML. With the spread of content management systems for most large Web sites, more and more regular Web editors use HTML editors embedded within a Web page requring only a Web browser. These may use a Java applet (which most Web browsers support), Javascript, Active-X (supported only by Internet Explorer) or XUL supported only by Gecko-based browsers like Mozilla Firefox. The latest generation of embedded XHTML editors ensure that any formatting applied by the user is automatically converted to standards-compliant code compatibile with the web site's stylesheet.

In sum technology has already rendered proprietory word processor formats obsolete on the Web. They only persist thanks to the domination of one well-known multinational and its grip on corporate, academic and public-sector users.

Categories
Computing

Reclaiming Word

Screenshot of OpenOffice Writer 2.0 running on Mandrake Linux

If you own a computer, you probably have some form of word processor. Whether you need to type a report at work or a letter at home or maybe just a short shopping list, chances are you think you need Word or rather Microsoft Word TM . How could we possibly manage without WordArt, ubiquitous in nursery schools and on church noticeboards worldwide? Don't messages look so dull if left in a dated serif font? Isn't it just wonderful that we can highlight text in bold and change its colour? And just in case we make the odd typo, we've got a spell checker to boot.

Now use a pocket calculator or the free one that comes with your operating system to do some simple maths. Each Microsoft Office licence costs between £90 and £400 depending on the package (Standard, Student, Professional, Business, Developer) and applicable discounts. For sake of argument let's assume an average spend of £150. Now let's just take the population of the prosperous world, around a billion, and assume one in eight (1/4 of the working population) require an MS Office Suite either at home or at work, that's a whopping £18.75 billion straight into the coffers of one leviathan every two to three years just for software that was developed by numerous teams of programmers over the last 30 years. Indeed every single major feature available in Word and Excel was pioneered by other programs such as Word Star, Wordperfect, Lotus 1-2-3 and Corel Draw long before Microsoft took the market by storm in the mid 1990s. Computers may now be much faster with superior graphics and the interface has been jazzed up, but mail merge, spell checking and multicolumn layout have been with us since the late 1980s. The processing power of your average PDA or even mobile phone is greater than that of a 1988 word-processing typewriter complete with a 10" monochrome monitor and a revolutionary 3.5" floppy disk drive. I once calculated that 300 pages saved in WordStar 4 could fit onto one double-density 720KB floppy. We can now store the contents of 80 floppies onto one 128MB flash memory card.

Bloated Word Documents

I recently received the contents of a web page as a word document, all 26 megabytes of it, a long download even in the age of broadband Internet. The resulting web page with around 300 words and 6 pictures occupies around 120KB on the remote server. An extreme example because unedited digital pictures had just been imported into Word and manually resized and aligned. The other day I received an e-mail with a Word attachment advertising a conference, word count 158, character count 1157, byte count in excess of 1,600,000, all for one mediocre logo. Had the information been cut and pasted into an e-mail, it would have added 2KB at most! The document contained no formatting that could not be easily reproduced in any half-decent e-mail programme such as freely downloadable Mozilla Thunderbird.

So what if Microsoft makes a fortune from its monopoly? Isn't Word just the most user-friendly text editor out? You might have guessed it, but I'm typing this rant in OpenOffice 2.0 and as a seasoned MS Word user I've yet find anything that OpenOffice cannot do just as well as its premium-rate competitor.

MS Word's essential features have hardly changed since version 6. Word 97 saw a new file format causing temporary incompatibility with a large pool of Word 6 users. Word 2000 had multiple copy and paste and Word XP has belatedly embraced XML, albeit Microsoft's implementation thereof. But let's face the facts, your average Word user does not know how to use styles, autocorrect, autotext and automated tables of contents, let alone craft advanced XML projects. Yet every single one of these features is now available in OpenOffice Writer and version 2.0 has enhanced MS-Office compatibility.

Millions of documents are formatted day in day out with little more than the dropdown font-type and font-size selectors, bold, italics and underline. Creative users will play around with WordArt, insert an image from the ClipArt library, embed a digital photo or paste in one acquired from the Internet. Advanced users may insert the odd table, add hyperlinks or even spread text over multiple columns. But only a small minority of Word users have more than scratched the surface of the programme's potential and neither should they? If you're not a technical writer, legal secretary, translator or web developer, why should you care if the heading of your report is merely set to Arial size 24 or is actually set to heading 1 (style dropdown)? Now imagine you need to create a table of contents after drafting an 80 page instruction manual with 64 sections, 257 subsections and 2429 footnotes and your boss will probably ask you to make many more post-edits. If you had structured your document with hierarchical headings, the task could be automated and the TOC would automatically update when the page number of a new section changed.

Format Wars

Back in the early 1990s it was customary to specify word processor formats. As a technical translator I'd often receive files in WordStar, WordPerfect, AmiPro, Word 5 for the Mac as well as Word 2.0 and Word 6.0/95. To this list we may add the tools used by publishers and graphics professionals such as PageMaker and Quark Express and let's not forget the programmable typesetting language Tex and the more user-friendly LaTex, used by academia and publishers especially in the Unix/Linux world. All had irksome interoperability issues with formatting, accented characters and macros. Not surprisingly many agencies insisted on the cross-platform RTF standard (Rich Text Format). By 1997 Microsoft had for all intents and purposes nixed all serious competitors and used their new-found strength to impose a new de facto standard. Millions of Word 6.0/95 users will recall the compatibility woes they endured with the first batch of Word 97 files. Even after downloading a converter from Microsoft (in the days of 14.4 and 28.8kbps modems), the results were often unreadable or required time-consuming reformatting. It took Microsoft two patches to get its Word 97 to Word 6.0 converter working properly. Indeed it probably took two more years for Word 97 to establish itself as the dominant format. But those who argue that the Word .doc format is here to stay and is essential to collaboration and interopability have a surprise in store for them. In 2006 Microsoft will in effect ditch their own de facto standard by making the new XML-based format the default save option (in my experience fewer and fewer run-of-the-mill Word users are familiar with features such as "Save As" for converting to other formats). Want to know why? Well why not read Microsoft's official reasons straight from the horse's mouth (Microsoft Office Open XML Formats Overview). Evidently XML-based formats are not only more transparent, but partially corrupted files are much easier to recover, because XML is human-readable and lends itself much better to parsing by third-party programmes. Wow, that's what the guys at OpenOffice have been arguing for years. Both the new OpenDocument and the older SWX formats are XML-based, storing text, style and pictures in separate XML files embedded in one jar-compressed file. Microsoft's new format uses Windows-centric zip-compression, but the essential idea is the same. Word 2000 and 2002 users will be able to download an update to read the new XML-based format, but millions of extant Word 97 users will soon find their product totally unsupported by the Redmond Giant. They could download OpenOffice 1.1.5 or 2.0 beta, both of which support MS-Word XML, but sadly many will be persuaded to part with more hard-earned cash for an MS-branded upgrade.

Bells and Whistles

In 1993 I set about buying my first PC with a windowing graphic user interface. "What software can I install?", I asked the owner of a local shop and added "I'll need a Word processor, and best of all MS Word", as that's what most of my clients, mainly translation agencies, required. "We just use Corel Draw 3", he replied. "But surely that's just for drawing?" I quipped "No, no it's good for flyers and most correspondence with our customers". Corel Draw 4 even had a spell checker and what's more you could stretch and bend text on a machine with little more than four megabytes of RAM. If you never wrote letters spanning more than two to three pages (multi-page text flow is a bit of an issue in Corel Draw), Corel Draw 3 would do you fine. Now you know where Microsoft drew their inspiration for the inclusion of WordArt in their 1995 edition of Word!

Many myths abound about open-source software. All alternatives to MS Word import and export MS Word Documents. OpenOffice even imports WordArt, but relies on FontWorks and fully integrated drawing application to create fancy text, drawings and charts. Admittedly some incompatibility remains, but this mainly relates to minor aesthetic and alignment quirks, e.g. MS Word tables sometimes extend beyond a page width in OpenOffice, because Word corrects manual resizing, and OpenOffice does not allow dashed table borders because dashed lines were not specified in the cross-platform universal Rich Text Format (the is probably one of the biggest deficiencies in OpenOffice). Most notably in version 1.0 Word VBA Macros associated with a file will not work, but but OpenOffice 2.0 lets you selectively enable Word macros and convert them to its native Star Basic. But then again Word macros are a primary source of Windows viruses and few users know how to apply document-specific macros anyway. The main use of macros is to automate common word processing tasks and both OpenOffice and MS Word let you do that. If anything Star Basic is much more versatile than Microsoft's legendary Visual Basic, has copious documentation and should make transition from one office suite to another relatively painless.

What about Publisher?

There is one conspicuous omission in OpenOffice: a program that imports MS Publisher files. To be honest I don't understand the attraction of Publisher. With only the full MS suite at my disposal (sadly a common occurrence in Microsoft-only offices), I'd find its core product, Word, a much easier option for most desktop publishing and then simply import graphics designed in other applications, but in OpenOffice one can change backgrounds and reformat page layout for different paper sizes effortlessly and besides the best program I know for 4-fold birthday cards is Corel Printhouse. The main problem for OpenOffice users is opening and editing MS Publisher files sent by others. Alas Microsoft's wizards for exporting to HTML are far from perfect especially if you desire high-definition print quality. If used with Acrobat Distiller (another £60), MS Publisher files can be exported to PDF files, although most graphics tend to be converted to bitmaps boosting file size. My best advice would be to kindly ask a Publisher user to save their file as an Enhanced Metafile (.emf) and then OpenOffice Draw will import it page by page more or less intact and let you edit and save the resulting multi-page document as PDF and voilà. However, if you demand professional results from your publications, then I'd consider either Corel Draw or, for larger outputs and budgets, Adobe InDesign or PageMaker. The latter will even import Publisher Files, produced by amateurs as no professionals worth their salt would use such a graphically challenged application.

The Power Point Paradigm

The features offered by this application, ubiquitous in offices throughout the public and private sectors, say more about the nature of our superficial society than the state of information technology. Indeed the term has embedded itself into our everyday vocabulary to such an extent that for many it may mean an indispensable multipurpose programme (many use it for desktop publishing or drafting web pages) or a projector they may use to display the results on a large screen. In effect Power Point draws on the resources of other applications either integral to the operating system or the Office suite, to juggle multimedia and display it in a series of slides rather than pages. Besides adding gratuitous custom animations of text and images floating over the screen, little functionality is native to Power Point. In the process it encourages the dumbing down of messages to the lowest common denominator with no more than seven bullet points recommended on each page, a virtual collection of soundbites. I see some uses for computer projectors in many teaching situations as a replacement for overhaed projectors, blackboards and whiteboards, but they don't need Micro$oft Power Point to work!

Open Office Impress does almost everything Power Point can do, but lacks the wealth of templates supplied with MS Office. For this you'll need to buy Sun Office 8.0 or rely on a third-party vendor. Admittedly I could not work out how to achieve the typewriter effect, but then again you probably just need a downloadable macro to perform this trick. Unlike the market leader, OpenOffice Impress exports to Flash, the de facto web-optimised multimedia integration plug-in. Hopefully, at some stage Web browsers will offer native support for XML-based SVG (Scalable Vector Graphics) and SMIL (Synchronised Multimedia Interface Language). Indeed OpenOffice Draw 2.0 will also let you save any graphic as an XML-compliant SVG file. Microsoft may provide a plug-in to enable anyone with Internet Explorer to view Power Point presentations within their browser window, but file sizes are way too big. The other day I tried to view a short presentation with 20 slides (which once downloaded displayed fine in Open Office Impress), but occupying 13.8MB. All we need a user-friendly application to resize and export your digital snaps and video clips to this format with text captions and Power Point could well prove a passing fad.

The impact of this gizmo has attracted the attention of numerous social commentators. Edward Tufte has even written a book, The Cognitive Style of Power Point.

Database Integration

Originally considered a relative weakness of the OpenOffice suite, version 2.0's offering beats Access any day, offering not only the native dBase format but allowing full compatibility with open-source MySQL and Microsoft Access via ODBC and JDBC drivers, allowing users to update database on a remote server. You can also import address books from Mozilla Thunderbird, Netscape Messenger and even MS Outlook, within the main Writer interface. If you stick to Microsoft, you'd need their professional MS-SQL Server to do that!

Why do people still use Microsoft Office?

If OpenOffice is so good and alternatives such as Corel PerfectOffice are cheaper, why would anyone want to spend over £100 on MS Office? Microsoft's virtual monopoly on personal computer operating systems and its marketing and PR clout have enabled it to persuade politicians, IT managers and the general public that their product is not only indispensable, but migrating to another would prove costly. Their strongest argument is that retraining staff would prove more expensive than an upgrade. But how were staff trained in the first place? Were they trained in word-processing, spreadsheets, desktop publishing, database management and networking or were they trained to use Microsoft products to perform these tasks? In this regard we could rename The European Computer Driving Licence a Microsoft Product Familiarisation Course. In reality most users will only notice that some features are accessed from different menus or icons, but it's easy to change default shortcuts to those used in MS Office. It took me a little while to discover that FontWorks (WordArt for Microsoft aficionados) can be accessed by clicking on the drawing icon within OpenOffice writer and then clicking on the FontWorks icon.

Prior to Office 2000, many may have installed a friend's copy of MS Office with the registration key affixed to the CD case. Now all MS products require product activation limited to one machine. This may seriously deter piracy, but has also led to a significant decrease in the number of people upgrading in the real world. There are still far more Office 97 users in the UK than owners of Office 2000 or 2003. Can you seriously justify such an outlandish expense with no tangible benefits over free open-source software? And if you really want to pay, you can always purchase Sun's jazzed up Star Office 8.0 for under £80. If your local council implements a Microsoft-only policy, let them know they're wasting our money to enrich the obscenely wealthy. We should treat operating systems and essential productivity software as a public good in the same way as a libraries and schools. Computing is simply too pervasive for us to let one multinational corporation enjoy a near total monopoly.