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More switching evangelism

It’s amazing how many people are warming up to the idea of ditching Wintel and switching to Mac.

What people are taken in by, is the general coolness, engineering and apparent quality of the Apple hardware, but they look baffled by the difference between Windows and OS X, and as I’ve reported before, there IS trouble in Mactopia.

Note that I take a multi-pronged POV when it comes to switching, unlike the same term in Apple’s definition – which covers switching to Apple Macintosh PCs from Windows based PCs. I use the term “switching” in a sense of “taking back what is rightfully the property of the user”: our documents.

For too long Microsoft has “owned” our documents. They do this by making it difficult for “ordinary people” to move their precious documents between computing platforms, the approach is that they’re making it too difficult for the users of Microsoft Word, to use the alternatives to Microsoft’s proprietary documents formats (e.g. the .DOC format).

For a reminder that this is not limited to Microsoft, does anyone remember WordPerfect? It was much the same situation with their proprietary format, even though I think the WordPerfect format was better that .DOC, simply because it was an ASCII format, unlike .DOC which is binary. Binary formats makes it difficult to reverse engineer the format, if the company refuses to document it. And if you investigate why some attempts to switch from Microsoft Office to OpenOffice has failed, the problem often cited is that the ad-hoc macro programming, that has been made in Microsoft Excel, rarely works when the documents are opened in OpenOffice.

The use of proprietary, binary, formats is an old “scheme” used by software vendors, because it creates a virtual lock-in situation, where it becomes impossible to switch to other platforms. For other examples look no further than Adobe PhotoShop.

Consider this sentence for an obstacle for switching to take off: “can I run Word without any problems”, or to rephrase and elaborate: “What if I have to bring a document home with me, can I do this using my USB pen drive, work on it on my Mac at home, copy it back to my USB pen drive, bring it with me to work, and continue where I left off, but now on my work Windows based PC, without any difficulties”?

My answer to this is “most likely”, but you have to be prepared for some minor, and even major, problems.

The safest bet is to get Office:mac. The Mac versions of Office are some of the slickest applications out there, and they are the Ferraris of office productivity tools – NO DOUBT ABOUT IT. The key benefit by using Office:mac is that I’ve yet to see any problems when I’m “platform roaming”.

The main problem with Office:mac is that there’s a limited supply of localised versions, for instance there isn’t a Danish language version, making it unfeasible for the bulk of the Danish word processing users to switch. Another concern is that I fear that Microsoft will stop supporting Office on the Mac, and with the major changes that are coming with the next version of Office (Office 12), Mac users could be left in the dust again.

Anyway here’s how I usually work on documents, and, so far, I haven’t experienced any problems with this approach.

Most of my minor document editing is done using the simple Mac application TextEdit (bundled with OS X). It supports a number of formats including Word formats, but limit yourself to simple, text only documents. TextEdit is equivalent to WordPad on Windows (bundled with Windows since Windows 95). I rarely use USB pen drives, instead I bring my computer everywhere, since I have a Apple PowerBook G4 12″ that’s highly feasible, and since I’m never far away from a Wi-Fi connection in Copenhagen, I can copy documents between platforms using E-Mail by “Gmailing” them to myself. This also has the side benefit, that your precious documents are stored on an external resource, and are accessible anywhere in the world. When my PowerBook’s HD crashed in April of 2005, it took me less than 30 seconds to give the go ahead for a complete wipe of the disk, and I only lost 30 minutes worth of edits, everything important was on Gmail.

I then move to OpenOffice.Org 2.0 (OOO 2.0) for doing the layout. OOO 2.0 is a full fledged, Open Source based, office productivity suite, that includes Word-processing, Spreadsheet, Presentation and Database applications. The OOO 2.0 applications are MORE than adequate for ordinary users as well as professionals, and it is amazingly compatible with Microsoft Office. OpenOffice exists for all major platforms, including Mac OS X, and in a Danish version with Danish spell-checker. What’s the price tag of this impressive piece of software? Well it depends, but you can ALWAYS get it for free – If you only use OOO 2.0 for personal use, and even if you use it professionally, you will never be paid a visit by the anti-piracy police, since the software is licensed under GPL conditions, making the software “free”. Remember that “Free” doesn’t mean “Gratis” – the GNU meaning of “Free” is like the “Free” in “Free speech”.

Finally I save my documents in the .DOC format and distribute my documents in that format. For now the world isn’t ready to switch to then OpenDocument format that is supported by a growing list of Open Source projects. I’m not rocking the boat on this subject yet.

So how to proceed if you want to switch?

I suggest that we start by making the switch to OpenOffice.Org 2.0, and that we standardise on using the OOO 2.0 open file formats instead of the closed ones Microsoft uses, before Office 12 launches. Do we all need to drive Ferraris?

Eventually I believe that ALL text editing will be moved online, for instance as Wikis. Wikis really address the shortcomings of standard Word processors by making it possible to do serious online collaboration on documentation.

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