Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Review and Visual Tour: Microsoft's 2007 Office Beta 2

ComputerWorld has published their Review and Visual Tour: Microsoft's 2007 Office Beta 2 (as well as their (Visual Tour: 20 Things You Won't Like About Windows Vista... I sense a theme in ComputerWorld's coverage.)

It's an interesting read, and you should take some time to look at it. Here are some highlights of the features covered:
  • No Menus. The "ribbon" is a huge horizontal tabbled panel that replaces the space formerly occupied by your menu and toolbars. It contains a hodge-podge of buttons (some with text, some without), listboxes, spinners, and other controls. It's an interesting feature, but I'm not impressed with the eye-candy. Why not? Because that ribbon comes at the price of a significant amount of screen real estated; and because it represents a fair amount of re-training. For instance, ComputerWorld states, "The File menu is gone; now you have to somehow guess that the big icon in the upper left corner is its replacement." That's not the way to take care of your customers. Compare to OpenOffice.org, which keeps the menus you're used to, but improves the location of a few that were illogically placed in MSOffice.
  • Save to PDF. Welcome to the club, Microsoft; OpenOffice.org has been doing that for some time now.
  • SmartArt. According to CW, "when you add a step to a diagram, the Office application will redraw the image with all components properly resized and rearranged." Well, "properly" is the operative word here, isn't it? Often, any re-arrangement from what you've chosen is improper, but that hasn't stopped Word from re-formatting paragraphs, dropping text, or doing any number of things it deemed "proper" without your permission. Time will tell if this is more of the same. It's worth noting, though, that OpenOffice.org has a fully featured Draw application built right in, and it leaves things where you told it to.
  • Spreadsheet Size. Excel 2007 can handle over a million rows and 16,000 columns per sheet. That's very impressive... however... a spreadsheet is designed to be an interactive tool. If you have a million-row spreadsheet, you're using the wrong tool, and should be using a database to analyze the data. Fortunately, OpenOffice.org ships with a relational database and as built-in support for many others.
  • Conditional Formatting. CW reports that spreadsheet cells can be formatted based on their content. I was wondering what was so special about that, and realized that this is because the feature's already present in OpenOffice.org.
  • Charting. This bears quoting in full: "Charting features have improved; the graphics sport a more polished, up-to-date look. Unfortunately, finding the right set of tools in the ribbon proved frustrating. When a pie chart we created didn't have a title, it took us over five minutes of right-clicking and searching before we found the Chart Layout "contextual tab" -- a subribbon, if you will (see Figure 7). While Microsoft says this user interface feature helps expose functionality only when it's needed, in this particular instance it's a case of a contextual tab/ribbon being too subtle to be noticed." Now, that's not very promising, even aside from the deficient useability. The purpose of charting is to make complicated data clearly understandable. BTW, the 3D charting feature in OpenOffice.org generates fully rotatable, 3-dimensional objects that are quite attractive and clearly depict the data.
  • Excel still has Pivot Table support, though CW calls it "befuddling," and says any improvements are "minor at best". OpenOffice.org also has pivot tables, contrary to some reports: in OpenOffice.org it's called the "DataPilot".
  • The review spends some time looking over Outlook. OpenOffice.org doesn't have an equivalent to Outlook. For that matter, neither does Microsoft; Outlook is a non-starter, and you should be using something other than that security nightmare. I heartily recommend Lotus Notes, which out-does Outlook in every way, in my opinion, and adds in features of the rest of the suite (OneNote and SharePoint) AND more besides, but in a different way. But that's the subject of another blog entry. As of my last upgrade, a Lotus Notes client plus all of OpenOffice.org cost one-tenth of the the cost of Microsoft Office Professional.
The ComputerWorld article concludes much as I do, that the new interface is hit-and-miss, will make all reference materials (and a good number of skills) obsolete, and is likely to adversely affect productivity and the Help Desk, at least initially.

ComputerWorld doesn't compare the new MSOffice 2007 to an upgrade alternative. But let's be clear... have your word-processing, spreadsheet, database, and presentation graphics needs grown beyond what your current software provides? And if so, have they grown in the same direction as Microsoft's suite? If not, you don't need MSOffice 2007. More likely than not, you didn't need MSOffice 2003 over MSOffice97, but upgraded with new machine purposes, or because of support issues from having incompatible versions.

But what you do need is a current software suite that's regularly updated and supported for security reasons. You do need to be able to interchange documents with others, as you can with the ISO standard OpenDocument format used by OpenOffice.org. You do need to be protected against obsolescence.

You can solve all of that... the cost of upgrades, the cost of retro-fitting otherwise serviceable software, the recurring training issues involved, the headaches of shoving data to-from people with other versions of MSOffice; as well as obtaining really useful new functionality (such as PDF export)... by switching to OpenOffice.org and Lotus Notes. I can help you with the upgrade and the training, and for customers in upstate South Carolina I'll even throw in an installation of VIC CRM. Just call 864-427-7008 or email sales@cratchit.org.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Introducing Cratchit.org's Small Business PowerPack

Cratchit.org's Small Business PowerPack is a compilation of the best of the best Open Source and free business programs available today.

Rather than including a broad choice of redundant software, we've collected only the best of the software that we've thoroughly tested and used. Thus, you'll find only what we consider to be the "best of breed," collected onto a professional-quality CD with a menu that gives you instant access to the installers on the disk as well as links to the publishers' websites.

The PowerPack includes essentials, such as the OpenOffice.org office suite, the Firefox browser and Thunderbird email client, Windows Privacy Tools for encryption, Nvu for website management, and Inkscape for outstanding marketing graphics. Also included are the FileZilla FTP client and server, GAIM for ubiquitous Instant Messaging, the Lazarus Pascal programming IDE, 7-Zip archive manager, and Cratchit.org's own TimeTool for Windows, among many other offerings.

Linux users have had access to many of these programs for years, and Linux "run-live" CDs typically contain ready-to-run sample programs. Sadly, the Windows user "eXPerience" is often that software is either expensive and proprietary or full of malware. The Cratchit.org PowerPack is our attempt to expose Windows users to the high-quality, virus - spyware - pop-up and spam-free software that we ourselves use happily every day. Once familiar with these excellent tools on the familiar Windows platform, it's our hope that some of the more adventurous users may take the extra step toward a user- and business-friendly Linux distribution such as Linspire or Mandriva.

Although compilations such as GNUWinII and The Open CD do cater to Windows users, the Cratchit.org Powerpack is targeted specifically toward business users who may not know of the marvellous professional-quality tools available to them for zero cost.

The PowerPack ISO image is available for download from Cratchit.org if you'd like to burn your own copy. Or, you can order a copy of the CD for the cost of production and mailing.

Monday, May 22, 2006

IBM Issues Security Patch for Lotus Notes

IBM has announced security patches for Lotus Notes, releases 6.5.4 and 7.0.1.

The patches fix flaws involving the extraction of files from zip archives and with the handling of long web URLs. Further details are available on SearchDomino.com.

VIC CRM users are encouraged update their Notes clients. Instructions are available on IBM's website. Naturally, Cratchit.org customers will be contacted directly, as per their support contracts.

In other news, ZDnet reports that IBM has announced that the next version of Lotus Notes ("Hannover") will support OpenDocument files directly. You will be able to edit your ODF files directly in Notes and take advantage of Notes' superior document management features and share them with people who use OpenOffice.org, StarOffice, KOffice, and other software suites supporting the OpenDocument standard. Happily, you should be able to share with Microsoft Office users as well, but only if they install the OpenDocument Plugin soon to be provided by the OpenOffice.org team.

Incidentally, VIC CRM will inherit those capabilities.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

RealVNC Issues Security Patch; Please Upgrade!

As reported in eWeek RealVNC has reported a fix to a critical security flaw. According to the security report, the flaw exists only in RealVNC version 4.1.1, and will allow an unauthorized user access to a machine without a valid password. This flaw doesn't exist in VNC 4.0.

RealVNC has issued a patch (actually, it's an update to the program). Please go here to download the update and install it over your current installation. Of course, if you're running the VNC service, you should right-click on the icon and close the service before you install the new version.

We will be contacting affected Cratchit.org customers directly to install the updates.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Google Gets Hammered; Microsoft to Support OpenDocument Format

I finished the DaVinci Quest on Google today a few minutes after 1pm. Now, pulling up Google results in a message that my request (for "http://www.google.com") looks like a spyware request. Looks to me like they're getting hammered by contestants. I wonder if they saw this coming...

I'm interested to see if I'm one of the 10,000 finalists. I'm not looking to win the contest (I'd hate to have to pay taxes on the grand prize, to be honest about it), but I would like one of those cryptex thingies. Heck, I don't even plan to see the movie. I've read the book, and it was historical hogwash. Sadly, books that claim, "this is true," rarely are.

As reported in Computerworld, Microsoft will support interoperability with OpenDocument Format (ODF) files, though no timetable for this implementation of this compatibility was announced:
“There are hundreds of industry-specific XML schemas used right now by industries spanning health care, real estate, insurance, finance and others. ODF is yet another XML-based format in the market,” he said. “The ODF format is limited to the features and performance of OpenOffice and StarOffice and would not satisfy most of our Microsoft Office customers today. Yet we will support interoperability with ODF documents as they start to appear and will not oppose its standardization or use by any organization. The richness of competitive choices in the market is good for our customers and for the industry as a whole.”
This announcement by Jason Matusow, director of Standards Affairs for Microsoft, was intended to downplay the importance of the ODF standard. However, those of us who support Open Source software can see this as a major win. It's the first time I've seen Microsoft openly declare their intent to support the format. This does, of course, come a few days after OpenOffice.org announced a plug-in for Word that would support the format, Microsoft-support-or-no. As with so many things, Microsoft has announced its support only after the tide of history has made it absolutely impossible for them to avoid it. Great way to innovate, there, guys!

Net Neutrality Needed Now

Yesterday, Tom Tauke, an Executive VP at Verizon, did his best to snow a roomful of reporters in his attempt to spread negative propaganda over the issue of Net Neutrality (see Tauke Says Telecom Bill Needs Stripping-Down).

Interestingly, one of his arguments involves VPN. Tauke claims that Net Neutrality legislation would prevent private companies from using VPN services over the Internet. I've tried to find some polite way of interpreting this, but they all boil down to Tauke either deliberately lying or simply being completely clueless as to both how VPNs work and what the proposed legislation is for.

A VPN is a Virtual Private Network. Note that word, "Virtual". What it means is that a VPN is a private means of communicating over a public network. In other words it is, to all intents and purposes, private, even though it uses the public network for communication. Don't believe me? Read about it here, here, or here; or look at any VPN project to see how it works.

The point here is that a VPN depends on the public network. It is encrypted private traffic that simply is delivered over the public net. So I shudder when Tauke says, as he does in MacWorld:
“The hospital that wants to provide home-health monitoring for a heart patient is not going to rely on the [public] Internet,” Tauke said. “That hospital will want a virtual private network with service guarantees and strong security protections.”
Here, Tauke is using silly scare tactics to force an emotional knee-jerk response. It's irresponsible of him. The truth is, Tauke is either deliberately lying or he's incompetent and doesn't know a VPN from a private network. Either way, he has no business spouting such patent nonsense. He deserves to be called on it and ridiculed.

The purpose of Net Neutrality isn't to prevent VPNs from operating. It's to ensure that they will continue to operate, and that no backbone provider can cut off web traffic in an unfair attempt to strangle the market. We actually saw this recently with the spat between Level 3 and Cogent. (I swear, sometimes I feel that I'm the only person on this planet with a memory longer than one week!) It was only last October when this catfight isolated a good portion of the Internet from the rest. At the time it was pointed out that legislation was needed to prevent this silliness from re-occurring. So here it is, and now we see that Verizon opposes it.

Why would they do that? It's certainly not because of VPNs... we've already demonstrated that they don't know what that means. It's not to ensure delivery of content... the Web is designed for fault-tolerance, and the more connections you have, the more reliable your transmissions are. It's most certainly not for their customers... who are better served by allowing them access to whatever content they want. No, it's for no good reason at all. Nope... no good at all.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Open Document Format Gets ISO Approval

Open Document Format Gets ISO Approval

Now that's good news. This document format, used by OpenOffice.org, StarOffice, KOffice, and numerous other office suites, is now an open, accessible, internationally accredited and approved office format. Notably absent from the more than a dozen software packages that now support the format: Microsoft Office.