Friday, July 21, 2006

Microsoft fumbles standards support in Office 2007

Pamela Jones (PJ) over at Groklaw has pointed out this blog entry by Rob Weir. In it, Rob takes the new ODF plug-in for Word 2007 for a spin. ODF is, of course the OpenDocument Format, otherwise known as ISO 26300, which is the international standard for office documents. This new standard is supported by most modern Office suites on the market, including StarOffice, OpenOffice.org, IBM Workplace, KOffice, AbiWord, and many others. Worldwide, many governments are either considering a mandated move to ODF or have already mandated such a move.

Microsoft, after much resistance and gnashing of teeth, has reluctantly agreed to support the standard. However, their support is severely lacking, as Rob's blog shows. You cannot export ODF documents using Word's file save dialog; and you cannot set ODF as the default file format (even though you can do that for ancient formats such as richtext and plain text!!)

Furthermore, the results are terrible. I don't mean just slightly off... they're terrible. I suggest you look at the Rob's examples to see exactly how badly these are rendered. I think PJ cuts right to the core when she wonders that this is the best Microsoft can do considering that they complete access to both their own Office source code and to that of the open-source competitors who do the same job so much better.

Given MS Office 2007's extremely poor standards support, that justification for migrating to it would have to be exceptional. A better move is to go to standards-compliant software such as OpenOffice.org (open-source and free) or Sun Microsystem's StarOffice (for those that want corporate support).

Monday, July 10, 2006

IBM unveils Lotus Notes for users of Linux - The Boston Globe

IBM unveils Lotus Notes for users of Linux - The Boston Globe

Now THAT's good news! Lotus Notes for Linux will retail at around $130 and will be available in two weeks. A tweak or two will be necessary to make the VIC phone dialer work, but I'm looking forward to additional platform choice.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Why you need VIC CRM.

Today I want to touch on the philosophy that's driven the development of VIC CRM. I'm also going to do some comparisons with Microsoft's nearest desktop equivalent, Outlook and OneNote combined.

Augmenting the Human Intellect

VIC's features reflect what I want in an information organizer. I examined the way I work and designed the system to assist me in two very important ways: storing information efficiently and quickly, and accessing it as quickly.

I think of VIC as an extension of my own memory (and my team's). And I want it to be as convenient for me to use as my own memory. VIC records my conversations (be they telephone, email, or written). It holds all the niggling little facts for me (such as product registration keys, dates of purchase, etc). It knows about my contracts (when they were signed, when they're due, what are the terms). It knows all my customers, their contact information and selected birthdates. It knows about my appointments and to-dos and reminds me when they're due, with appropriate lead time. It saves me time by keeping documentation templates on-hand so I can just fill in the details. It even dials the phone for me to save me effort.

All of this is designed to happen as smoothly and as quickly as I could devise. When I'm sitting at my desk, I'm augmented. I really took to heart the "mother of all demos" and Douglas Englebart's work at SRI's Augmentation Research Center and tried to apply those concepts here. As I've mentioned here, what an information organizer should be is "eidetic memory to augment my own." Information that's collected and stored is pretty useless. Think about it... what good is a library full of books that nobody reads? And what good is a reference library if you have to thumb through tomes of information to get the one datum you need?

One of the things that came out of my work on on Lotus Notes systems and on VIC CRM in particular is a realization of how my memory works. When your brain is gathering facts any classification of them is so automatic that you aren't even aware it's happening. If you're a normal human, you don't choose where facts are stored in your brain. You don't "open a folder" and "organize your thoughts". When we say that we're organizing our thoughts we're actually analyzing them, classifying them, and discovering relationships between them. That's very different. In your brain, what's vastly more important than the storage of your information is the ability to retrieve it and utilize it.

IBM "gets it.". IBM's Lotus Notes is the platform upon which VIC is built. Likewise, Google "gets it.". Retrieval is of prime importance, and getting the information into the system should be as trivial as possible. One of the things I did with VIC was ignore the "folders" metaphore entirely (and I did it long before Google's gmail existed). Instead, you can categorize a document in as many ways as you like. Later, you can retrieve your documents with full-text search, or you can view them by categories. If a document is categorized multiple ways, you'll see it listed under every applicable category (this is a capability of Lotus Notes that makes it the ideal platform for a program like VIC.)

Tearing down the fences.

As important as properly classifying information is the ability to look past preconceptions, so I removed artificial distinctions from VIC's design. All correspondence is the same, whether it's email, fax, printed letters, or phone conversations. The medium of transmission may differ, as may the immediacy of the contact, but when you strip away these trivialities, these are all simply "correspondence". As a result it's possible for the VIC user to view interactions in ways that are simply impossible with other programs.

Another artificial distinction I've removed involves scheduled activities. Strip away superficial differences and embellishments and you're left with the fact that everything you do is simply an activity that occurs within a specified timeframe. I then allow that some activities (To-Dos) have have a date but no specified time. Some (meetings) involve people other than myself. There may be a number of such embellishments. But because at their core these are all the same thing thing, I can view all of my activities in ways that aren't possible with most popular programs. In VIC these are all simply "Journal Entries." While I can still see all my phone calls, or my emails, or all correspondence with a particular customer I'm not limited in this regard, and I don't need to search for data to view my data in these various ways. (There's a search utility in VIC, but you'll use views more often).

And it goes deeper. Sending or receiving an email or having a phone conversation is an activity as well. It's the activity of communication, performed at a specific time. So VIC tears away the artificial distinction between the Inbox and the Calendar (I can even view my Inbox as a calendar if I like). I can look at every activity I've recorded in one place, just as I can with my own memory... only with perfect recollection.

By removing structural barriers between the different kinds of documents, VIC can do for my memory what Excel does for numbers. If you're familiar with PivotTables you're familiar with the concept of being able to see different "cuts" of your data. I do that with memory.

Getting the information into VIC is as seamless as I could make it. For instance... VIC knows my correspondents and their email addresses and phone numbers. Why should I need to manually drag their emails into folders? I don't. VIC categorized incoming correspondence for me. It recognizes the source of the communication and sorts out the relationships. I doesn't just enable communication, it augments it. For example, if I just received an email from a customer and have a sudden need to call him, I don't have to look up his phone number. I just click "Dial" and VIC picks up the phone and calls for me. VIC knows what I want.

And that's just what I can do on my own. Using a Domino server I can share these memories and activities and plans with other people I work with. Members of my team with security clearance can see everything that's going on with each customer. If I'm not available and a customer calls, it's OK. To a great extent my team knows what I know because when I'm working I live in this software.

And remember what I said about seeing different cuts of my memory? When VIC is used to share this information among a team, you can use that ability to discover relationships that you wouldn't have otherwise known about. It's your memory, squared.

As you can see, VIC isn't your run-of-the-mill PDA. Once you've used it, it's part of you, and very difficult to do without.

How VIC compares to Outlook and OneNote

I started work on VIC five years ago. This year, of course, there's anticipation about the upcoming Microsoft Office 2007 release, which will include an updated Outlook (with Business Contact Manager), OneNote, and other components that should by all rights have similar capabilities. After all, Notes + VIC does more than Microsoft Outlook does. It takes the addition of OneNote or something like it to add some of the informational organization to Outlook. And let's assume for a moment that you're using VIC on your own, since it would take the resources of an IT department to duplicate VICs features for a team using SharePoint and Exchange. Remember, VIC costs nothing, and it runs on Lotus Notes, which is under $150.

Marc Orchant has posted a pretty fair summary of Microsoft's OneNote program on the Microsoft Office 2007 preview site. I responded in his blog with many of the comments I'm making here. My initial comments were that it has some interesting (if unimportant) features, but that they missed the important point of retrieval. I noted that the OneNote team seems to take the position that OneNote's organized because you can separate things into tabs or pages, or spaces on a page. I think it's unorganized because you have to do this to have any real hope of finding anything again.

I took another look and haven't changed my mind. OneNote makes you remember how things are organized. VIC organizes things. It's a hugely significant difference. Having Outlook and OneNote is like having a filing system, whereas having VIC is like having a really good secretary who does all your filing for you and can immediately lay her hands on any document for you on request.

Because you don't have to worry about the specifics of getting information out of the system, VIC's interface can be cleaner. To my eyes, OneNote's interface is seriously crowded. You've got so many in-your-face chotchkas that nothing really stands out. If you're one of the people who have "banner-blindness" you know what I mean. The UI overload in OneNote also leaves less room for actual note-taking than you reasonably need. My philosophy of the user interface is "show me what I need to know now. Let me easily get to everything else." That's what VIC provides.

I also found that OneNote and Outlook, though they work together, do so in a "bolted together" fashion. Remember when I said that there are no fundamental distinctions in VIC between activities of any kind and correspondence? In VIC, for example, To-Dos and Activities all appear in the Journal's calendar. That's not true in Office 2007. Your emails are in Outlook... search for them there. So are your activities. But there is a fundamental distinction between a Task (to-do) and an Event (activity). They don't both appear in the calendar, and won't appear in the same list. Your notes, though, are in OneNote, quite possibly scattered among various notebooks, certainly scattered among various tabs. It's disjointed. It's disorganized. It's kludgy.

Office 2007: A Study in Mixed Metaphors

That "bolted together" feeling shows through the entire User Interface. Remember, Outlook and OneNote are components of Office 2007. One of the new features of Office 2007 is the removal of the drop-down menu paradigm. These are replaced with "Ribbons" in the core components such as Word and Excel. Let's ignore for a moment that users are well-acquainted with menus (In VIC, for instance, you can do just about everything without the system menus, and have been able to for years). The new "Ribbon" paradigm is spottily implemented. Both Outlook and OneNote use menus, except that Outlook uses a Ribbon (not menus) when you're creating a new event or task. OneNote doesn't use a Ribbon at all. But OneNote doesn't even use menus consistently, choosing to throw in yet another paradigm. OneNote indicates a dialog where you'd normally see a submenu; then it opens a sidebar instead. This steals your screen real estate.

A difference in philosophy

It's not my intention to bash Outlook and OneNote, though it's difficult to avoid the appearance of bashing. My intention is to illustrate a difference in design philosophy. Microsoft's solution is about components. It's about various tools that you use to work, but that don't really work for you. You may be able to make them do some work with scripting and servers and a stable of MCSEs, but is that where you want to go today?

If your work in Office appears organized, it's because you put a lot of work into it to make it so. If you're satisfied with that, maybe you're just not used to a better way.

VIC CRM is a knowledge repository and processor. I call it CRM (customer relationship management) because that's the purpose for which it was written. The specific category is SFA (sales force automation), but I don't do much in the way of pure selling and have still found VIC absolutely indispensible. The thing is, I don't think it matters much what you're using your computer for, you need this or something very much like it.

VIC is open source. That means it's free for you to download and use. I won't ask a penny. It's also under construction, so there are portions where you can still see the rafters. But even under construction, in many ways VIC outperforms to the latest and greatest from the biggest and brightest.

That's my opinion and I'm sticking to it.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Critical Mass.

Today in ComputerWorld: Sun, Microsoft answer Mass. call for ODF/Office converter.

Part of this is old news... Sun, through the OpenOffice.org project, has had a converter for some time now... it was delivered for testing to Massachussetts officials weeks ago.

Microsoft, on the other hand, has been crying "foul," and "not possible," etc., etc. for months. They were full of it, and yesterday Massachussetts called their bluff.

Well, now it's official... it's not just a converter, it's an open-source converter. And that means that documented file specs are forthcoming from Microsoft. And that means that Open Source projects everywhere will be able to improve their interoperability with Word docs, with Excel and PowerPoint to follow.

This is what happens when people stick to their guns. If more of Microsoft's customers followed Massachussetts' example and said, "we don't like your way, we're prepared to hit the highway," then other annoyances like the WGA debacle and draconian DRM could disappear as well.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

HAPPY INDEPENDENCE DAY

According to http://www.helpwithwindows.com/wga.html,
"22% of PCs in the US use a copy of Windows that is not genuine." I've seen numbers as high as 40% or greater outside the U.S. Let's ballpark it worldwide at about a third.

OK, that's bad. People should be using legally obtained software. Presumably they don't do so because they can't afford it. Of course, even though Microsoft doesn't want these people pirating software, they clearly don't want them using Windows either (otherwise, Windows would be more affordable). Therefore, Microsoft, by their actions, clearly want pirates to use something else. Nevertheless,
it's Microsoft's contention (cribbed from an IDC study) that "if the piracy rate was lowered by 10 percentage points over the next four years, this would contribute 2.4 million new jobs and US$400 billion in economic growth to the global economy."

So, suppose for an moment that Microsoft succeed in driving these people away from those illegal copies of Windows and onto something legal that they can afford... like Linux or BSD. And suppose everyone switched to free or low-cost application software? Suppose this happened in record time... today (what an appropriate way to celebrate our Independence Day here in the USA!). Suppose that as a direct result there were no pirated software anywhere in the world. That's right... rather than the measly 10 percent target of the IDC, let's magically erase one hundred percent of pirated software by switching to free alterternatives! After all, this is what Microsoft wants! And since these users haven't paid anything to Microsoft and have no intention of doing so, this move to legality has exactly zero impact on Microsoft's bottom line.


Do you think they'd be happy to watch as much as a third of the market adopt Linux overnight? Really? Gee, why not?


You have options
Now, I could point out what pure and utter hogwash the IDC estimate is. Obviously, you don't add to the economy in any significant way simply by reducing piracy, since you could completely eliminate piracy today with no monetary flow in any direction. What the IDC and Microsoft mean is that Microsoft could could make a lot of money if the people who have pirated commercial software paid full price for it instead. This assumes that the pirates would still choose to use Microsoft software if it weren't free as "warez". In other words, Microsoft would have you believe that the pirates' only alternative is to pay for Windows, and all the numbers they quote are based on that naïve assumption. The fact is, these pirates have no intention of paying for the software they can't afford. There are alternatives.

I could also point out the obvious fact that Microsoft doesn't want wholesale Linux adoption because it most assuredly would have a long-term negative effect on Microsoft's bottom line. Heck, in an honest moment Bill Gates would tell you the same thing personally. But that's really the same thing as saying that Piracy is better for Microsoft than No Piracy, so Microsoft should shut their yaps and let the pirates be. But since I don't condone copyright infringement anymore than Gates does, I won't go there.

Declare Independence
No, the message here is that this is Independence Day, so make it count. And don't worry if you read this a week or a month or a year after July 4th, 2006... whatever the date let this be your Independence Day, and declare your independence from tyrannical software barons. (And no, I'm not going to post a parody of the Declaration of Independence.) The fact is, there's no law that says you have to use expensive software. There are plenty of affordable packages out there for free. This includes application software and operating systems!

TRY a Linux distribution. If you don't have the broadband connection, get one for the cost of reproduction from CheapBytes.com. If you're in South Carolina and want to stop by, I'll burn one for you myself, at no charge.

Download my SoftwareList.pdf. Try some of the high-quality alternative applications like OpenOffice. org. If you'd rather not track them down yourself, you can download and burn my collection to CD. Don't wait. Declare your independence today!

Extending Older Software
Plenty of you run older versions of Windows because your machines won't support XP (and you can just forget about the forthcoming Vista!). Of course, support for these from Microsoft is long gone, and even when it was "supported" Microsoft never officially released a service pack for Windows 98 Second Edition.

Never fear! You can still update that old copy of Windows with Exhuberant Software's Unofficial Win98 SE Service Pack! Go ahead and get the most recent patches in one go. Keep in mind that this contains only the OS patches... it does not contain Internet Explorer 6, DirectX 9, Media Player 9 and their updates.