Software options limited by Microsoft

When was the last time you tried to access a word processing document in Microsoft Windows only to find that the system you are on won’t open it? Perhaps it was a paper you typed and brought to school on a disk, or maybe it was some file one of your instructors told you to download.

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By Benjamin Kwiecien

WORD PERFECT

By Benjamin Kwiecien

When was the last time you tried to access a word processing document in Microsoft Windows only to find that the system you are on won’t open it? Perhaps it was a paper you typed and brought to school on a disk, or maybe it was some file one of your instructors told you to download. If you don’t have the right software, you’re up a creek without a paddle.Why does this happen? Most students aren’t aware of what software they use and often end up believing that anyone can open their files or that they would be able to open anyone else’s. On a more frequent basis than anyone is comfortable with, this turns out not to be the case.

Depending on what program is used to create a typical office document, the file that gets produced is going to be different depending not only on the program itself but also the particular version of it.

Most people use Microsoft Word, the de facto standard for word processing in the personal computing world. It is frequently used among businesses both small and large, academic institutions, and home users, but it is not the only player.

Wikipedia, the free online encyclopedia, contains a sample list of 21 word processors in popular use today as well as an additional 16 of historical significance. The list is by no means complete.

So why doesn’t everyone just use Word?

Business and education can afford to pay hefty licensing fees, but to buy a brand new, shrink-wrapped copy of Microsoft Office from Microsoft’s Web site is going to cost the common man $400 (or $240 if you meet their upgrade criteria). Students get off easy with a meager $150 charge.

Office, which includes Word, may have come with your computer, but if it didn’t and you haven’t paid for it, you’re probably breaking the law.Based on Microsoft’s pricing, it’s easy to see why not everybody owns Word. Microsoft will gladly sell you a program called Works for $50 that does the same thing, but your files won’t open with other programs, even Microsoft’s own Word.

Both programs coming from the same company, that seems questionable enough, but in addition there exist document inconsistencies even between different versions of Word. That’s right; even if both parties are using Word, there is no guarantee that the file will be read properly.

Word processing in our culture is so ubiquitous that everyone needs access to it; people need to be able to open their files, and in order to do that their programs need to be on the same page.

The popular document formats offered up by the likes of Microsoft are kept closed, which means information about how the data gets saved is a secret.

This turns out to be profitable for Microsoft, but it is damaging not only to consumers, but also to other businesses. We see the results every time one of our files fails to open.

It’s frustrating when Microsoft’s own software won’t read a certain file, and matters are made worse when they try to prevent others from producing their own software to do it.

Now, take a moment to imagine a world in which word processors use a type of file that is standardized-something that is open and well documented. This is a world in which the software is designed to do what people need it to do and does it correctly, sacrificing nothing for private interest.

Sounds too good to be true, doesn’t it?

It’s not, and you can stop imagining. Software products like OpenOffice (www.openoffice.org) and Abiword (www.abisource.com) are available to the public right now, and they do exactly what Microsoft doesn’t; they offer affordable, high quality software that is based on open standards and shared knowledge.

Both programs are free in every sense of the word and can be downloaded right off the Internet from their websites.

With the right software, nobody has to go through the trouble of worrying how they are going to access their files-the open format ensures that the right tools are always going to be available, and it enables businesses as well as the public to write software so everyone can share information without trouble.

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