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“Critical Thinking about Word and .doc”

May 3rd, 2007 Benjamin Horst

Kairosnews, an education blog, posts a critique of the use of the .doc format in education.

To summarize, forcing students to use a closed format and an expensive software program they don’t strictly need, is poor educational practice. Even more importantly, use of any word processor, regardless of the brand, is frequently unnecessary and restricts the creativity and future problem-solving (lateral thinking) ability of the students who are taught this unquestioning attitude.

“Many of us teach cultural analysis and critical thinking in our writing classes. Our first year readers are full of cultural commentary, and we use these texts to teach our students to question the status quo and understand more deeply the implications of the choices they make in this consumer culture.

“Do writing teachers do the same when they tell students to submit their documents as .doc files or tell them they need to buy Word from the campus store? Have teachers questioned the assumptions behind their personal use of MS Word?

“Writing teachers have an obligation to explore the assumptions regarding the one tool we can’t do without in the teaching of writing, the word processor. The following will explore some of the common reasons I believe people continue to use and promote MS Office and its file formats, and I will challenge some of the assumptions behind those reasons and the consequences.”

The author discusses and counters the two primary arguments used by educators who continue to rely on Microsoft Word. The “lemming”-like perception that you must use it because “everyone else does,” and their familiarity with its featureset and user interface are dispelled as weaker arguments against its disadvantages of high cost, forced upgrades, barriers to competitors, and the lack of innovation inherent to monopolies.

His conclusion:

“Weigh the pedagogical benefits of using Word now against how you taught writing then [ten years ago] and the problems with using Word outlined here and others you can think of. Make an informed decision. Be willing to inform your students about the implications of using Word and .doc.

“If you decide to continue using Word, understand that people may choose not to use .doc for very good reasons. Be willing to install the ODF to MS Word file translator when working with friends and colleagues.

“At the very least, don’t tell students who have WordPerfect or MS Works on their computer that they need Word to create good .doc files in first year writing classes. Suggest that they download and install OpenOffice for free. Ask your institutions to offer OpenOffice in the labs so students can experiment with it and see that it is a viable alternative to Word.”

Microsoft Lobbies Against Open Data Formats

May 2nd, 2007 Benjamin Horst

It is no surprise that Microsoft is lobbying US state governments to block the gradual migration to open data formats, because of their fear of ODF.

ODF could trigger the erosion of Microsoft’s Office monopoly, because without the lock-in its binary file formats have provided for over 15 years, the company realizes it cannot compete (with its current enormous profit margins) against a broad range of other applications.

It has offered a competing file format, MSOOXML, which it claims is equally open and equally implemented by a range of competitors, but these claims are not true. No other software can currently work with MSOOXML, and it’s not clear if any will ever be able to implement it fully, aside from MS’ own products. By no “de facto” definition can this be considered open. In fact, most observers see it as a ruse intended to guarantee another decade of monopoly control, to the detriment of innovation and customers’ best interests.

Dow Jones’ MarketWatch tracks Microsoft’s exhaustive quest to head off ODF’s growth in state governments. Their assault is hitting Florida, Minnesota, Texas and California. (Too late for them in Massachusetts, and I’m not sure about Oregon.) Hopefully another round of states will take up the open data cause and force Microsoft to reshuffle their resources once again.

Meanwhile, Erwin Tenhumberg finds a similar situation with regard to German potatoes… It’s not just software markets that can be manipulated by unethical corporate behavior!

Make it with Mono Contest Ideas

April 13th, 2007 Benjamin Horst

Linux Format Magazine (from the UK) and Novell are running a contest to gather ideas for new software applications to be written in Mono and distributed as open source code, called “Make it with Mono“.

I submitted two ideas: an Wiki Extension, and the Smith Package Manager.

Please vote to support my ideas!

OOo Wiki Extension:

Smith Package Manager:

40,000 Arizona State University Students Adopt Google Apps

April 3rd, 2007 Benjamin Horst

InformationWeek reports on some exciting news: Arizona State University has moved 40,000 students and faculty to Google Apps and will migrate the rest of its 65,000 students as well as the remaining faculty and staff later this year.

They are currently using the email and calendar services, and will roll out Google Docs in the near future as well.

“Initially offering new e-mail accounts based on Google’s Gmail service (but retaining the “” domain) on an opt-in basis, Sannier and his team found that students were making the switch at the rate of around 300 per hour. Today, more than 40,000 ASU students and faculty have made the switch, and he expects to shut down the University’s in-house mail servers near the end of this term. Since the e-mail switch-over, Sannier has been rolling out additional applications including calendar (which users can now share online, a capability the old university system didn’t have), IM, and search. Within the next two months he expects to offer personalized home pages as well as online word-processing documents and spreadsheets based on Google Apps.

The cost to ASU: zero.”

Sam Hiser on Migrating Away from Windows and MS Office

March 16th, 2007 Benjamin Horst

Anyone familiar enough with using Microsoft Windows and Office knows that moving years of data and habits to a new platform is not easy.

That difficulty–created through decades of strategic decisions at Microsoft–is exactly why it is so important to migrate away. Microsoft’s strategy is to make it ever harder to work on any other platform, and to keep increasing their revenues by squeezing those who remain locked in to Microsoft’s products. They seem to be redoubling their efforts at monopoly control right now, in particular by tying their desktop monopoly products to new server products coming out, but right now is also a chance to escape.

An opportunity exists to switch to Open Source (whether it’s just Firefox and OpenOffice on existing Windows boxes for now, or whether it’s an OS migration to Linux) because of faltering sales of Windows Vista and Microsoft Office 2007, providing a rare chance for individuals and organizations to make a shift and get off the expensive treadmill of Microsoft’s stream of costly updates.

Sam Hiser provides a high level guide to “leaving Windows and Office.”

At the very heart of this opportunity is ODF, the OpenDocument Format, which does for typical office documents what HTML did for the web: standardizes it and gives every person and every program equal access to the real value, the data stored within.

Adopting ODF is the key to escaping Microsoft’s dungeon, and breaking down that barrier then opens up an unprecedented range of flexibility in a competitive marketplace. Hiser discusses several ways to accomplish this in his post, and has collected thoughtful comments from notable industry veterans in response (and in affirmation of his points).

Groklaw: “ISO will put Open XML on fast track unchanged”

March 15th, 2007 Benjamin Horst

Groklaw covers the recent move to put MS OOXML onto the fast track process.

After the initial indignation (there were dozens of complaints about MSOOXML not being fit as an international standard), many comments seemed to arrive at the same conclusion: MSOOXML is being put on the fast track so that in five months’ time it can be voted down and be done with. The regular track of deliberations and addressing issues just would not have been worthwhile, with so many problems in the application, and Microsoft’s refusal to compromise in any of them.

Let’s hope this turns out to be true, and that MSOOXML as a “standard” can be quickly and cleanly dispatched.

South Korean Robots

March 10th, 2007 Benjamin Horst

The New York Times reports on South Korea’s current national project: a robot in every home.

“By 2007, networked robots that, say, relay messages to parents, teach children English and sing and dance for them when they are bored, are scheduled to enter mass production. Outside the home, they are expected to guide customers at post offices or patrol public areas, searching for intruders and transmitting images to monitoring centers.

If all goes according to plan, robots will be in every South Korean household between 2015 and 2020.”

Zimbra is Rising

February 26th, 2007 Benjamin Horst

Zimbra is coming up from behind to challenge the Exchange behemoth, and it has a lot of advantages Exchange cannot match. Very interesting to me is that it plays nicely across platforms: Zimbra can be run from Linux and Mac OS X servers, and it gives equal support to lots of client apps on all three major platforms (including Evolution, Apple Mail, Thunderbird, Outlook, and its own excellent web client).

A recent review of the development process shows how the team has gone out of its way to help its users.

Zimbra comes in open source and for-pay versions that include a support contract.

How about that? Instead of submitting to MS Exchange and slowly being forced to migrate all your desktops to Windows, you can run Zimbra and use as many Mac and Linux machines as you like without sacrificing email, contact, calendar sharing, VOIP, and document management! That’s more features than Exchange offers, at a much better price (free, if you choose the OSS option).

Zimbra even includes “over the air” synching with mobile devices, but in true Zimbra fashion, you are not limited to just one mobile platform. Zimbra Mobile works with Windows Mobile, Symbian and Palm devices with no extra server needed. (Blackberry requires a little bit of extra work.)

Dell Customers Want OpenOffice

February 21st, 2007 Benjamin Horst

Computer assembler Dell has launched a new site for collecting customer feedback, called Idea Storm. (The name’s a bit hokey, but the intention is good.)

Users can submit their suggestions or ideas, and other site visitors vote on the ones they’d most like to see implemented. It’s a good way to get a company’s most passionate users really communicating with each other and with the company itself.

Unsurprisingly, this site has shown as untrue earlier claims by Dell (and other hardware makers) that there is no demand for pre-installation of Linux and open source software on the machines they sell: a user suggestion that Dell “offer the 3 top free Linux versions for free pre-installation on all Dell PCs,” has received over 62,000 votes in the past five days.

That’s cool, but something even easier to implement has come in at #2 in total votes cast: pre-installation of OpenOffice, Firefox, Thunderbird, and a bevy of other FOSS desktop applications on top of Windows. In three days, this idea has garnered over 37,000 votes.

Many other open source-related ideas have filtered to the top of the list. (While it appears an MS astroturfing campaign has begun in the comments section of these ideas, they cannot reduce the votes that have been cast in favor.)

If you’re a Dell customer, or potential customer, let them know what you want!

Jonathan Schwartz on ODF

February 20th, 2007 Benjamin Horst

Jonathan Schwartz, chief executive officer and president of Sun Microsystems, blogs about the importance of ODF:

“If you write a law or a medical history or a regulatory filing in a word processor that supports ODF today, and need to gain access to it at any point in the future, you’ll have the freedom to do so on your terms. Without being held up by an application provider. ODF is a true open standard (PDF link), adopted and implemented by a diversity of vendors (from IBM and Sun, to Google, Red Hat and now even Microsoft), and embraced by an amazing spectrum of the planet. And it’s royalty free.”

ODF has been a major project for Sun and many other contributors, but this is the first mention of it at such a high level from Sun (that I have seen).