How long could you go without Microsoft Office?

I’ve recently got a new laptop (more on that in another post) and have to install the usual selection of software to get productive with it.

As an experiment / not having enough time I’ve decided to go without installing Microsoft Office. I do , however have the excellent (and free) OpenOffice installed, and use Google Documents and Spreadsheets on a regular basis.

Why would I do this?

  • It’s not about the money (as I have a copy of the Office disks paid for).
  • It’s not about the money (2) as I’ll also happily pay for something that gives me value over the free version (e.g. my subscription to LinkedIn).
  • It’s not really about getting locked into one supplier who can manipulate me at will (see the Microsoft Word 2007 File Format Conversion post) however annoying that may be.

No, it’s more about the features; with OpenOffice, I can save Word documents as a PDF , which (in my option) looks far more professional when sending to a (prospective) client.

Another reason is that as an (IT) consultant, I tend to ‘deploy’ on client sites on a regular basis, often with a bare machine to start with. Open software means that I have a ‘toolbox’ I can use to get up and running quickly , no fuss needed to raise purchase orders to buy software.

OS as alternative Logo

If you’re interested in this approach, the Open Source Alternative site is worth checking out. It’s not dogmatic; in fact it’s pretty even handed, listing commercial and open software for pretty much everything that you might need to do with a PC or Mac (business ,communications, graphics, security etc). That’s on top of the alternatives to Word, Excel , Powerpoint and Outlook.

It’s all about choice. Some are better , some or worse ; It’s up to you to decide which one works best for you. You’re a mug if you don’t know what the choice is.

Update 26th August: I lasted just over two weeks without installing Microsoft Office. Nothing bad with Open Office, just Microsoft playing around with Office 2007 file format. I have an important client that sent me something in Word 2007. The sort of client that I can’t (yet) ask to save in a different format and resend. Open Office does not (yet) open Office 2007 files, so I had to drop back to the Microsoft version (and install some filters) to be able to read it.

Microsoft Word 2007 file format – the same bad old tricks

Here’s the good news – Microsoft is using a new file format for Office 2007 , which is due out shortly. It’s fairly simple – just text with tags (aka XML), zipped up to make it smaller. For example a 5Mb Word file shrinks down to 10% of it’s size in the old format.
Office Logo

Here’s the bad news – Microsoft is up to the same old tricks in the hope of forcing people to upgrade to a newer version of office. The new format cannot be read by the versions of Word, Excel or Powerpoint that most people have installed on their machines. By default , the new version of Office saves in the incompatible format, so eventually most people will be pestered into buying the new copy just to save them the embarassment of having to ask

Can you send that file again, but save it as the older version of Word?

Not a line that I’d want to say to important client. A friend of mine finds himself in that predicament. How do you convert Office 2007 files into ones that Word 2000 / Word 2003 can read. So far I’ve tried the following to help him out.

  1. Used Google’s online Documents and Spreadsheets. No joy – which is surprising , given that the new format is (techically) easier to read. Perhaps something to do with software patents?
  2. Tried the excellent (and free) Office clone – OpenOffice. No joy – even more surprising given that Microsoft seems to have ripped off the idea for the new format from OpenOffice in the first place.
  3. I’m now trying the ‘Microsoft Office Compatibility Pack‘ which promises to solve the problem for older versions of Word.

Watch this space.


Number 3 (the pack from Microsoft) works. Even more importantly , it allows you to save into the new format. However , not everybody is going to know / be bothered to install this large (27mb) download.For a change this important, why isn’t it installed automatically as part of windows update?

I’ve only tried this for Microsoft Word, but it should be able to convert from Excel 2007 into Excel 2003 and Excel 2000 as well.

I expect OpenOffice and Google docs to catch up with this fairly shortly. That is , if they can get around the legal tricks that Microsoft are playing with the new format.

Google Spreadsheets Mean the end of Java

Or to be more accurate ‘Google Spreadsheets mean the end of Java as we know it’.
Google Spreadsheets Logo
Think about this. Who pays your wages Mr Java-Developer-who-has-just-had-a-couple-of-years-at-the-top-of-the-pile? Clients, or if you’re in a larger organisation , the business folks (i.e.’internal’ clients). Do you think any of them care about Java? Do any of them know what Java is? All they want is to get things done, quickly , and with as few mistakes as possible.

These business people would be happy to run their organisations on Spreadsheets. Do you remember the cartoon where Dilbert convinced the pointy haired boss that he could fly the plane using Excel? There’s more than a element of truth to this. I know of at least one US Fortune 100 company that (until recently) conducted most of it’s operations on little more than Microsoft Office and duct-tape. It worked, not very well, but it worked.

Until now , the next line would be ‘Excel (or any other type of Spreadsheet) is not secure / scalable / sharable / not web friendly’. That was until Google launched their Docs and Speadsheets. It’s an online version of Office with some spreadsheet functionality. Play with it a bit and you’ll see that there’s plenty missing. But this being Google , I’m willing to put good money on

  • (a) new features rolled out (think steamroller) and
  • (b) These Spreadsheets being massivly scalable / secure / sharable.

This being Google, there is also an API (developer page here). It’s got massive holes in it (e.g. you can’t yet use it to create a new spreadsheet). But when Microsoft bring out their version of online spreadsheets (and they will) not only will they clone the Google API (to get market share), they’ll need to go one further and introduce new features / remove the usage restrictions in order to compete.

So, secure, scalable, sharble online spreadsheets are here to stay. So lets take a look at Mr. (or Ms.) Pointy haired boss thinking about their new project:

  1. Hmm, I think we need to be able to gather which health plans our employees are enrolled in.
  2. OK, I’ll throw together a spreadsheet to show people what I want
  3. Before I’ll give to our friendly Java developer and let him ‘do’ a website from it.
    Soon I’ll just share this on Google.
  4. Great , Loads of people are now using it, I’ll just the (Ruby / PHP / Insert other language here) guy to add one or two extra features.
  5. Most Excellent. Why don’t we spin this off as a Web 2 company and sell it to EBay??

There you have it, Massively scalable , Highly secure websites (see Google Authentication API), without needing to know anything about EJB, JMX , JBoss, JDBC or any of the hard won knowledge that us Enterprise Java Developers have built up over the last 7-8 years. I’m exaggerating, but not much.

What do you think? Is Enterprise Java dead, or is Web 2 just another boost and a slightly different way of doing things for us Java people?

Other Java Posts from Technology in Plain English

Some other notes:

This article was originally published on the O’Reilly books OnJava Website.