Thursday, June 24, 2010

What's the deal with .docx documents?

The latest gag from the folks in Redmond is to try to force us all to buy new software, when the old stuff is still working just fine, thank you.

For years, many people have been using Microsoft WORD to create documents. WORD gained a stranglehold on the Windows word processing market from WordPerfect (which previously had a stranglehold on the DOS word processing market) when WordPerfect made the colossal error of changing the function keys in their version 6.0 for DOS.

When WordPerfect did this, many people got pissed off that they paid good money for an "upgrade" which was nearly useless. And as Windows started to dominate computing, people just found it easier to convert to WORD. The rest, as they say, is history. Word Perfect is all but defunct.

And history is about to repeat itself. We are on the brink of another change in computer operating systems. Or I should say, a move away from operating system dominance of the computer market. Operating online "Cloud" applications may change the way we think about computers. In the future, you need only a good computer, a mediocre operating system (Windows fits the bill there) and a browser. The whole concept of buying software and "installing" it in Windows may be a thing of the past.

And it already is happening. Remember Turbotax? It used to be a program you bought (you still can, but why?). Today, you can go online to the Turbotax website and run your taxes there. You pay when you file, and it really rocks. No need to buy discs, install them, struggle with installation incompatibilities, worry about crashed hard drives, or whatever. I can access my tax data from any computer, anywhere in the world, if it has an internet connection.

The Cloud promises to be powerful in many ways and will be a huge incentive to move away from operating-system dependent programming.

(The term "cloud" by the way, comes from the numerous powerpoint applications, patent applications, and other diagrams that programmers use, where they show various computer components connected to each other via the Internet. In most of these documents, by habit, the Internet was shown as a hazy cloud. The term "Cloud" took off and now is shorthand for anything done online, versus on your hard drive. Hence the term "Cloud Computing").

Just as WordPerfect screwed the pooch right as Windows started to dominate, Microsoft is doing the same thing with WORD. They have introduced a new version of WORD, as part of Office 2010, and a new format for saved files - .docx

So, overnight, you start getting e-mails with attached documents from folks, that are in .docx format. You try to open them with your trusty (and entirely functional) WORD 2000, and it says "file format not supported".

A neat gambit to sell software, right? Well, it will backfire in a big way. First of all, anyone running WORD 2010 can save their documents in the older format. Just ask the person sending the document to re-send it in .doc format. Make THEM feel like the fool!

Second, you can download, for FREE, the OpenOffice suite which will read and create .docx files. Jam a stick in Bill Gate's eye and do this, instead of paying $200 for Office 2010!

Microsoft's attempt to scam money from users by making an arbitrary change to file formats is a desperate act from a company that is seeing revenues flatten and its product line frankly threatened. Microsoft has only been successful when it has monopoly powers. When it tries to enter competitive markets (Xbox, Zune, Mobile Phones) it gets its ass handed to it on a platter.

Supposedly Xbox has yet to make dollar 1 for Microsoft, with the company losing money on each unit. Meanwhile, Nintendo makes a bundle on the less sophisticated but easier to use Wii. Like General Motors, MS products have a committee-designed feel to them - unnecessarily complicated, expensive, and clunky - trying to appeal to all markets and all people, and ending up satisfying none.

You can't blame Microsoft for trying. Computing has not really changed much in the last decade. Windows Vista turned out to be a monumental blunder, with most consumers preferring the earlier XP versions. In short, we didn't really need an improved operating system, as once we have our computers booted up and Mozilla Firefox surfing the net, we were done. All we need our computer to do for us is store some files and print things out. And storing files is increasingly moving online, while printing documents is becoming an archaic practice.

So the need for a particular "compatible" operating system is largely a thing of the past. As files and documents more and more move to universal web-friendly formats, such as HTML or .PDF (particularly the latter), the use of Word Processing formats becomes more and more quaint.

(In fact, for the most part, when I create a WORD document these days, I end up "printing" it as a .PDF file using the CutePDF shareware, as recommended by the Patent Office). You can send a PDF file to someone else and you know how it will appear on their computer, regardless of operating system. And there is no annoying "Metadata" which could later trip you up if the user is smart enough to access it. In short, sending files in .doc or .docx will be a thing of the past in short order in any event).

So when in doubt, try to force an "upgrade" on your customer base and see if you can flog some revenue out of it. If Office 2010 used the same file format as before, no one would bother to buy it. But when you create a new, incompatible file format, well, it forces many folks to switch.

The problem is, many will look at this as an opportunity to switch to OpenOffice, Cloud computing, or some other alternative to the Microsoft Mediocrity. In other words, the genius at Microsoft who thought this up is really screwing the pooch.

Microsoft will initially make some money from this, as many people make the mistake of actually buying the new software. But many more will look at this an opportunity to try alternatives, such as OpenOffice, and find out, just as WordPefect users did back in 1995, that the alternative was better.

Long term, Office 2010 and its marketing strategy is the death knell for MS-WORD.