- The Washington Times - Monday, February 5, 2007

For most of the past week, I’ve worked without what I used to think was essential software from Microsoft Corp.

No Microsoft Office 2007, or even 2003. No Word, Excel, PowerPoint or Outlook. Only an occasional use of Internet Explorer 7 and the Windows XP operating system was a part of my Microsoft “diet.”

During my time away from Microsoft’s applications, I depended on the 2.0 “beta” version of Mozilla Thunderbird (an e-mail program) and OpenOffice 2.1 (a replacement productivity suite, which competes quite nicely with Microsoft Office). My main daily tasks are e-mail and word processing, so I was able to do rather well with these items.

Windows XP came on the computer I was testing, the Lenovo Corp. ThinkPad X60. And Internet Explorer is free for the downloading, if it hadn’t already been installed on the computer.

What was interesting was not only that I was able to function, and pretty nicely, but also what this might portend for Microsoft’s future.

Last week, after all, the firm formally launched Windows Vista, its newest operating system, and Office 2007, a productivity suite that I happen to like.

But would I like both products enough to spend between $400 and $1,000 to get the necessary upgrades (depending on version purchased), let alone any hardware enhancements (more RAM, or a larger hard disk drive) to do this?

And what happens if I’m not the only customer who feels this way? These questions — and others — would impact not only Microsoft’s financial picture but also the user world out there.

Today, many of us count on Microsoft Word as a lingua franca of document exchange. If we both can send and receive documents as Word files, we can work together in 99.99 percent of computer-based situations.

But with Word 2007, the “.docx” format, which is based on the Extensible Markup Language, throws a wrinkle into this: Users of older versions of Word will need a “reader” software to handle “.docx” files, as will users of Word on the Mac. Microsoft has promised such software will arrive quickly.

As far as operating systems go, I suppose I could have replaced Windows XP with Canonical Ltd.’s Ubuntu distribution of Linux, which is available free at www.ubuntu.com. However, because XP already was installed, and because this computer has a fingerprint reader as part of its security system, I stayed with Windows.

While I did well, overall, without the Microsoft applications, would I want to do this all the time? I’m not sure. Thunderbird, available at www.mozilla.com, is an excellent e-mail client, though it lacks the calendar features and advanced contact management of Microsoft Outlook, items which are important in business.

OpenOffice is a good suite, yet I’m betting that most of us who get to see, and work with, Office 2007, as I did with the beta version, will suffer from “applications envy.” The menu format of Office 2007 is for me rather compelling, delivering a cleaner, crisper interface. The new Word 2007’s tools make it easier to do more things with a document quickly, creating impressive formats.

There’s also the support factor: Even “free” software can have glitches, and with Microsoft’s paid applications, there’s someone you can go to for help. That can be critical in larger enterprise situations.

The bottom line: Taking a “vacation” from Microsoft’s newest products may sound appealing, but on the road to free software nirvana, there may be some speed bumps.

• Read Mark Kellner’s Tech blog at www.washingtontimes.com/blogs.

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