Office vs Drive: Some thoughts

Office vs DriveLike many schools around the world, our school has used the Microsoft Office trio of Word, Excel and PowerPoint for many years. Most of us know Word, Excel and PowerPoint well enough for our daily tasks. Although some of us might be willing to admit we probably don’t use it to its full capacity, we’ve been using it for so long that we don’t stop to think much about what, if any, alternatives might be out there.

Don’t get me wrong, Microsoft Office is an amazing piece of software. Like you, I’ve grown up with it and watched it evolve over many versions and seen lots of features get added over the years. If you really know what you’re doing with Word, PowerPoint or Excel, you can make documents that are quite amazing in their complexity.

And then along comes GoogleDocs, or Drive as we now call it. From humble beginnings as an online word processor called Writely, the Google Drive system has also evolved and changed and grown over the years. Sure, it’s not the full-blown productivity monster that power-users of Microsoft Office might be used to, but for the great majority of users it has everything they need. I like to think of it as having 90% of the features needed by 90% of the users.  It has most of the stuff you need, and not a lot of the stuff you don’t.  One benefit of this is that it’s far simpler to use.

It would be a little foolish to just think in terms of one over the other. Each has benefits and advantages, as well as limitations and drawbacks. But each is incredibly powerful in its own way. Which is why we still provide you with both.

So when do you choose Microsoft office and when do you choose Google Drive?  Here’s just a few thoughts on that.

In general, I use Google Docs if I want to…

  • create documents really quickly and easily. I spend most of my computer-using day in my web browser with Gmail, Calendar and Drive open in tabs. Because I’m already there, I find it hugely convenient to be able to create new documents in just one click.
  • keep track of the documents I make. I make a LOT of documents each day. The fact that I don’t need to think about where and how I save them, and then being able to get back to them really quickly is a huge timesaver for me.
  • work on a “living document”. For documents that grow and evolve over time, that have edits and updates regularly applied to them, there really is no better choice than using Drive. Just think about how many documents you create that are works in progress. Probably most of them.
  • create a document can be distributed to others without versioning issues. Having a single master version of the document that is always up to date, while still being able to share it with others, is a huge deal!
  • collaborate on a document with others. Being able to work together on a document with others, in real time, regardless of where they might be, is simply amazing and an absolute game-changer in how we can work together to get things done.
  • work on more than one machine. I have a couple of computers at work, a couple at home, and a whole lot of tablets and phone devices. Having my work saved in Drive has made it completely irrelevant as to which machine I choose to work on.

I would use Microsoft Word if I wanted to…

  • Have very specific control over layout and formatting options. Having those options is really nice but I do find that for the majority of the documents I produce I really don’t need 287 font choices, garish page borders, complex tables inside tables and so on. But when I do need such things, Word provides them.
  • Lock down the final copy of a document in order to distribute it to “normal” users. I’d still probably create, edit and evolve the document in Drive, but then I have the option of exporting it out as a Word file at the end if needed.

I’ve always found that the only way that I can effectively evaluate new technologies is to use them regularly to do real work. So when our school moved to Google Docs over a year ago I figured I would try to move everything I usually did in Microsoft Office over the Google Drive, just to see how feasible it really was to work in that environment. I realised I might have to tweak a few habits and accept a few compromises along the way, but I wanted to see if it was doable.

The answer surprised even me. Not only do I find it perfectly feasible to work primarily in the Drive environment, but I can’t actually imagine going back to do it any other way. Seriously. The “compromises” that I thought I’d have to make have been so minimal, while the increased productivity and satisfaction from just being able to get things done faster, easier and more effectively have been enormous.

I won’t be removing Microsoft from my computer anytime soon, because Office it’s still a kind of defacto standard for documents and I never know when I really might need to use it. But I have to tell you, I haven’t needed to even open Microsoft Word now for about 8 months, something that I’ve found both surprising and liberating.

For many years, Microsoft Office was the right tool for the job, primarily because it was the only tool for the job. And the problem with that is when your only tool is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail. While Office is certainly still a powerful piece of software, it’s often overkill, or worse, it lacks the features that might actually be useful to you.  With Drive, you now have some interesting alternatives. Take the time to evaluate both systems. And next time you reach for a word processor, or a spreadsheet, or a presentation, stop and ask yourself if you’re making that choice out of habit or whether you’re really reaching for the tool most suited for what you want to achieve.

Digigirlz

A few weeks ago, I got an email at work advertising a free technology event for teenage girls run called DigiGirlz.  It was being run by Microsoft Australia and it’s aim was to promote careers in the IT industry for girls.  It’s a good idea. Women are far too under-represented in IT in Australia (and probably other parts of the world too) so I’m all for supporting any initiative that can help attract smart, creative women into the world of technology.

The event sounded like it would actually be pretty interesting.  It was being held at Microsoft’s main Australian Offices at North Ryde and offered a chance to meet some of the inspirational women who work at Microsoft to find out what they do, and to have a chat with several Australian universities about the sorts of career paths that IT might offer. There was also a couple of hands-on workshops in Microsoft’s Photosynth and DeepZoom technologies, as well as a chance to to see the new Project Natal gaming platform. It all sounded pretty interesting to me!  However, we don’t offer any IT courses at PLC (that’s right, none!  Something I’d like to see change!) so I wasn’t quite sure who I’d ask to attend the event.

After a phone call to RSVP for the day we were offered 15 places at the event, so, using the Feedback Module in Moodle to collect details of interested students, I offered it to our Year 10 students on a first-in, best-dressed basis.  13 students responded positively and when the day arrived (March 24 – which was Ada Lovelace Day of course!) we all bundled into the PLC minibus and made our way up to North Ryde.

The folk at Microsoft went out of their way to try and give us a great experience and provide a range of things to see and do.  They gave each student a goodie-bag with information, fed them with snacks and drinks, and then put them into groups and rotated them through the 4 sessions.  We had a short address by a very dynamic female executive who works at Microsoft Australia and a few shorter addresses by several others.

The students then went off to their four workshop sessions, which they rotated through for the next couple of hours.  Overall, I thought it was a useful experience, although I had a few suggestions for how it might be improved for next time…

  • While it was a lovely gesture to feed the students before they started the sessions, getting teenage girls all revved up on soft drinks and chips just before you then ask them to sit still and listen for the next few hours was not a great idea.
  • The discussion sessions with both the women from Microsoft and also the university people were informative, but too long. Kids don’t want to just sit and listen like that, at least not for that long!
  • The hands on session in Photosynth and DeepZoom was pretty good, although there seemed to be a few technical hiccups in the session I saw.  I’m still not really sure what to make of these technologies, and beyond a mild cool-factor, I wonder just how useful they really are.
  • The biggest disappointment was the session about the Project Natal platform.  Natal is the next generation of the XBox 360, and takes gaming to a new level by enabling natural interaction without wires or controllers.  It’s been floating about on YouTube for a while now, but I was really keen to actually see it in action.  Alas, all we got to actually see of Project Natal was a PowerPoint with a few videos (the very same ones that are on YouTube)  Although we were told that Natal was getting close to release for this year, there was no working demo to play with.  Despite the fact that we were being told about Natal by former FragDoll, Ashley Jenkins (who totally knows her stuff when it comes to games!) we didn’t see any live game demos at all.  I thought this was a big mistake by Microsoft, and I thought it odd that a product apparently so close to release would not be given a demo.  It would have been good (even expected!) to see Project Natal in action, but even without the live Natal demo I thought we would have at least had some real live gaming action with Ashley, perhaps showing us what a really serious gamer is capable of on the regular X-Box platform.  Instead, we saw a PowerPoint with a few product roadmap slides and a brief exposé of Ashley’s gamer heros. To be honest, I was looking forward to this session the most, but I thought what we were shown was a bit lame under the circumstances.
  • It might be good in future events to include some sort of hands-on programming experience – kept fairly simple of course – as there would be many students who have never had a go at programming a computer before.

Overall though, despite these little criticisms it was a worthwhile experience and the feedback from students that I saw was politely positive (although I felt it could have been much more hands-on, practical and faster-paced to hold the full engagement of the students).  PowerPoints and roundtable talkfests might be fine in the corporate boardroom but this style of presentation misses the mark somewhat with most teenage girls. I know that quite a few people mentioned this in their evaluation forms, so I’m sure that next year will be even better. 

Thanks to Microsoft and especially Catherine Eibner for running the event.  (And thanks also for the XBox 360 raffle prizes, one of which was won by one of our students.  You were very popular for that one Catherine!)

Steve Ballmer – Brash, Passionate, but definitely not Stupid

There was an interesting story in today’s news about Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer’s outburst at an iPhone-carrying Microsoft employee.  Apparently, Ballmer was addressing a company gathering when the employee pulled his iPhone out to take a picture of him.  Ballmer went nuts.  He grabbed the phone, ridiculed the employee publicly, then pretended to stomp on the device.  You can read the full story over on Engadget.  There is even an alleged photo taken as Ballmer reached for the device.

Ballmer is an interesting character.  Certainly there is plenty of evidence on YouTube of his over-the-top antics as he revs up Microsofties with his ranting and raving, screaming and yelling.  And who could forget his chant of “Developers! Developers! Developers!” at a gathering of software developers, as he tried to make the point that Microsoft’s success was partly due to its army of, well, developers.  It’s even spawned a remix version.

Even back on the very early days of Microsoft, Ballmer was seen dressed up as a cheesy salesperson, doing the whole “How much would you expect to pay?” spiel as he promoted Windows 1.0, throwing away dollar bills in an over-the-top display of sales showmanship.  If you don”t know much about Steve Ballmer or where he fits into the Microsoft story, I’d recommend you watch the excellent video series by Robert X Cringely, “Triumph of the Nerds“.  It’s a wonderful record of the first 20 years of the personal computer revolution, and if you call yourself a geek, you absolutely should see it.

I got thinking about Ballmer as I read through the comments on the Engadget blog.  One person made the comment that Ballmer was stupid. Another came to his defence, noting that Ballmer was overly brash and passionate, but not stupid.  The Sydney Morning Herald even ran a story with a psychologist analysing Ballmer’s crazy antics, concluding that Ballmer isn’t crazy, just an attention seeker.

I actually met Ballmer once. I was at a fairly intimate Microsoft function in Sydney for the launch of Office 2003, and I managed to sit in the very front row directly in front of Ballmer as he gave his address.  He spoke to the small crowd in a very reserved tone, talking earnestly about the development of the new software, and giving some background into the challenges and successes of getting it to market. I was actually quite impressed with Ballmer, and was struck by his obvious passion and belief in what he was doing. When he finished his talk, he asked if there were any questions, so I stuck my hand up and asked one.  To be honest, I thought it was a bit of a curly question and I was sort of hoping to stump him a little.  To the contrary, Ballmer looked right at me and fired back a detailed and well-thought out answer, explaining how Microsoft was addressing the issue I’d raised.  He outlined three aspects to his answer and confidently explained each one.  There was no fumbling or dodging the question. He knew what he was talking about and clearly had given a lot of thought to the issues I asked about. I was actually a little surprised at just how well he responded, and at the quality of his answer.

I was impressed not only by the clarity and detail of his answers, but also by the fact that, as CEO of Microsoft, the intricacies of how the software works and a detailed answer to the question I asked (which was related to how Microsoft was addressing the issues faced by software training providers and how it was coming up with ways of making it easier for users to learn to use new software versions) were not typically the sorts of things you’d expect the CEO of the company to be so close to.  Ballmer is a hands-on kind of guy and he’s clearly passionate about Microsoft. And he knows his stuff.  As the Engadget commenter remarked, he may be brash and passionate, but he is clearly not stupid.

I’ve seen the thoughtful, intelligent and focussed side of Steve Ballmer, and I’ve seen the outrageous, wild and crazy side of Steve Ballmer.  Perhaps the yelling and screaming, the running around the stage like a sweaty crazy person, the (pretend) iPhone smashing behaviour, the silly comments about the iPhone, the blunt denigration of anything non-Microsoft, is all a bit distracting from just how intelligent Ballmer can really be.

Most people who read this blog will know that I’m not much of a Microsoft fan, but as the Engadget commenter says, “You know, I like Ballmer – he’s brash and in your face but he believes in what he does and has the guts to be passionate about it. I respect that.”

Me too.  Stay crazy Steve.

Winning the Browser Wars

Browser ShareBecause I was doing a bit of blog navel-gazing tonight writing that last post, I decided to take a quick look at the site stats just to see what’s happening there. One of the figures that really jumped out at me was the one shown in this graph.

As you can see here, the majority of browser share is now coming from Firefox! Of course this is only just the stats from my blog, and being an educational blog with a predominantly teacher audience I guess there may be a disproportionate number of users who don’t use Internet Explorer, but I was still surprised to see Firefox edging out IE. Not so long ago IE had no competition at all, then Firefox came along and started to gradually steal market share, but last stats I read still showed it with a fair way to go before it could claim to have a greater share than IE. Based on these numbers, Internet Explorer 6 and 7 combined only account for 38% of the traffic! That’s a huge drop and won’t be making Microsoft happy at all.

As a Flock user myself (which is based on the Gecko rendering engine in Firefox) I’m pleased to see the gain. By the way, I exclude my own visits to the site to try not to skew the numbers.

Not even scratching the Surface

Ok, I must admit I’m impressed by Microsoft’s new table-like project called Surface, which Bill G has been showing off lately. It’s a multitouch capable computer that works in a table form factor. There are some obvious uses of it, like restaurants, casinos, etc where transactions take place largely on a table. I don’t know how commercially successful it will be but I think it’s a pretty cool technology!

Watch the video and check it out for yourself…  I particularly like the way it interacts with devices like digital cameras and PDAs.  I presume those devices would have to have some form of wireless interconnectivity such as Bluetooth or Wifi?  Very cool though!

[kml_flashembed movie="http://www.youtube.com/v/5yJ3x9XNFK8" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]

Raising your Browse

You might think that your world of browsing the web begins and ends with that little blue “e” logo on your desktop, but you might be surprised at just how many other (better?) alternatives exist out there. Over the years I’ve probably had a play with just about every web browser I can lay my hands on, but I thought it might be interesting to talk about some of the others.

Browser life began in 1992 with the granddaddy of them all, Mosiac. However, after the famous “browser wars” between Netscape and Microsoft many years ago, it seemed like Internet Explorer was destined to be the only browsing kid on the block. Of course, for the alternative thinkers amongst us, there were some notable options like the wonderful Opera browser which just got better and better with every version, but for all intents and purposes it appeared that Microsoft had won the browser battle with the ubiquitous Internet Explorer. Was it a better browser? Probably not.

Like so many technologies, the race does not always go to the swiftest, strongest or most technically able, but to the one that gets the marketing edge over its opposition. Once this marketing edge begins to form a positive feedback loop the adoption rate starts to feed itself and it gets very difficult to justify an alternative, even if the dominant technology is not necessarily the best technology. Because Microsoft had the ability to bundle IE with its Windows operating system it was in a unique, and many say unfairly anticompetitive, position to force its browser onto users who didn’t even question this imposition. There was a browser built in to Windows, it was free, there was a shortcut on the desktop, so why not use it? Add to this the fact that Microsoft “extended” the ability of IE with a whole bunch of proprietary technologies such as Sharepoint, and people slowly got locked into the idea that the web needed IE to work properly…

Of course, Netscape never really went away. In a stroke of inspired genius, or possibly desperation, Netscape decided to give away the source code for its browser to the Open Source community and gave birth to the Mozilla Foundation. With a global volunteer workforce of dedicated programmers and engineers, the end result – Firefox – has evolved into what many believe is the world’s best web browser. With a sleek and lean codebase, sensible security features, plenty of extensibility and customisation options with Add-Ins and Themes, Firefox has plenty of good stuff to talk about. It’s fast, it’s powerful and it’s free, both as in speech and as in beer. Firefox has also forked off other into interesting browser projects such and Camino and Flock.

There are other players too, like Apple’s Safari, itself built on KHTML code, which forms the basis of KDE’s Konqueror, another browser with an Open Source Linux heritage. Using a variation of the KHTML source code, Apple developed a rendering engine called Webkit and this in turn spawned more browsers such as Shiira, OmniWeb, Sunrise, wKiosk, and Bumpercar. Webkit also forms the basis of a diverse range of other related web tools such as Adium, Growl, SubEthaEdit and Vienna.

As you can see, there are plenty to choose from, and every browser has its own distinct features or tools that its creator feels make it the “best” browser. In particular, this is true of Flock. I looked at this browser a while ago, but as so often happens when you look at lots of things quickly, its easy to overlook the obvious benefits. Flock is built on the core Firefox engine, so its fast and stable, but it also has a few added features which make it a pretty interesting alternative for anyone who does a lot of work with Web 2.0 tools. The Flock website describes it like this…

Flock is an amazing web browser built on fast and secure Mozilla technologies. View and share photos with an innovative new photo bar in the browser. Subscribe to your favorite websites to get the freshest content automatically, in summaries that are easy to save and blog. Search more quickly, more effectively, and more richly with the innovative Flock Search Toolbar. Download the Flock beta and you’ll be spreading the word that there’s a new way to web.

The Social Web Browser.Some of the neat things I’ve discovered in Flock (thanks to a chat I had with Judy O’Connell the other day) are the ways in which it integrates with services such as Flickr. Photos stored in your Flickr or Photobucket accounts can be easily accessed and added to blog posts, and with many new Nokia phones now having direct Flickr integration, this could get pretty interesting. Flock also has some pretty innovative features for storing photos or snippets of information that you find while browsing the Web, so you can reuse them later. The inbuilt search tools dig through not only the Web’s major search engines like Google and Yahoo! but also your own local bookmarks, giving and added richness to searches. It comes with a very easy to use inbuilt RSS feedreader, shared online bookmarks to del.icio.us or Shadows, and a neat blog integration feature that let’s you select any text on a webpage to instantly create a post about it and add it to your blog… (in fact, this post you’re reading right now began life as an experiment in using that very feature). For those times when you want to blog about other stuff you find online, Flock appears to have some incredibly useful features.

So check it out… if you’re a serious blogger, Flock looks like a very interesting alternative!

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Life in the Office

I have spent a large chunk of my computing life in Microsoft Office.  As a teacher, I think it’s hard to avoid.  Tools like Word, PowerPoint and Excel form a sizable basis of the sorts of tools we use every day to create and present stuff to our kids.  I even have a few “qualifications” in Office, from a bunch of Brainbench certificates, to an International Computer Driving Licence, and even a few units from the Microsoft Office Specialist certification program.  I mean, if you’re going to spend a lot of time in these apps, you may as well know how to use them properly, right?

I recently had to create a few teaching resources using Microsoft Office 2007.  Office 07 is a fairly radical rethink of the interface for the Office suite.  The trouble with previous versions of Office is that they had so many features and tools that most users never found them.  Many were buried so deep in the interface that the average user simply never stumbled across them.  I even had an semi-heated discussion with a guy at a technology trade show once who was telling me that certain features would be really neat to have in Excel, and when I told him that everything he was wanting was already there, he argued back that I was wrong… these tools simply didn’t exist in Excel.  I showed him, he was amazed that he had overlooked them.  even though he considered himself a “power user”, he had never found some of these must-have features, some of which I thought were pretty obvious.  After I showed him they were there, he was a happy camper again.

So the goal in Office 07 was to bring as many of the available tools right out to the front of the interface.  That’s a big ask, since there are literally hundreds of tools and features in there, and while there will still be people who criticise the new interface for being too cluttered, too different to the previous versions, too whatever, I must say I think they’ve done a pretty good job of taming a rather big animal.  I found the new Office easy to learn (though I will confess to being a power user of Office software to start with) and the new Ribbon UI seemed pretty intuitive to me.  I’m really looking forward to see what they do with the Mac version

The only thing about Office that is irksome is the price.  At around AUD$1150 for a full copy, it’s just way too overpriced, and it  is little wonder that piracy is such a huge problem in the home market.  Fortunately, there is a Student and Teacher edition (which is basically the same as the full version) that can be had for a few hundred dollars, and there is even a promotion happening at the moment over at It’s Not Cheating, where Australian university students can buy a copy for only $75.  Not a bad deal, and probably well worth it for a clear, piracy-free, conscience.  Makes you wonder about the sort of profit margins in the software though when you see these sorts of discounts being offered.  I guess Bill became the worlds richest person for a reason…

The other interesting development in the Office space is Google’s recent announcement to add a presentation module to the already existing word processor and spreadsheet modules in Google Docs.  Sure, it won’t have all the bells and whistles that MS Office has, but like I said, most users never use the more advanced features anyway.  For the majority of users, if they can type and format a document, calculate some numbers or keep a list in a spreadsheet, and do a basic presentation for an audience, that’s most of their computing needs right there.  Add in the Gmail and Google calendar features, and Google Docs is starting to look like an interesting proposition.  It also has two nice extra features… it can enable online collaboration on documents, and of course it is free.  Free is good.  Free is hard to beat.  At school, we just renewed our Microsoft licensing agreement for the year and it cost us about $18,000.  That’s every year.  As I say, free is good, and Google Docs is starting to look very attractive, especially now you can even brand it with your own domain name using Google Apps for your Domain.  I’m sure Open Office and some of the other open source office stuff is also worth a more serious look these days.

The downside of Google Docs of course is that it requires a user to be online all the time, with a fairly fast connection if it is to be at all usable.  But that’s becoming more the norm, and is probably not a big issue.  The flip side of that is that it makes all your documents available online, anywhere, anytime, which can certainly be a good thing in a Web 2.0 world.

For me, I will keep using Office for now because I do tend to regularly tap into many of its more advanced features.  But I can see a day in the not too distant future where even I might start to seriously rethink my attitude to the alternatives.

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