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The StartX Files: How I Spent My Summer Vacation

Microsoft's Gimmicky New Benchmark: Word 2002

  • September 20, 2001
  • By Brian Proffitt
How I Spent My Summer Vacation

Okay, so I was a little late with my last column.

While I have been away from LinuxPlanet and Linux Today, I wasn't truly gone from Linux. Circumstances prevented me from publicly voicing my opinions on a variety of Linux-related issues this summer, so I have a bit of catching up to do.

One of the topics I have been watching with increasing interest is this debate on how Linux is or is not ready for the desktop. Granted, this debate was raging before I took my hiatus, but I have a new perspective on the situation having spent a lot of time playing around with the new Windows and Office XP products.

Windows XP has been touted as the Linux killer by some in the media, and there is no denying that the stability is much improved. I used RC2 of the Professional version for about a month on my Windows box, and the operating system's crash rate was far lower than using Windows 98 SE on the same machine. But the system did crash a few times, which is more than I can say for my SuSE installation. To be fair, this was a beta of WinXP, so I will reserve final judgment for reports from the gold version.

But let me clue you in on a few things, in case you have not seen Windows XP Professional yet: this is just Windows 2000 in a prettier package. Windows XP Home Edition is a much harder animal to classify: it's like a stumpy Win2000 lite in the same new package. And only Redmond knows what the heck Windows XP Server will look like.

There are worse things for an operating system to have than the features of Windows 2000, mind you. But Windows XP still does not get to the overall sophistication and stability of a well-built Linux box. There is little room for server functionality on this new system and the very presence of Microsoft Outlook means that the whole security issue for this platform is at risk right from the get go.

Can Linux benefit from this not-so-new platform? Sure it can. As I have mentioned before, the activation process alone is enough to get people to look at alternatives. And if Microsoft is silly enough to consider a subscription-based licensing system, then people will be looking hard at Linux.

I have heard over and over this summer that Linux is not going to be ready for people migrating away from Microsoft. This is simply not true. Anyone looking at KDE or GNOME can see that more than enough of the basic elements of a great GUI are available in these environments. The Linux desktop is ready--we just need to work on the applications base.

And that's what's really going on, isn't it? People won't commit to Linux because they are worried that their application choices will fade to (in their eyes) nearly nothing. And while we know there is a lot more than nothing available, it is hard to dispute the overwhelming number of Microsoft apps out there.

Word 2002 as a New Benchmark?

The ultimate irony is that Windows users often complain about lack of choice when referring to Linux, when a huge majority of them won't use anything but one office suite application: Office. They're not exactly exercising their choices, are they?

I also had a chance to look at Office XP this summer, and I have to admit, I was less impressed with its changes than the ones I saw in Windows XP. There seems to be a point of diminishing returns on putting together features in an office suite application, and Office XP seems to be rapidly approaching it.

I wanted to take a good hard look at Word 2002 (the version found in Office XP) to see what the new gimmicks were in that application. After all, if sales for this suite take off, then it will be the expectation of many for me to compare Linux word processors to it rather than other versions of Word.

I know that many have made excellent arguments that we should not compare any Linux application to any Microsoft app, and just let the Linux program stand on its own merits. Personally, I agree with these arguments. Unfortunately, I also know we do not live in a vacuum and the comparisons between Word and Linux word processors are inevitable.

With this in mind, I have some serious doubts about raising Word 2002 to the level of a benchmark. For one thing, there is simply not a lot of new stuff here. The most impressive change (for me) was the improvement of comment and collaborative text displays. This is an area that all Linux word processors could improve upon, and Word 2002 has made some real progress in clarifying how to collaboratively edit documents.

But beyond that, the extra features seemed, well, gimmicky. So who cares if the Assistants are banished? (They're not.) Smart tags? Those evil little things will be gone in the next rev anyway, it seems.

Then there's the price tag. Upgrading to just Office XP Standard is a whopping $239 US, with the prices going up from there. Sooner or later, this exorbitant pricing that comes along every couple of years or so is going to bite Microsoft on the ass.

Frankly, I don't think there has ever been a better time for Windows users to really examine Linux as a viable alternative. Because while the XP product line is certainly snazzy, there has not been a great stride ahead in operating system technology. Any of the major distributions make more progress when they do a major point release.

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