New software

Using the latest software may not be the greatest way to go.

As a computer nerd, I hold this truth to be self-evident:

All new software contains bugs and design flaws

Thus, from a defensive computing standpoint, the latest is never the greatest. Someone who depends on his or her computer, in a serious way, is always best served by avoiding software that has just been released. With that as a backdrop, here are some thoughts as to what this means to you, in terms of current software choices.

Mac OS X Leopard 10.5

For one thing, it means don't buy a Macintosh computer--at least not now. I have nothing against Apple or Macintosh computers. People whose opinion I trust who use both Macs and Windows all say Macs are better. Fine. But the newly released Leopard is too new to trust. If you can get a Mac with Tiger installed, fine.

With Leopard, Apple has shown it is a typical software company, meaning it can't be trusted to release reliable software. The initial version of Leopard seemed like a beta. Problems with two features in particular generated a lot of bad publicity--the firewall and the Time Machine backup program. Both are brand new and featured more than their share of bugs and design flaws. This is not to pick on Apple in particular, it is just the latest example of the self-evident truth about new software.

ZoneAlarm

I like the ZoneAlarm firewall and have been using it constantly for many years, despite griping about it. My gripes have decreased as the product has matured because the basic firewall has not been drastically overhauled.

ZoneAlarm (just the firewall, not the whole software suite) is now at version 7, specifically, the fourth release (7.0.408.000) of version 7. I mention the release number because ZoneLabs (the original company behind ZoneAlarm, which is now part of Check Point) also showed itself challenged at quality assurance. Every new version of ZoneAlarm was plagued with bugs to the point that my personal policy was not to upgrade from the prior to the new version until the third release of the new version. In the worst instance, a bug fix release came out a mere six days after a new version; in another case it was 10 days. I'm happy to miss out on some new features for a little while, so that other ZoneAlarm users can help the vendor debug the software.

Maturity

Apple was responsive with Leopard, issuing a slew of bug fixes only three weeks after its initial release. Microsoft never moves that fast.

And speaking of Microsoft, its latest operating system, Vista, is also too new . If you are buying a new Windows computer, you are better served with XP as opposed to Vista.

When is software sufficiently mature or debugged to be considered reasonably reliable (again from a Defensive Computing perspective)? Reasonable people can disagree; it's a matter of opinion.

Java version 1.5 may have looked mature and debugged after eight releases (version 1.5.0.8), but then came versions 1.5.0.9, 1.5.0.10, 1.5.0.11, 1.5.0.12, 1.5.0.13, and 1.5.0.14.

I don't have the experience with Macs to make an educated guess when Leopard might be ready for prime time. With Vista, I would wait either 2.5 years from its release date or until service pack 2, whichever comes last. And keep in mind that nothing is lost by waiting even longer, as many businesses will do.

My Vista opinion is more conservative than most. In part, it stems from the fact that Vista was a long time coming. Thus more is new about it, more new code and more design changes; both reasons to wait. Apple has unquestionably done a better job of managing its operating system development--shipping new versions of OS X often enough that the changes in each release are far less drastic than the changes between XP and Vista.

Office Software

When it comes to choosing Office software, I would again avoid the latest rendition from Microsoft, Office 2007.

The prior version, Office 2003, has four years of bug fixes applied to it, making it more stable. The prior version has a user interface that is an unofficial, grooved-in standard and uses a file format that is as mainstream as mainstream gets.

In contrast, the new Office 2007 has a new user interface that is very different from the one in Office 2003, 2002/XP, and previous versions. As with any interface change, some people will like the new interface and others won't. The design mistake that I see, is that Microsoft forces the new interface on you; there is no option to fall back to the tried and true and familiar. They tried this with Internet Explorer 7 and eventually backtracked a bit and restored the menu bar.

Office 2007 also introduced a new file format, meaning that users have to tell it to use the old file formats if they want to exchange files with 98 percent of the computing world. If files are saved in the new formats, then people using older versions of Office can't read the files without installing additional software from Microsoft. Users of very old versions of Office are totally out of luck when it comes to the new file formats. Mac users running the Mac version of Office were also unable to handle the new file formats for the longest time. A purposeful zing at Apple perhaps?

Unquestionably, Office 2003 is the better choice when compared with Office 2007. Of course, Microsoft has stopped selling Office 2003. Thanks for nothing.

This leads to OpenOffice.org, which is a reasonable choice for Office software. For one thing, it's a mature product, now at version 2.3. Plus, it can read/write the old format of Office documents and uses the classic user interface. Plus, it's free. It has its quirks though, and is not as fully functional as Office, but it makes sense to try it first and, if it doesn't meet your needs, move on to something else.

If you get a new computer this holiday season, it's possible that your old one(s) may be more dependable.

P.S. If you know of a retailer still offering Office 2003 (for less than $450), please leave a comment below. Thanks.


Update: November 27, 2007. Fellow CNETer Rafe Needleman wrote a very similar story today - 6 upgrades that are downgrades. Regarding Vista, Rafe writes "The obvious number one product for this list. Vista is the new shiny operating system Microsoft released to replace Windows XP. Except it hasn't, because it's a poor upgrade. It's slower, bigger, and buggier. "
About the author

    Michael Horowitz wrote his first computer program in 1973 and has been a computer nerd ever since. He spent more than 20 years working in an IBM mainframe (MVS) environment. He has worked in the research and development group of a large Wall Street financial company, and has been a technical writer for a mainframe software company.

    He teaches a large range of self-developed classes, the underlying theme being Defensive Computing. Michael is an independent computer consultant, working with small businesses and the self-employed. He can be heard weekly on The Personal Computer Show on WBAI.

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