Tech Industry

Can't Linux do any better?

The industry should come up with something better than a Linux version of Microsoft Office, Don Soegaard says. It's time to bring users back into the development loop.

A golden window of opportunity is going to be lost if the Linux community doesn't stay true to its revolutionary ideas and avoid capitulating to the status quo.

In a recent column, Chris LeTocq stated that Microsoft's dominance of the productivity market rests upon three pillars: the proprietary format of its documents, user familiarity with the Office user interface, and IT organizations' unfamiliarity with users' actual productivity needs.

I don't think so.

I would say Microsoft Office is dominant for other reasons. Microsoft had the most clout to penetrate the market. It was the first in the PC market to offer fairly comprehensive programs using a WYSIWYG GUI and providing a semiconsistent look and feel. It bundled the pop culture's idea of what constitutes needed office applications into a semi-interactive bundle. And no one has the clout to beat them at their own game, nor the creative insight, or vision, or wherewithal to start developing--to my knowledge--an improved alternative.

Though LeTocq's article was thoughtful with regard to the relative merits and opportunities for considering the future of StarOffice, we really need something brand new, rather than a Linux version of MS Office. The supposed benefits of Linux are a tighter OS that's essentially impervious to crashing, uses less resources, is open source and thus customizable.

So why take this evolving creation and saddle it with the same old, same old of the redundant generation of cumbersome software applications? I consider MS Word, Excel, Access, Autocad, Printshop Pro, Adobe Premiere, PageMaker, Quicken, Outlook, and numerous other applications as supposed special-purpose "factories" that are intended to be fairly self-contained to provide the function for a specific sector of the industry.

However, for most people, these programs don't fit the bill. Hence the need for semi-integration as found in Office. But then the need still exists to supplement Office with one program after another that provides features missing in the suite. The result is an ever-expanding Rube Goldberg combination of unwieldy software that users attempt to use to achieve their purposes. For many, these applications are about as appropriate as taking a chainsaw to trim your toenails.

Where is the support for starting something new? Let's take the various popular programs, such as AutoCad, Paintshop, PageMaker, Premiere, ACT, Quicken, and start the process of dissecting these monster applications into discrete tools. These would be tools analogous to the home workshop or craftshop, where, if you have the inclination, you can build anything you want--including new factories; these custom applications will actually do the job you need.

The redundancy in our software reaches the point of absurdity. How many word processing modules are on the average computer? WordPad, Notepad, Word, small ones in Excel, Access, and many other applications with many of the features such as copy, cut and paste repeated. I must have over a half a dozen photo-editing type programs loaded, some simply because they provide a single feature not available in another.

I might compile a manuscript using MS Word, then have to port it to PageMaker to add a certain formatting feature that cannot be accomplished in Word. The list goes on and on.

It may seem like an awesome task to start from scratch and create basic software tools that together can comprise the features of these monster factory programs like Excel, Access, Word and others. But it shouldn't. It is much less of a challenge from a programmer's view than it used to be.

Much of the code ought to be textbook by now. So many "off the shelf" GUI routines should be available to help speed up the process. I'm not saying any existing code would be adopted without modification and improvement. But it makes it so it is easier and not simply having to reinvent the wheel. Users have enough experience with the interface for a good start to be made on user interface design for the various tools.

As far as looking to the IT organizations, or IT staff in an organization, why should we look to them for what we need? Why should the IT staff have insight into what a VP, sales or marketing manager, engineer or others may need in the way of software to function more efficiently? My experience is that IT types are mostly concerned with keeping the server from crashing, keeping people from adding their own software programs to their PCs, or--in the case of outside IT staff--trying to sell their solutions.

Let us include something that Microsoft has left out of the loop--the user.

Users know what they want. They know what is missing. Let us include them in the design loop, as we start creating a set of basic interactive tools which change only when an improvement is made--not simply because someone decided to change the interface arbitrarily with a new iteration.

An initial set of such tools could provide for the full gamut of typical desktop requirements, such as word processing, database management, and graphics. What's more, such discrete interactive tools will open the door to customizable applications and greater creativity by the less technical user, as well as increased utility in the nonoffice, nonindustrial environments.

As things are now, the unleashed power of the microcomputer in the home is developing into an ever expensive and sophisticated, time-consuming toy--for capturing music, and filling the world of fiber optics with forwarded and reforwarded junk--rather than realizing the utilitarian potential it can become.