Thursday, February 23, 2006

A fork in the road?

Changing tools can be a pain. We've learned how to do certain things, we're comfortable with the process, and we've invested the money. Why change if we're not feeling pain?

MS Office 2007 has been announced, and standing still has apparently become significant change. That gives us all the opportunity to consider which way to go in this fork in the road.

Solveig Haugland strongly advocates for OpenOffice.org, and she even provides a handy migration guide.

While I haven't tried Office 2007, I have advocated that so-called easy ways to do things may not be the easiest or best. For one example, a GUIfied interface may be easier to use to create the first document, but it doesn't get much easier for the second or third or fortieth without a fair amount of work that most of us don't undertake. Text-based solutions seem to lend themselves more naturally to scripting and other time-saving approaches, and thus the learning curve seems to come down faster and farther.

I've also mentioned the ways I create documents. Thinking back over the last few months, most of the text I've written has been plain text (using NT Emacs), PDF (created by LaTeX), or HTML (often created by asciidoc). I've used FreeMind for taking notes and organizing ideas. I've used OO.o Write for unique, one-off documents where the cost of learning how to structure the document in LaTeX wouldn't be paid back through foreseeable repeat work. I've mostly used J and Emacs Calc as calculation engines and ledger as a financial management system, replacing what I might have done with a spreadsheet.

All of these have the advantage that the underlying document is stored in plain text or XML. If the application disappears for whatever reason, I can view the data and transform it into a form that's still useful. That's worth something—perhaps a lot! All have the advantage that they work on all three major platforms—Linux, OS X, and Windows—so I can share them with my colleagues as I need to, and I can continue to use them, no matter what operating system choice I may make in the future.

(I have used Word and Excel for updating legacy documents that I haven't converted yet.)

Or perhaps your organization is best served by MS Office 2007. Their new user interface may give you the edge you want without excessive costs. I'm not saying not to upgrade to Office 2007, but I am saying this is a time to think hard about the options and test your assumptions before automatically paying for upgrades for each and every desktop in your organization. Perhaps the average user would be better served by OO.o and Emacs. Perhaps some would be better served by LaTeX or DocBook.

Which road will you decide to take?

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