Saturday, February 14, 2009

Dear Mr. Gates, here's another couple hundred bucks

Once again, despite my best efforts, I find myself meting out hard earned dollars to the great and terrible Beast of Redmond. I'm not as fanatically anti-Microsoft as many of my ideological colleagues and associates are, but nevertheless I try to avoid using software from that particular organization wherever possible -- at least with respect to personal use.

The software license that I bought? Office:mac 2008, Home and Student edition. Yes, that specific eye-rolling suite. Aren't there other fantastic alternatives available, you're asking. What about Open Office? Or iWork?

[In case you're wondering, ethically I feel bound not to pirate software. I make my living with a software company, and even though piracy is endemic in today's youth culture, I can't be a hypocrite and pirate someone else's work. Just a personal choice I've made.]

Success in software deployments often hinges upon the use case scenario. And the use case here involves my parents. My parents have a Mac, which I purchased for them because -- generally speaking -- Macs just work, are easier to use, and are simpler to configure for non-computer adept users like my parents.

Inter-format compatibility is the driver of my purchase. The marketroids for iWork (and to a lesser degree for Open Office) claim repeatedly and assuredly that the long and dark age of incompatible formats is over, and that what's editable in one suite is importable in another.
If someone sends you a Microsoft Word, Excel, or PowerPoint file, you can open it in iWork.
And you know what? That's true. Probably ninety nine percent of all Word, Powerpoint, and Excel documents are openable in their respective iWork and OpenOffice equivalents. Asterisk.

Guess whether or not the documents my parents use are affected by the asterisk.

Yes. It turns out there's an edge case where the files are not truly, truly 100% compatible. In my parent's case, it's specifically Powerpoint presentations with embedded music. The music doesn't play in Keynote. I know this because I have a license for iWork and -- ahem -- it doesn't work. Sure, the file opens. The slides play. But no music.

I know what you're thinking. Big deal. The presentation opens, what's the problem?

I have made an amusing anthropological discovery: within the particular extended social community of retirees that my parents belong to, everyone uses Powerpoint as a multi-purpose multi-media communication tool. Got a photo album? Nobody uses Picasa or photobucket or flickr or facebook -- instead they slap together Powerpoint presentations. Got a music track you want to share? Forget imeem or -- they stick it in a Powerpoint presentation! And that's what they e-mail around. Unbelievable.

The hilarious part of it is, that's their mode of behaviour and it's not going to be modified. The community is barely computer literate to begin with and highly, highly resistant to change. Education is not an option. And nevermind the Office Open XML glossolalia!

So 90% of the documents my parents receive from their social community consist of Powerpoint presentations. With embedded music. Out of all the Office suite functionality that exists, this particular incompatible segment turns out to be the one that gets used.

I could either cut my parents off from their social community, or swallow my discomfort and purchase an Office license. After all, I kept telling them 'Macs just work', right?

Filial piety is a heavy obligation. Chalk up another victory for MSFT.

At least the license permits me to install it on more than one computer! Guess it's going on my home machine... And now I have a ready excuse for the inevitable question, 'Why the heck is this installed on your computer?!'