At last, Microsoft to play well with others

About a week ago, a friend e-mailed me a Microsoft Word document. When I opened it, all I saw was a lot of gobbledygook symbols and squiggles. He sent the document twice more, and each time I received the same mess. After a third try, he just sent the text copied into the body of an e-mail message.

I'm not a big fan of Microsoft Word. I once heard it described as "bloatware" because of all the memory it takes up on your computer. When I can, I use a smaller text program like WordPad or NotePad. But sometimes you need more bells and whistles, and the truth is that Word is the program most people use to compose formal documents, so if you want to communicate effectively, you're almost sentenced to use it. It's also expensive, especially if you own a business and need to install it on dozens of machines.

So I was surprised last week when I heard that Microsoft will provide, free of charge, a translator that will allow Word users to convert files into the open document format (ODF). ODF is a standard for word processing, spreadsheets, charts, reports, etc. based on the XML format. As Wikipedia describes it, "this means it can be implemented into any solution be it open source or a closed proprietary product [like Microsoft] without royalties."

It's about time. Besides being able to more easily read files other people send, ODF also means savings in the bank. A copy of MS Word can set you back a couple of hundred bucks. But now that ODF is supported by Microsoft, you won't have to buy MS Word if you can't afford it.

ODF has, until now, been treated by Microsoft with disdain. ("Open source" is like "Mac" in the Microsoft world.) So why the sudden change of heart?

Microsoft hailed this move as proof of its commitment to interoperability – or allowing different programs to work together. But technical experts who cover this area feel it has more to do with Microsoft reading the signs of the times.

Governments all over the world are preparing to move to ODF to save money. Belgium recently announced that it will support ODF, and the state of Massachusetts has also said it wants to move in this direction, although the move is currently held up in the state legislature.

The Financial Times newspaper reported last week that the US government is expected to make ODF its standard next year. Pressure from a number of governments to make the change was no doubt behind Microsoft's announcement.

But not everyone is convinced of Microsoft's good intentions about interoperability. Seattle Post-Intelligencer reporter Todd Bishop, for instance, writes in his blog on Microsoft that the announcement isn't exactly a love letter to ODF. Microsoft's own press release makes a point of stating the limitations of the format.

Offering a new program compatible with others doesn't signal the end of MS Word. Many people will still want to use Word because they know it and are comfortable with it. Nor does this mean Microsoft will go broke over this move. But it will make word processing a little easier and cheaper for the rest of us.

Now if someone could persuade Microsoft to agree to a hard and fast standard for HTML (the code used to create web pages), so that you could read websites easily on the Internet Explorer browser and on the FireFox browser, life would be almost perfect.

A quick word about a previous column. On June 14, I wrote about how computer games could be used to teach civic values. (See: "What if civics class were an online game?" page 17.) It turns out someone already had this idea. Regan Ross, a high school teacher from Vancouver, B.C., e-mailed me about his simulation game called "The Civic Mirror."

He writes, "a teacher's classroom becomes a country and the students become citizens who have to create and then use their political system in order to manage a live economy and take care of their own simulated family. The students learn firsthand what government and the real world is like and the feedback and learning dividends have been amazing!"

To learn more about Mr. Ross's program, e-mail: regan.m.ross@gmail.com.

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