Posted in Efficient email, Tips, useful software, Web 2.0
What general office software is useful for scientists? I come to the following enumeration: an email client, a calendar manager, a browser, a document formatter (for non-scientific papers), a spreadsheet and presentation software. Microsoft sells software providing all these functionalities, and indeed many scientists use the Microsoft products Outlook, Internet Explorer, MS-Word, MS-Excel and MS-PowerPoint. However, with free – technically speaking – superior products Google is now challenging the leading position of Microsoft in this traditionally Microsoft territory
Tired of Microsoft
After having followed each and every update of the MS-DOS and Windows operating systems for the last thirty (30) years I have had it with Microsoft. I am not going to defend the Redmond boys any longer when my colleagues shame them. On the contrary: I will give my peers additional arguments.
Microsoft newest version of the Windows operating system, Vista, is a real disaster. Buyers of new laptops invariably downgrade their Vista to Windows XP, as this embarrassing solution seems to be the only way to get their laptops out of lethargy. The new office suite MS Office 2007 is just another Microsoft failure. All customization of earlier MS Office versions, introduced by the user to make his life easy, cannot be used any longer. New bugs popping up, along side the ever surviving old bugs (for instance spell-checking with soft-hyphens in MS-Word). MS Word is known to ruin any html file. MS Internet Explorer has become snail-paced. I have always hated MS Excel as a counter-intuitive spreadsheet.
In the MS Office 2007 suite new, incompatible, file formats (“for your own security” they say, but they mean for their own dollars). Old files can still be edited in “Compatibility Mode” but you will be continuously warned that you should upgrade. Science is an international endeavor in which scientists collaborate, share and compete. Researchers are based all over the world, including in newly industrialized countries and in developing countries. It will take many years before they are all able to edit the new file formats, like “.pptx” and “.docx”. So I think scientists should look for alternatives. Rather than discussing desktop alternatives like OpenOffice.org I will have a look at the on-line products of Google.
In any scientific group communication is important and communication problems readily arise. “Is our group leader in today?”, or “When does postdoc Y return from the conference?”, or “When can I use the large apparatus (laser, SEM, ..)”. In our group all these questions are answered by using Google Calendars. An absolutely superior product. We have a number of Google calendars, like the calendar of the group leader, the calendar for the presence of group members, and the calendar for use of large equipment. Any group member can, from anywhere in the world, from any computer and from any operating system, check and edit these calendars. It works as a charm. Superb professional quality. We are finally liberated from the calendar function in the Microsoft Outlook-Exchange Server combination that was continuously using all the bandwidth of our computers by continuously synchronizing totally irrelevant data.
Google has recently introduced Google Docs. Multiple users can simultaneously edit (and save and export) documents, spreadsheets and presentations on-line. Again, in quality a class by itself. As I discussed in a previous post this functionality is not good enough for writing elaborate scientific papers (containing math etc.). But many useful applications remain for scientists. We use Google docs very regularly in our group.
I am not using Gmail, but I am still using Outlook for my email. The reason is the disappointing flat file structure Gmail offers (Yahoo! mail is much better in this respect). I need a large number of hierarchical folders, to classify my emails. This hierarchical system is basically my to-do list. Google uses the flat file structure to prove how good its search engine is. Apparently Google is not interested in taking over the Outlook market position.
Microsoft is often blamed to be an arrogant company not willing to listen to customers. The fact that Google takes on Microsoft gives a number of people pleasant feelings. But Google is in itself also a very arrogant, aggressive company. As I noted myself. They are not at all interested in discussing possible improvements of their products. They do not answer letters, faxes etc. It is all the way the “not-invented here syndrome”.
Not all their products are of high quality. A number of their desktop applications are just fringes.
What is wrong with Google?
No user knows what Google does with all the information collected in their databases. It is clear that all American secret agencies (and Chinese?) will have access to it. But is this information used for commercial purposes, like direct marketing? Is this information for sale? Will Google sell my concept of a Nature paper to our competitors? It is clear that, unless Google makes its privacy position clear, a large-scale (international) use of their – admittedly very fine products – will not take place.