Productivity Tools- a software critique

11 August, 2010
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The following is a reprint of an article I wrote for the “First Train” trainers magazine some time ago- some of the articles are still available as an archive at corporatetraining.ie.

Since I wrote the article, I’ve adapted and expanded a small course showing a multitude of “free” software to meet a range of office and educational needs, including a number of spreadsheet, word processing, graphics, VoIP, IM, database and various other applications here.  You may need to make a (free) account in order to access it and a number of other “free” courses, such as a course on game design which includes the software for creating basic games, a course in Digital Photography and many more such “free” courses.

In any case, here’s the article:

What are Productivity Tools!?

Well there is no single clear definition available per se, however one can deduce that the definition may be something like this:

A collection of tools, consisting of business processes, hardware or software (or a combination of these) that individuals and organisations may use to enhance learning, increase productivity and promote creativity; may be used to collaborate in the construction of enhanced models or methods, to prepare publications and improve communication.

So what are the primary productivity tools that we use in training and business? Lets look at software! Microsoft Office seems to be the quintessential productivity suite combined with IE and Outlook.  We use MS Word for letters, reports, notes, memos, MS Excel for generating graphs, profit and loss, cash flow statements, MS Power Point for presentations to clients, training etc. Are there any other options available? Do we accept the paradigm that there are no alternatives available? What can shake up the status quo? I’ve had a keen interest in alternatives to Windows’ software for a few years now and wish to take this opportunity to introduce some options for consideration.

Before we ask “do we even need to install an office suite?”let us consider some of the factors to be borne in mind when deciding whether or not to migrate to new software, including:

l        Do we NEED to upgrade/change and if so, why?

l        Will it improve productivity and what criteria will we use in our selection process?

l        How will we measure the return on investment (ROI)?

l        What are the options available?

A caveat of deciding good decision making criteria- I read once about a couple, John and Mary, who were trying to decide on a new car.  John had always driven a Toyota but wanted to be open to other possibilities.  Having drafted a number of criteria and weightings from which to determine their next vehicle, they began awarding points under the various headings to the the models they considered purchasing. After totting up the scores, the winner was… the Volkswagen. “That cant be right,” uttered John as he began to re-jig the weightings in his spreadsheet. After correcting some obvious errors, the top scoring car was… the Toyota! “Thats better- I knew there was something wrong” smiles John.

Unfortunately we often make up our minds BEFORE we begin an evaluation, and then look for reasons to support our initial point of view, whether it proves to be right or wrong!  It seems to be a part of human nature, but at least we can be aware of it.

Taking each of the above points in turn:

Often the most popular reason I have heard cited for upgrading is that “the old PCs are just too slow and we need new ones”. Of course this reasoning is based more on the operation of, or at least the perception of the operation of the hardware.  If the business decides to purchase new PCs, they will often purchase a set of new software licenses also, and why not get the latest version of all of the applications that we currently use?

Improvements in productivity can be difficult to measure and will be unique to the organisation, however there may be some features of the software that will speed up certain operations, or perhaps there are compatibility issues with other users? What about the learning curve? Will it take long to get ‘up to speed’? These same factors should also be considered in the selection process.

ROI is used to compare returns on investments where the money gained/lost, or the money invested, are not easily compared using monetary values. For instance, a €1,000 investment that earns €50 in interest (or say our productivity improves with a resultant value of €50) obviously generates more than a €100 investment that earns €20 in interest, but the €100 investment earns a higher return on investment.

€50/€1,000 = 5% ROI

€20/€100 = 20% ROI

The options available again depend on what you need versus what is available. Apple seem to have given up on the idea of competing with Microsoft in the Office suite arena, at least for the moment.  Corel offer  WordPerfect® Office X3.  It offers word processing, spreadsheet, presentation and email solutions. One of its stated selling points is compatibility with MS Office but at ‘a much lower cost’- US$144.99 (about €106 at current exchange rates).  This compares favourably with the prices found at dabs.ie for MS Office Professional, priced at €561.99 and MS Office Home and Student 2007: €138.47. Early last year, Microsoft  replaced its Student and Teacher edition with a Home and Student edition that can be used by all home users- was this a response to the threat posed by emerging technologies? Microsoft also removed the Outlook e-mail and calendar program from that edition and instead is including its OneNote note-taking application. As with the Student and Teacher edition, the home version of Office can be used on up to three PCs in a home, but cannot be upgraded to a future version of Office.  For those seeking an e-mail client, MS Outlook 2007 can be purchased for €122.80 from dabs.ie.

A viable alternative which is gaining popularity is the Openoffice.org Office suite. A look at their website gives the following information:

“OpenOffice.org is an Open Source project. It is sponsored by Sun Microsystems, which is the primary contributor of code to the Project. Over 450,000 people from nearly every curve of the globe have joined this Project with the idea of creating the best possible office suite that all can use. They do so under the auspices of “open source” [which] means that you can contribute to make the product … by joining the community… you are not obligated to contribute anything. In fact, you do not need to register at all-neither the product nor yourself.”

I can almost feel the doubt in the readers mind… but wait! Read on!

What are the components of this office suite?

Well I’ll be using it exclusively over the next few weeks as a trial, but in the interim, here are some preliminary observations coupled with info gleaned from the openoffice homepage.

Some of the applications have almost direct MS cousins. One difference that stands out is the ability to publish in Portable Document Format (.pdf) at the click of a button, rather than purchase proprietary software to make pdfs. Another useful feature is the ability to create

Writer is an alternative to Word. It has everything you would expect from a modern, fully equipped word processor or desktop publisher.  It’s simple enough for a quick memo, powerful enough to create complete books with contents, diagrams, indexes, etc. Text frames and linking give you the power to tackle desktop publishing tasks for newsletters, flyers, etc. You can email your documents there is a direct connection to email software. Another nice touch is Writer’s html export to the web. One can save documents in OpenDocument format (odf), or as a .doc. Odf is an XML based format which means you’re not tied in to Writer- you can access your documents from any OpenDocument compliant software.  It can read all your old Microsoft Word documents, as well as save your work in Microsoft Word format for sending to people who are still locked into Microsoft products. This last facility means that you can maintain all of your documents etc. in MS compatible format to mitigate any issues that could arise in migrating- customers, students and suppliers can still receive files in .doc, .xls and .ppt if you so choose.

Calc is a spreadsheet program akin to MS Excel. Newcomers find it intuitive and easy to learn; professional data miners and number crunchers will appreciate the comprehensive range of advanced functions. Advanced DataPilot technology makes it easy to pull in raw data from corporate databases; cross-tabulate, summarise, and convert it into meaningful information.  Many of the features Excel users are familiar with are similarly implemented. You are free to use your old MS Excel spreadsheets, or save your work in Excel format for sending to people who are still locked into Microsoft products.

Impress is quite similar to MS PowerPoint. It is a tool for creating multimedia presentations. Your presentations will stand out with 2D and 3D clip art, special effects, animation, and high-impact drawing tools. It has a complete range of easy-to-use drawing and diagramming tools to spice up your presentation.  A nice feature is the ability to ‘park’ your most commonly used drawing tools around your screen ready for single-click access.  Slide show Animation and Effects bring your presentation to life. Fontworks provides stunning 2D and 3D images from text. Create lifelike 3D images with astounding speed and response. Again,  you are free to use your old Microsoft PowerPoint presentations, or save your work in PowerPoint format for sending to people who are still locked into Microsoft products. A very nice feature is the ability  to create Flash (.swf) versions of your presentations for publication on the web.

Base is a database application which MS Access users may wish to try out. It enables you to manipulate database data seamlessly within OpenOffice.org. Create and modify tables, forms, queries, and reports, either using your own database or Base’s own built-in HSQL database engine. BASE offers a choice of using Wizards, Design Views, or SQL Views for beginners, intermediate, and advanced users.  Among the features available, one can use the Report Wizard to produce impressive reports from your data and use the Form Wizard to create ‘instant’ database applications. It supports many popular databases such as Adabas D, ADO, Microsoft Access and MySQL. It also supports any LDAP compliant address book, as well as common formats such as Microsoft Outlook, Microsoft Windows, and Mozilla.

Math is OpenOffice.org’s component for mathematical equations. If, like me, you have ever tried to draft documents in Word and use scientific formulae, you will know how difficult it can be both to get it all “lined up” and to have it look as you want it to!  This application resolves the problem is most commonly used as an equation editor, often but not exclusively for text documents.

Draw offers utilities similar to what one will find in the “Drawing” toolbar in MS Word, and indeed it can be activated from the Writer application. It may be used to draw anything from a quick sketch to a complex plan. Arrange objects: group, ungroup, regroup, and edit objects while grouped. Sophisticated rendering allow you to create photorealistic images with your own texture, lighting effects, transparency, perspective, and so on.  This odf, XML based format means you’re not tied in to Draw and can access your graphics from any OpenDocument compliant software. Import graphics from all common formats (including BMP, GIF, JPEG, PNG, TIFF, and WMF) and use the free ability to create Flash (.swf) versions of your work.

What about an e-mail client?

Although not part of the openoffice.org package, a popular (free) mail client is Thunderbird, a product of the Mozilla Corporation. Some users may already be familiar with their browser- the award winning Firefox.  This email package allows direct import of your MS Outlook files and folders, and can be used in much the same way.  Rather than become sidetracked, I suggest those interested in looking at this in more detail check it out at the homepage: http://en.www.mozilla.com/en/thunderbird/

Interesting! So what are the implications of these applications on the traditional setup of our PCs and are such applications widely used?

The most significant implication is that the majority of officer workers, educators, trainers and students use Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Access, and very likely a version of Outlook.  If we replace these products with Open Source alternatives, and do not need other proprietary software that only runs on Windows, then do we need the Windows Operating System (OS) at all? Well… the short answer is no. All of the above applications will work equally well on a Linux based computer. Linux is a free alternative operating system to Windows and has a number of advantages- in fact Microsoft used to host their website on a Linux server until this fact became somewhat embarrassing and the ceased to do so.

Linux has been the main challenger to Windows for a number of years now, and with the advent of Ubuntu as well as the well established Red Hat, many feel that the time has come for David to challenge Goliath.  On February 16th of this year, Dell launched its IdeaStorm web site-  Dell employees monitor the site to gauge which ideas are most important and most relevant to the public. They promise to share those ideas throughout their organization to trigger new thoughts about how they evolve as a company.

On the 13th of March the OpenOffice.org project wrote to Dell Inc. hoping to persuade the company to adopt OpenOffice in response to customer demand. The open letter was sent to Dell chairman and chief executive, Michael Dell, by John McCreesh, OpenOffice.org marketing project lead: “Let’s have a conversation about how we could build an ‘OpenOffice.org supplied by Dell’product to give your customers what they are asking for,” wrote McCreesh, in reference to the demand for open source products on Dell’s IdeaStorm web site. The site has seen a significant number of requests for open source software.

On thursday May 24th, Dell announced three consumer systems with the Ubuntu 7.04 Linux distribution factory installed. London-based firm Canonical, the lead sponsor of the Ubuntu project, will ensure that the software works on Dell PCs.  The man driving the Ubuntu project, Mark Shuttleworth, shot to global prominence as one of the world’s first space tourists when he flew on a Soyuz rocket to the International Space Station.   Michael Dell, the founder, chairman and chief executive of Dell, is himself an Ubuntu user. He has the operating system installed on a high-end Dell Precision M90 laptop he uses at home.

Is this a global phenomenon?

Perhaps we are slow to catch on? Many countries have already begun Linux migrations over the past number of months. In February, at the Asia Open Source Software Symposium in Denpasar, Indonesia, it was announced that the Japanese Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry’s Information Service Industry had quietly been a long time user of open source. The governments of Cambodia, China, Cuba, India, Pakistan, South Korea and Taiwan also announced a switch.

What is happening specifically in the realm of education and training?

A few years ago, MIT began the One Laptop per Child (OLPC) initiative as “a non-profit association dedicated to research to develop a $100 laptop- a technology that could revolutionise how we educate the world’s children.“  Last November the first 875 of these “XO” beta machines rolled off the assembly lines. The XO features a 7.5 inch, 1200×900 pixel, TFT screen and self-refreshing display with higher resolution (200 DPI) than 95 percent of the laptops on the market today. Two display modes are available and both consume very little power- one consumes one watt—about one seventh of the average LCD power consumption in a laptop- the other consumes a miserly 0.2 watts. At laptop.org the specification reveals that “the laptop selectively suspends operation of its CPU, which makes possible even more remarkable power savings. The laptop nominally consumes less than two watts—less than one tenth of what a standard laptop consumes—so little that XO can be recharged by human power. This is a critical advance for the half-billion children who have no access to electricity.” A remarkable feature is the ability to charge the unit with a crank, a pedal or a cord,  reminiscient of the clockwork radio (developed for developing countries) by Trevor Bayliss.

The heart of the unit is a 433MHz AMD Geode CPU with 256MB of main memory and uses components from Red Hat’s Fedora Core 6 version of the Linux operating system.

“The XO creates its own mesh network out of the box. Each machine is a full-time wireless router. Children in the most remote regions of the globe as well as their teachers and familieswill be connected both to one another and to the Internet… Applications will include a web browser built on Xulrunner, the run-time environment used by the Firefox browser; a simple document viewer based upon Evince; the AbiWord wordprocessor, an RSS reader, an email client, chat client, VOIP client; a journal a wiki with WYSIWYG editing; a multimedia authoring and playback environment; a music composition toolkit, graphics toolkits, games, a shell, and a debugger.”

So although the Windows machines require more and faster CPUs and memory, here is a machine that can satisfy a huge market that need a cost effective laptop without “bells and whistles”.

Reverting back to mainstream PCs, Ubuntu have a release targetted at the education sector and may be reviewed at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edubuntu

So how have Microsoft responded?

While in Beijing in April, Bill Gates promised to offer a $3 Microsoft software package to poor students both in developing and developed countries. Addressing the Microsoft Government Leader Forum in Beijing, he said the world’s largest software company aims to increase the number of people with access to computers from the one billion today to two billion by 2015.  Coincidentally (or not?) this was at the same time that Ubuntu 7.04 was released and when Dell was receiving considerable demand for this OS.

“Education is the most important investment for the future,” Gates said on his 10th visit to China. Starting from the second half of this year, Microsoft will provide its software, including Windows XP Starter, Microsoft Office Home and Student 2007, Microsoft Math 3.0, Learning Essentials 2.0 for Microsoft Office and Windows Live Mail desktop for $3.  Countries interested in the program, however, will have to pay at least half of the cost of the computers for the students.

WOW! Does this suggest that the software giant is worried? They have already diversified into the Gaming Market with the Xbox and are purchasing a range of smaller software companies, such as Navision, an ERP vendor in competition with SAP.

So we can have options on productivity tools such as office suites, and perhaps even on the OS. What else can we do?

You may have heard about Web2.0. Not the most imaginative name! Webopedia defines Web2.0 as:

“the term given to describe a second generation of the World Wide Web that is focused on the ability for people to collaborate and share information online. Web 2.0 basically refers to the transition from static HTML Web pages to a more dynamic Web that is more organized and is based on serving Web applications to users. Other improved functionality of Web 2.0 includes open communication with an emphasis on Web-based communities of users, and more open sharing of information. Over time Web 2.0 has been used more as a marketing term than a computer-science-based term. Blogs, wikis, and Web services are all seen as components of Web 2.0.”

One of the nuggets of Web2.0 is that one does not need to have applications installed on the PC at all. The only requirement is an OS and web browser. This means that the user only requires good connectivity and allows a lower spec (CPU, memory and hard drive space) on their PC or laptop.  Google have entered the fray with Google Office but  antagonised Microsoft much earlier than this with Google Desktop.  A company which has positioned itself much better for the emerging market may be zoho.com.

“Zoho offers Office Suite, which includes Writer, Projects, Sheet, CRM, Show, Creator, Wiki, Planner, Suite, Notebook, Chat, Meeting and Mail. All products are offered through dynamic webpages that allow for rich online applications.”

Some of the components of the suite include Zoho Writer, (word processor), Zoho Sheet (Spreadsheet), Zoho Show (Presentations) Zoho Meeting (web conferencing), Zoho Projects (project management), Zoho CRM (customer relationship management), Zoho Creator (Database) and Zoho Planner (todos, reminders) to name most of them! None of these require any installation.

Conclusion

My aim has not been to “convert” you to open source, but to introduce the idea that there are alternatives available.  They may not be to everyones taste but I believe that CHOICE is extremely important.  For those that are shaking their heads worried about detrimental effects of Windows alternatives in the training and educational arena, remember that there are also huge opportunities available to those that take up the gauntlet.  Windows is as embedded in our professional lives as much as agriculture was once embedded in our economy. Using open source software allows us to provide students with all of the software on a CD without infringing intellectual property laws. Nothing is more certain than the fact than nothing is certain. The future is unwritten and will most likely be somewhere in between all online and installed applications- it may or may not be open source, but it is definitely open. To paraphrase Bob Dillon, the times are certainly a changin!

Related links

A video of the ubuntu founder talking about changes in the industry:

http://media.dellone2one.com/dell/May2007/Ubuntu.mp4

Search for this on youtube.com for a humourous comparison of Windows Vista and Ubuntu

WINDOWS VISTA AERO VS LINUX UBUNTU BERYL

A critical review of several Linux Operating systems (1 of 3) to provide some balance- I realise I am perhaps somewhat  biased toward open source software.

http://www.techsupportalert.com/review-linux-for-windows-users.htm

Footnote- this article was prepared using the OpenOffice.org suite.

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7 Responses to Productivity Tools- a software critique

  1. 9 December, 2010 at 18:19

    Hey – quality article. NASA and many other government agencies have done well in space flight, but look what SpaceX just did! Why have government bureaucracies launching rocket missions when privatizing can succeed at a fraction of the price?! Anyway… cool site… I’m subscribed to your RSS feed now so thanks again!

  2. 28 April, 2011 at 13:48

    Had to thank you on this great post. I’ve already posted a link on my Digg Account because I get drawn in by your way of writing. Thanks again!

  3. 6 August, 2011 at 20:11

    Umm, are you really just giving this info out for nohting?

  4. 6 August, 2011 at 20:43

    of course, glad you enjoyed it!

  5. 7 August, 2011 at 05:19

    Thanks guys, I just about lost it lokonig for this.

  6. 13 September, 2011 at 01:14

    Its like you read my mind! You seem to know a lot about this, like you wrote the book in it or something. I think that you can do with a few pics to drive the message home a bit, but other than that, this is fantastic blog. A great read. I will certainly be back.

  7. Be green
    26 October, 2011 at 07:37

    Great read. Thanks for sharing.

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