Yesterday I was called out to look at a computer suddenly ‘being slow’. A few minutes of playing revealed it was pausing for 10 seconds every time I switched to Word from another window. This disappeared in Office Safe Mode, so my first thought was a rogue plugin. The Word and COM add-in lists were empty, but latter was too empty. You get to know how Microsoft UIs are constructed, and this just didn’t seem to have enough information. I decided that whatever plugin was slowing everything down had also broken the add-in list.

This threw up a bit of a problem – how do you view Office plugins from outside Office? I was struggling until I found OfficeIns. It’s a small utility that displays all installed Office plugins, and lets you enable / disable them as well as view their registry keys. Exactly what I needed. OfficeIns revealed the offending program, and disabling it solved the problem1. Took about 30 seconds once I found the utility, so I thought I’d promote it.

This didn’t actually get the COM list working again, so I’m not sure whether my initial theory was correct. The broken install could have caused confusion that disabling the plugin didn’t fix, or maybe there are other types of plugin, viewable elsewhere. They needed the computer back so I didn’t have time to investigate properly, but I’d guess it’s the former and a repair install would do the trick, should there ever be the need.

  1. well, there were actually two copies of the same plugin, one only displaying partial info. I figured the latter must be a broken install and nuked its reg keys, which fixed it []

Viewing an OpenOffice file on university computers

I posted my essay through the leave-your-essays-here slot, and was done with it. At which point I walked outside and remarked as much to a classmate, who said ‘we just need the cover sheet, bibliography and two copies, right?’.

Two copies. Bugger.

I asked at the office and was told I could ‘simply’ post another copy. This turned out to be way more difficult than you’d think. I’d started writing the essay in Google Docs for portability, but dropped down to OpenOffice due to GD’s (and, to be fair, HTML’s) lack of proper footnote support. I had the OpenOffice files, but no university computer could read them. Obviously their system doesn’t allow you to install anything so OpenOffice itself wasn’t an option, and none of the various third-party viewers had a no-setup-necessary download. I tried Zamzar – a website that converts file formats for free – but the conversion to Word format wasn’t quite right, and the footers were broken.

I phoned home with the intention of asking somebody to open up the essay in OpenOffice and save it as Word format, in the hope OO’s conversion worked better than Zamzar’s. While on the phone, however, I realised the obvious solution, and asked them to export to PDF instead. Zamzar probably could have done that, if I’d thought of it. This worked flawlessly, and I was able to print out the emailed copies and hand it in during breaks in the afternoon class.

I can’t believe how difficult it turned out to be. If file-types are going to cause this much hassle I’m quite tempted by the ridiculously cheap student version of MS Office.

Do I need the new £40 version of Office 2007?

Microsoft Office Ultimate 2007 retails at £600. It’s now available, for students, at £40, or £12 for a year1. As of Wednesday, I’ll be an official student. I’m trying to decide whether I need it.

I’m mainly after Word and Excel – the other programs look interesting, but I don’t see any need for them. Right now, Google Apps handles most of my document/spreadsheet needs, and anything more complex is farmed out to OpenOffice. I really like GA’s online model, so I’d be using Word/Excel for anything difficult or where WYSIWYG is important. This is actually quite rare, but I guess uni may change that.

I have plenty of issues with OO Writer – formatting bugs seem to crop up all the time – but I can usually iron out the problems and end up with something decent. My subjective impression is that Word/Excel are less buggy, but it’s not a big issue for me. I think there’s a general quality difference, though. Word and Excel are much smoother and more pleasant to use, in my experience, but, again, I’m not worried about that.

I don’t think there’s much difference in features. OO seems to be capable of all the complexity I’ll ever need, if I take the time to investigate it properly. Compatibility issues could conceivably crop up, but OO has done a great job of saving in whatever format I need so far. And the new XML file formats should help with that. Eventually.

Finally, there’s the technical support side – it helps to know Office when helping people over the phone, and given the major UI changes in Office 2007 it’d be useful to get some experience. I don’t get many questions about Office, though.

The biggest reason against is that the student license prohibits commercial use, whereas I can use OO professionally. I’m aware that nobody’s going to check, but I’d still feel bad – Office may be extortionately priced, but the decent response is to use something else rather than steal it.

I fully expected to snap up this offer, but I can’t currently think of any reasons to, other than curiosity about the new UI. The scheme is apparently around until next March, so I’ve time to change my mind. I’m much more excited about Photoshop CS3 student edition. The GIMP is pretty good, especially the new beta, but I recently installed the CS3 30-day trial and it’s undeniably superior.

  1. thanks for the tip, Ben []

Microsoft announce ad-supported version of Works

Microsoft makes most of its money from Windows and Office, and are under increasing pressure from competitors. Not for the OS: Linux is nowhere close to prime-time1, but there are plenty of Office competitors out there. Offline there’s, which emulates many of Word and Excel’s major features, while online are the simpler but incredibly easy-to-use Google Docs / Zoho, which are far superior to their offline counterparts when it comes to sharing, portability and backup.

So, Microsoft today announced its move: a free, ad-supported version of Microsoft Works. By the end of the year.

Works. You remember. The crappy word processor and spreadsheet that people use until they find that Word / Excel can’t actually read Works’ default file type. With adverts. Adverts. Who bought Works anyway? It was always bundled with new PCs, and any salesman worth his salary would flog an upgrade to Office.

I think the web 2.0 reaction is: weaaaaak. How about an online version of Word, with all the extra functionality it offers over Google Docs etc., that people pay £5 a month for? Or a cut-down version of Word itself? Or an ad-supported version of Office, for non-commercial use? Anything but Works.

  1. most recent problem: no networking, which turned out to be because I’d gone to the network dialog box via the menu system instead of the system tray icon. The same dialog box. Fixing it required editing text files. I rest my case []

The uselessness of Insert

Office 2007 will disable the Insert key by default. This can only be a good thing. If you want to save a document – surely the most common operation after entering text – you have to hit CTRL-S. Printing? CTRL-P. But if you want to completely break all normal word processing behaviour and enter a mode in which any text directly overwrites existing content you need only miss ‘delete’. Disabling this most useless of keys must be a good idea. You’d think.

I told this to my parents. They gave me a strange look. I deduced that they had no idea what I was talking about, so fully explained the full horror of the Insert key, and that over a decade it must have wasted literally centuries of time as people tried to understand why Word suddenly didn’t work any more. I finished, happy with my explanation. They gave me a strange look. “But we use that all the time”, they said.

My parents are the only people in the world who find the Insert key useful. They do some kind of copy-pasting from some funny program and something something something. I forget. My brain rejected it as craziness even as I was listening. If they ever upgrade to Office 2007, I’m going to have to re-enable Insert. That’s going to hurt.