new TLDs could balkanize the Internet

Dave Winer has some cogent critiques of the idea that companies can register their trademarks as new Top Level Domains (TLDs), from an intellectual property perspective. However I think the danger is more pernicious than that – allowing deep-pocketed corporations to create new TLDs at will risks the destruction of the Internet. In a nutshell, why would Google or Microsoft even bother with or when they can simply use or Ultimately you will see entire ecosystems vanish behind these TLD-walled gardens. Forget about; now you get redirected to Take this further: these companies make browsers (Chrome, IE). So now if you’re locked into the walled garden of Gmail anyway and Google says “use Chrome, you don’t have to type http:// anymore” and IE users accessing Gmail see a moderately-degraded experience, then there will be forced migrations to ecosystems that don’t exist right now. Facebook is the worst offender already; imagine if they got into the same game with Opera or even worse allied with Microsoft/IE.

It can get worse. There are numerous limitations and flaws in the HTTP protocol since we have shoehorned all sorts of functionality onto what was originally just a hypertext linking platform. And support for HTTP starts at the browser. Today it’s already hard enough to write webpages for all browsers, and designers can’t code for the latest and greatest CSS/HTML spec and be confident it will Just Work. Imagine if Chrome decides to create a new protocol, g://? shorter, saves you characters on Twitter, built-in URL shortening, and much faster handling of video and pictures. Built right into Chrome! Interoperability between browsers itself is at risk here if the fundamental communication protocol itself starts to fragment; we’ve seen it happen already with HTML and CSS and browsers, but with custom TLDs the incentive to do worse will be irresistible.

The key is the ecosystem. Apps have shown us how companies move away from open protocols like RSS towards custom and closed APIs. TLDs will just accelerate and worsen the trend. Eventually your browser will run heavily customized and feature-extended HTML, with an optimized variant of HTTP that works best with the ecosystem it was designed for (be it Chrome/Android/Google or Facebook/Microsoft/Ie or Apple/Safari/iOS). Try to do anything outside that ecosystem and you’re forced back onto the “old” tools that will be slower and more unpleasant; sure, Hotmail will work on Chrome, but if you use IE it will be so much easier… switch! (to quote the Oracle of Pythia, “All this has happened before. All this will happen again.”)

Remember the old days when if you were on Prodigy or Compuserve, you couldn’t email someone on AOL without a complex extra header? We could be looking at the same thing, with the Internet. We will have to call it the InterIntranet.

in defense of Microsoft Word

It’s the post-PC era, where we use apps and mobile phones and tablets and ultra-books, e-books, iBooks, and Nooks. We Kindle and we Hulu and we tweet and tumblr and like. Everything is in a cloud somewhere. This is quite a change from the halcyon days of when computing meant sitting down at your computer and launching a program to do something; now all it seems we do (if you live in the digerati echo chamber, that is) is consume and critique.

That’s the context I perceive for this piece by Tom Scocca (@tomscocca) in Slate mocking Microsoft Word, which quickly went viral. Of the many Top Tweets about it, I found these two rather illustrative:

Most of the other tweets just repeat the author’s assertion that Word is “cumbersome, inefficient, and a relic of obsolete assumptions about technology.” The tweets above are useful in that they are explicit in their counter-assumptions about technology; namely, that the only real writing happens on the Web. It’s certainly true that using Word for simple text like email or blog posts is overkill, in much the same way that using a jet engine to drive your lawnmower is overkill. What’s peculiar is that rather than using simpler tools for their simpler tasks, these people have declared that the more complex and capable tool is “obsolete” and “must die”. This attitude betrays a type of phobia towards technology that I suspect has grown more prevalent as our technology interfaces have become increasingly more “dumbed down”.

In actuality, most of the writing in the real world is the complex variety that requires more than a few buttons for bold, italics and blockquote. Ask any lawyer writing a brief, a scientist writing a grant, or a student writing a dissertation how useful Word is and you’ll get a very different perspective than that of people writing tweets about how Word is too complicated for their blogging. Scocca himself acknowledges that he used Word when he wrote his book, which is a pretty telling reveal that completely undercuts his argument that Word has outlived its utility.

If I were to match Scocca’s hyperbole, I’d have to contend that Word is possibly the finest piece of software ever written, in terms of its general utility to mankind. That statement is arguably more true than claiming Word must “die” – especially since as of fiscal year 2011, Office 2010 had sold over 100 million licenses and drove record revenue growth. And note that the software division inside Microsoft that release Office for the Mac is actually the largest OS/X software developer outside of Apple, Inc. itself.

The reason that Word has outlived all its competitors, including dearly departed Wordperfect and Wordpro, is that it has evolved over time, to becoming an indispensable tool for a writer to save time and stay organized. Here’s a great list of 10 features in Word that any serious writer should be intimately familiar with. And even for casual use, some basic knowledge of Word’s features can let you do amazing things with simple text.

However, let’s suppose that you really don’t want to do anything fancy at all. You just want to write a plain text document, which is the basis of Socca’s argument. Is Microsoft Word really as bad as he makes it out to be? Here’s a quick summary of Scocca’s complaints, with my comments:

* Too many features that are left “on”. As examples, he uses the infamous Clippy (which hasn’t been in Word since 2003) and the auto-correct function (which is also enabled by default in Gmail, as well as TextEdit and OS/X Lion). If you really hate the autocorrect, though, it’s almost trivially easy to turn it off – a small blue bar always appears under the autocorrected word when the cursor is next to it. You can use that to access a contextual dropdown that lets you immediately undo the autocorrect or turn it off entirely, for example:

autocorrect options in Microsoft Word

* Scocca finds certain features irritating, specifically “th” and “st” superscripts on ordinal numbers (1st, 2nd, 3rd, etc) and auto-indenting numbered lists. This is largely a matter of personal taste. Style manuals tend to recommend not using superscripts, out of concern on line spacing. Modern processors like Word can easily handle a superscript without breaking the paragraph’s layout.

* He thinks that Word incorrectly uses apostrophes and quotes. He’s mistaken; see the image below where I demonstrate single and double quotes. Note that if you insist on using “dumb” quotes, you can immediately revert by using CTRL-Z (which every Word user should be familiar with, hardly “hidden under layers of toolbars”).

smart quotes in Microsoft Word

* For some reason, the logo for the Baltimore Orioles uses a backwards apostrophe. And for some reason, Scocca believes this is Word’s fault. I have absolutely no idea why he blames Word for this. Try typing O-apostrope-s (O’s) into Word and you’ll see that the apostrophe is indeed facing the right way. I’m frankly unclear on why the backwards apostrophe on the Orioles’ logo is a threat to civilization, but even if so, it’s not Word’s fault.

* Word uses a lot of metadata to keep track of its detailed and complex formatting. This has the effect of marginally increasing file sizes by a trivial and negligible amount (the files taking up space on your hard drive aren’t Word documents, they are MP3 files, video, and photos). Bizarrely, Scocca tries to cut and paste the metadata back into Word as proof of excess, but this is a completely meaningless exercise which proves nothing. It’s true that if you try to open a native Word file in a plaintext editor, you’ll see a lot of gobbledygook, but why would you do that? If you open a JPG file in a text editor you’ll see the same stuff. Every file has metadata and this is a good thing when you use the file in the software it is intended. Of course, Word lets you export your data to any number of file formats, including web-friendly XML and plain text, so Scocca’s ire here is particularly misplaced and mystifying.

* Scocca sneers that Word still uses the paradigm of a “file” on a single “computer”. He says it’s impossible to use Word to collaborate or share. Perhaps he’s unaware of the fact that as of last month, email-based file attachments have been around for 20 years? Microsoft also is lauching a cloud-based version of Office, though, called Office 365, and with the advent of tools like Dropbox and Live Mesh the old one-file-one-PC paradigm is no longer a constraint. It’s actually better that Word focus on words and not include network-based sharing or whatnot; there are tools for that, and isn’t feature bloat one of Scocca’s chief complaints anyway?

* and finally, he calls the Revision Marking feature of Word “psychopathic” and “passive-aggressive”. I wonder if he’s ever actually collaborated on a document? The revision feature has literally transformed how I collaborate with my colleagues and is probably the single most useful feature in Word. It’s trivially easy to accept a single specific change or to do a global “Accept All” between revisions and users. The interface, with color-coded balloons for different users in the margin rather than in-line is elegant and readable. Scocca gripes that “No change is too small to pass without the writer’s explicit approval” – would he rather the software decide which revisions are worthy of highlighting and which aren’t? This complaint is utterly baffling to anyone who has ever actually used the feature.

Frankly, as a regular Word user for years myself, I find it pretty hard to sympathize with Scocca’s rant. None of his feature complaints are really valid, apart from some stylistic preferences (he’d rather bullet his own lists, etc) which are easily modified in Word’s settings. If the menus are really so intimidating, it’s trivially easy to google things like disable autocorrect, and if your google-fu isn’t up to that task then you can always leave a post at Microsoft’s super-friendly user forums where ordinary users themselves will be glad to walk you through it.

If Microsoft Word were to truly die, then we’d lose one of the most productive tools for complex and professional writing in existence. If that’s the future of the written word, where anything above the level of complexity of a tweet, email or blog post is considered too hard to deal with (and software gets dumber to match), then it’s a grim future indeed.

Long live Microsoft Word!

Windows 7 Guy

Does Microsoft really want Peter to be the face of Windows 7?

Microsoft and FOX One have announced a marketing collaboration that will see Windows 7 in a new special with the working title “Family Guy Presents: Seth & Alex’s Almost Live Comedy Show” airing Sunday, November 8, at 8:30pm EST and PST. It will star Seth MacFarlane, creator of Family Guy, American Dad, and The Cleveland Show as well as his Family Guy co-star Alex Borstein (voice of the series’ Lois character).

Well, Stewie is probably more appealing (and remains the only reason I ever watch the show. There, I said it. I watch the show. Want to make something of it? Because I’m not ashamed. I’m not. Maybe you watch it and you’re ashamed. Maybe you’re projecting your shame on me. How do you like that? Turnaround is fair play, right? Doesn’t feel so good, does it? Are you feeling a little embarrassed right now? A little red in the face? Tight in the knickers? How do you like them apples? Are you sick of this paragraph yet? Isn’t this exactly how the monologues on Family Guy go? On and on forever? With no end? Long past the point where the joke was even remotely funny? Firmly into tedious territory? Now that I’ve made my point, don’t you wish I would drop it? I mean, is it really necessary to keep flogging this? Oh wait, you get it, that’s exactly the point, right? By making my point, about how unfunny Family Guy’s taking-the-joke-too-far shtick is, and then continuing to make the point after I’ve already explained once what I’m doing, is really making the point, right? Isn’t that clever? You don’t think so? Could that be because you’re a nekulturny philistine oaf? I mean, isn’t that more likely than The Family Guy not being the most hilarious show on television ever? Did you like how I dolloped in some Russian in there? Do I have the patience or the willpower to comtinue this interminable exercize? No.)

AT ANY RATE – Family Guy is one of those shows that has it’s flaws, to say the least. Stewie and Brian, when they are together, are the only thing watchable about it. I find the reaction by some that this amounts to “selling out” by McFarlane to be hilarious – as if the show had any artistic integrity to preserve. It’s a blunt instrument (and for those who failed to understand this, McFarlane created American Dad to really hammer the point home. Apparently even this was too subtle for some people, so he followed up with Cleveland.

Microsoft Bing: But It ‘s Not Google!

I’ve been increasingly using Microsoft’s new search engine, Bing in lieu of Google for my casual searches. One of the things that appeals to me is how the search results are so much more organized and comprehensive than just a list of ten text items. Google’s spartan deisgn was cool and chic ten years ago but today it feels increasingly stale, and Bing is pulling from Apple’s playbook in tailoring the interface to users’ needs. Some examples: saved searches are essential for keeping track of what you’ve been researching, and the live preview of video thumbnails on mouseover saves you a click – and getting video and photos along with text links on the same search results page is a huge timesaver. I feel like I spend less time using Bing. Right now I stil have to manually decide to go to Bing but I intend to switch the default search engine on all my browsers for a few weeks – including Chrome – and see how that works out.

Bing has been getting a lot of attention lately – there’s a piece on it in the New York Times, another in USA Today, and even a website, Bing Vs Google, that lets you see searches compared side-by-side. It’s good to shake things up – and Bing certainly has its rough spots, ut just like Google these should improve over time. The mere existence of Bing ensures that Google is forced to compete and innovate as well.

Microsoft Office Online?

A few days ago, Nicholas Carr reported a rumor that Microsoft was poised to take its Office Suite into the cloud, and was building out huge new server farms to prepare:

I’ve heard that Microsoft has begun briefing its large enterprise clients on an expansive and detailed strategy for moving its software business into the cloud. If the report proves correct – and I make no guarantees – the company will unveil the strategy to the public either next week or the week after.
it’s been building out the backend infrastructure – the data center network – required to run web apps reliably and on a large scale. These obstacles are now coming down. The upgrades have been out for more than a year, and, despite some glitches, have generated a lot of cash for the company. As for its infrastructure, a massive new data center near Chicago is expected to come online this year, adding to the capacity of the new centers the company has built or bought in Washington, Texas, and California.

However, Michael Arrington threw cold water on the idea:

I fear that the rumor may have been wrong, and that Microsoft has no such plans in the near future. Tonight Microsoft announced an expansion of their “software plus services” strategy that gives businesses many of the collaboration and storage benefits of Sharepoint without actually having to install software on their own internal machines. The program was initially launched in September 2007.

This is not a web based version of office. It’s not competitive with what Google is offering businesses with Apps and Docs. It’s a half way approach that still requires the installation of Office and other software on local machines.

However it isn’t clear that this necessarily means that CloudOffice is dead. The above strategy could certainly be a half-way step in porting Office to the cloud. And a lot of enterprise customers are probably still going to stick with their local installs for quite some time, they aren’t going to switch overnight. IT has inertia, after all – as does the significant investment most companies have made in legal licenses for Office. I think Microsoft has to move cautiously, and it’s going to take time.

Can Google or anyone else deliver a fully-web-based office suite with a complete enough feature set to match Office in the interim? I think that no pure web application can hope to match functionality of a desktop one, because the desktop app has so much more computing power. The browser is a constraint – which is why Adobe AIR, which breaks free of the browser, is such an innovative and exciting product. Microsoft’s own version, called Silverlight, is probably going to be the backend for Office online. The advantage here is that the immense computing power of the client – RAM, CPU – can be used to make the cloud app much richer than if all of the functionality has to be delivered via the narrow Internet pipe.

email the google-killer?

Fascinating numbers via Bernard Lunn at RWW about the true market share threat to Google of a Microsoft-Yahoo merger:

Email is 49% of Impressions. Portals and Search Engines is 10% by contrast. This is some free data from Nielsen-Netratings. click on Top Site Genres.

56% is Microsoft and Yahoo combined market share of webmail. Gmail is down at 7%. This data is via Fred Wilson’s back of envelope calculations.

And as far as email goes, Lunn notes that Hotmail is a dying joke and that Yahoo’s email product is superior:

Hotmail has lagged terribly. Most people who used it would not return, I cannot imagine who would switch (an AOL user maybe) and most people already have email. So it is a lost cause. One major reason it lagged IMHO was Microsoft fear of cannibalizing Outlook. So they won’t offer the features that users want that both Google and Yahoo have been rushing to fill. Yahoo is reputed to have the most “Outlook-like” interface and that matters massively to people making the switch.

Microsoft will probably do the smart thing and let the Yahoo team run with email. Hotmail will die as a separate brand, eventually.

It should also be noted that Yahoo acquired Oddpost in 2004, which is now the foundation of their webmail platform (and note, Yahoo mail didn’t spend long in beta, unlike Gmail which embarrassingly remains in beta mode even after the official launch in 2005.

Yahoo’s email is superior to Gmail in almost every respect except for chat integration and email conversation grouping. Yahoo’s feature set includes disposable email addresses, drag and drop, and tabbed viewing. As Lunn notes, the potential for monetization is there, both in displaying standard contextual ads as well as the option to pay Yahoo $20/year for increased storage and ad-free viewing. But what about email search?

Yahoo’s email search is truly innovative. When you type a search term, a separate pane open up and gives you additional search refinement options. Click on the thumbnail below to see how it works:

yahoo mail

Here’s a closeup of that search pane:

yahoo mail search

It’s amazing how functional and useful this is after a while. It’s also easy to see how this could be a vector for additional monetization. It’s not hard to see how Yahoo could place ads below the preview pane and search-specific ad results in the search refinement pane, even for paying customers like me (free Yahoo mail puts ads at the top of the page, and inserts text on outgoing mail in the footer but obviously this hasn’t impacted their market share.)

And as for integrated chat, since MS messenger and Yahoo Messenger already talk to each other, we can expect that the mail client won’t be static on that front either.

So, 49% and 56% indeed. It’s not hard to see why Microsoft is going after Yahoo, or why Google is afraid.