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Entries in MS Works (1)

Tuesday
Oct132009

So Long, MS Works! You Were Great in ’88 

Ms-works-2.0-dos MS Works 2.0 for DOS screenshot (borrowed from the Wikipedia)

You know, before I was a Mac guy, I was a Windows guy. And before I was a Windows guy, I was a GeoWorks Ensemble guy. And before that, I was just a plain old DOS guy. And what was the first word processor I ever used to write a college paper? It was Works 1.0 for DOS. I used it my junior year in college in 1988.

So, I read a post on ZDNet last week about the demise of Microsoft Works (see "Goodbye, Works!"). Evidently, Microsoft is discontinuing it in favor of a stripped down, ad-laden version of Office. The opening paragraph of the ZDNet article especially caught my attention:

How many of you have received files from students (or even teachers’ home computers) and been unable to open them because they’re in Works format? Sure, there’s a converter utility, but it’s one more thing to install on the computers you manage and doesn’t help if you’re using a Mac, Linux, or Google Apps. Of course, since it’s pre-installed on most home PCs, many of our students don’t think about the file format issue.

As I've begun to accept more papers electronically, the issue above occurs all too frequently. Quite often students pay no attention to what software they use to write their papers. When asked, they often don't know whether they're using Works or Office. They're not thinking about it; they simply use whatever came with their computer. Word 2007 for Windows will read Works files, but Word 2008 for the Mac will not because there hasn't been a current version of Works on the Mac platform since the mid-nineties.

Now, if I want to go out of my way, I can convert a Works file on my Mac in one of two ways. I can fire up Windows Vista in Parallels where I do have a copy of Office 2007 installed. Or I can launch MacLinkPlus. But most of the time, I email the student back and ask that he or she export the file to Word format or at least RTF. I also encourage them to buy Office. As cheap as our students can get a full copy of MS Office, I really see no reason to go through an entire college degree using Works.

But it was great or me--back in the day. I thought Works 1.0 for DOS was amazing. I sat down with the tutorial and went through every lesson. It had a word processor, spreadsheet, database, and a communications program (the last of which I don't think I ever used). I mainly used the word processor, eventually upgrading Works to v. 2.0. But my stepfather, who was a banker, told me that for quite a while he ran the whole bank in a Works database. Imagine that.

When I began work on my M.Div in 1991, the Works word processor wouldn't cut it for me because it couldn't create footnotes (I believe current versions of Works will). I switched to WordPerfect 5.1 for DOS, and spent another week or two, going through every lesson in the tutorial. But around this same time, I was also using GeoWorks Ensemble. It had a great word processor, but again no footnotes. Nevertheless, I saw the value of a graphical user interface, and so I eventually made my way to Windows, using MS Word, and then in 1998 I switched to the Mac.

Anyway, I still have some of those files from Works for DOS. I believe I've converted most of them to Word by this point. And there's the rub. At the end of the ZDNet post, the writer commented, "Works is dead. Long live generally accessible file formats."

Accessing files from twenty years ago is possible, but it's a pain. In twenty years, I don't want it to be difficult to access the files I create now. Word processing is one of my major uses for a computer. I have multiple word processors on my MacBook Pro. I have Word 2008 for the Mac, Word 2007 for Windows, WordPerfect 2002 for Windows, Apple's iWork Pages '09, Mellel 2.7, and even an old copy of AppleWorks 6. In addition to these programs I have installed, I keep up with Nota Bene for Windows by subscribing to their email list. I am also a member of the WordPerfect for Mac email list even though Corel hasn't released a version for the Mac since 1997.

And with all that, what word processing software do I use 90% of the time? Microsoft Word 2008. In the end I'm a pragmatist. I know that for better or worse, Word is the standard and I'll be able to read my files two decades from now. I simply have no doubt whatsoever about this. I've learned this lesson the hard way because I have to jump through hoops to open old Works or WordPerfect files. And I cannot open the GeoWorks files at all right now (although I'm looking to change that).

Everyone likes to throw stones at Microsoft. I've always said I'm not anti-Microsoft; I'm just anti-Windows (even though I also have Windows installed on my Mac in Parallels anyway). I'd love to switch to something like Pages for the bulk of my work, but I'm a bit reluctant. Apple ditched AppleWorks and before that MacWrite. Who's to say that one day, they won't ditch Pages?

But I'm not such a pragmatist across the board. I have switched completely over to Keynote for teaching instead of PowerPoint because it is so much better. For the first year or two I used it, I would save a backup copy of my file in PowerPoint format just in case. However, I've stopped doing that and even delete these PowerPoint versions of my files now when I come across them. I believe that regardless of what happens with Pages (and Numbers), Keynote will remain because it's garnered quite a following. And hey, it's what Steve Jobs uses, so I would think that guarantees its staying power. I wouldn't be surprised if there's not eventually a Windows version of Keynote. I think those of you who are Windows users would really like it.

As for Works? I haven't used it since 1989 or ’90. It brings back fond memories of my early days on the computer and my first academic work. I hung on to the floppy discs after I stopped using it--just in case other things didn't work out and I needed to reinstall it. But after almost two decades, I think I can safely say that won't happen (I still have those WordPerfect 5.1 discs, too).

I guess, it's sad to see Works go only from a nostalgic viewpoint. But who needs yet another file format? In fact, I'm surprised it even stayed around this long. And as long as I can open my files without hassle, I'll be happy.