Plugged In: Microsoft Office Opens Up?

Office XML Exposed

Illustration by Gordon Studer.
Illustration: Gordon Studer
The Buzz: Suites that compete with Microsoft Office should get easier to use in the next year and a half. Microsoft announced in November that it would make publicly available the Open XML file formats it's using for Word, Excel, and PowerPoint documents in the next version of Office, expected this fall (see our look at Beta 1); it will also submit the formats to the standards body Ecma International. According to Microsoft, this should make it easier for developers of suites like OpenOffice.org and StarOffice to build applications that can handle even the most complex Office files without trouble. The snag is that it may take as long as 16 months for Microsoft to finish the documentation process.

Bottom Line: Any step toward more and better Office alternatives is a good one, but will the open-source community be okay with Microsoft's commitment not to sue?

Human vs. Machine

The Buzz: While computers are wonderful at crunching numbers, they're terrible at some chores that humans perform easily, like picking out objects in photographs. That's where Amazon's Mechanical Turk project comes in. Rather than writing complex code to identify which photograph best represents a storefront the company wants to include in its A9 Yellow Pages project, for example, Amazon pays its users to complete those tasks. Outside companies can hire Amazon's users as well; the "workers" are compensated with a transferable credit to their Amazon account.

Bottom Line: Cool idea, but here's the catch: At a paltry 3 cents per image, Mechanical Turk tasks pay even worse than journalism does.

Free Video To Go

The Buzz: Which would you rather do, pay $2 to download an episode of Lost from the iTunes Music Store, or use your TiVo to record the latest episode so you can sync it to your iPod? If you picked the second choice, get ready for the true killer app for Apple's video-ready iPod. Early this year, an enhancement to TiVo's TiVoToGo service will allow Series2 TiVo owners to download their recorded TV programs to a video-ready iPod or to a PlayStation Portable (check out Gadget Freak for more). This is the first sensible idea I've seen for making more legal content available for portable video devices. Of course, it was inevitable that someone in the content industry would object to a service this logical and useful, and at press time NBC was the first to step up, registering its complaints.

Bottom Line: I can't see how NBC will get anywhere with its objections. This capability already exists on Portable Media Center devices, much to the delight of the 12 people who own one.

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