Notebook > Technology
Illustration by Krieg Barrie

Office battle

Technology | Microsoft rolls out a response to challenges from OpenOffice and GoogleDocs

Issue: "Your right to vote," July 31, 2010

Microsoft's Office suite of software products-such as Word, PowerPoint, and Excel-has dominated the market since it was introduced for Mac in 1989 and Windows in 1990. Yet its grip has recently been slipping. OpenOffice, a suite of similar tools that is available for free download, is popular among cash-strapped college students. Google Docs, also available for free, takes most of the same functionality and makes it available through a website, so users' documents, spreadsheets, and presentations are available to them from any computer with an internet connection.

Microsoft's been watching this shift. As part of the recent Office 2010 release, the company created Office Web Apps, a free, web-based version of Office software with slimmed-down capabilities. The company is also replacing Microsoft Works-a set of productivity tools previously shipped for free with many Windows computers-with Office Starter, a basic edition of the software that contains a limited version of Word and Excel. Microsoft leaders argue that these free products will make consumers eager to purchase the full version of Office and gain access to programs such as PowerPoint and OneNote. But they aren't taking any chances-Microsoft is spending $80 million on a new Office ad campaign.

Seeing the spill

As the Gulf oil spill continues to wreak havoc on the shoreline, it's becoming harder to see the extent of the spill. Jeffrey Yoo Warren, a fellow at the MIT Center for Future Civic Media, has been using kites, cameras, and balloons to make inexpensive kits that can take photos of the oil spill. Donors are funding the project-called Grassroots Mapping-through the fundraising site Kickstarter, with photos viewable at grassrootsmapping.org. Warren is also working with an aerial imaging service to stitch the images together into a map.

Driver's aide

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Want a warning about gridlock before you're sitting in a traffic jam? IBM is about to release a system that tracks the changing density of mobile phones along various roadways and sends messages to drivers to warn them of the impending trouble spot. To avoid simply shifting the lockup from one road to another, messages will be sent only to some drivers, with the goal of diverting some traffic to another road.

In pilot tests in Singapore and Finland and on the New Jersey Turnpike, the system accurately predicted jams 85 percent to 95 percent of the time. A version of the system that would predict bus arrival times for riders is also undergoing a Singapore test. The analytics used in the system may be useful for predicting sewer flooding or even the most effective treatment for a cancer patient.

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