Is the most popular software the best software?

Office 2010

I read a post on gHacks blog recently in which the author discussed being aligned to a tech company and its products. There was one passage there which made me stop and think:

Let’s take Office for example, it’s still the world’s most popular integrated suite by a wide margin, even on the Mac…So why is Microsoft Office the world’s best office suite? It simply can’t be just because it sells more than its competitors. For this to happen people first have to believe it’s great…

The implication being that if a product is ‘popular’, it’s also ‘the best’. I discussed this in the comments on that post but thought it was worth repeating and expanding those thoughts here.

Most Popular

I would argue that ‘most popular’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘the world’s best’. In the field I work in, publishing, there’s no doubt that MS Word is ‘popular’ as it’s now the industry standard, although WordPerfect was very much the standard back in the early 1990s. In the days before Windows, I well remember using WordPerfect 5.1 for DOS – as an editor, its interactive batch search and replace feature is still better than anything Word has offered. But with the advent of Windows, WordPerfect fell behind and, before real open source alternatives had appeared, most publishers had moved to Word adopting it as the standard. Nowadays, most publishers insist that authors submit manuscripts in doc format, indeed most authors do that anyway. The newer docx format still really hasn’t caught on in publishing. For example, Springer, a major publisher, still doesn’t accept authors’ manuscripts submitted in docx format.  Authors around the world, copy editors, etc have to follow suit and use Word because that’s what publishers insist on and that’s one reason why it’s popular. I haven’t even seen the widespread adoption of cloud alternatives like Google Docs and cloud collaboration in publishing yet. As mentioned in the comments on the gHacks posts, because Word is the publishing industry standard, this has led to the use of illegal copies of Word in poorer countries where writers just can’t afford a commercial product. At any rate, Microsoft’s clampdown on illegal copies of Word should help to increase the uptake of open source and cloud products.

The Best?

To me, the best software means it’s better than its competitors, doesn’t use a proprietary format, can do all you want it to intuitively, and comes at a good price (preferably free). But can we say Word is better than its competitors when as I suspect most publishers haven’t even considered or tried alternatives like for example LibreOffice – I haven’t. It’s just popular because most of us in business have to use it and haven’t looked around at the alternatives. And what about Word’s proprietary format? As another gHacks commenter mentioned, adoption of say rich text format might be a better standard. I often wonder what will happen say 10 to 15 years down the line and we try to access our old archived documents in doc format. Will we be able to open them then? Microsoft have moved away from the doc format to docx, an ISO accredited standard format (Office Open XML or OOXML) but not globally adopted in the face of other standards, and one wonders if saving documents in rich text format might actually have better longevity.

Word certainly can do all that I want but the other problem with being forced along the Word route is that most of us have a product which does much, much more than most of us will ever need. For most of us at home, I’m sure that an open source free alternative like LibreOffice, or even a cloud alternative, would be perfect. In the commercial word, a free product, lighter on features would also suit many but until the Word stranglehold is broken and companies stop insisting on us using doc format then unfortunately great free alternatives won’t be adopted widely commercially and Word will remain ‘popular’, but not necessarily ‘the best’.

What do you think? I’d love to hear what you think are the best software products but which aren’t necessarily the most popular… and the most popular which aren’t the best.

3 Responses

  1. Ducky Says:

    At our school we ran OpenOffice on all the Student machines and Microsoft Office on Teacher machines.
    All everyone did was complain about OpenOffice. There were bugs all over the place (lots of strange little ones) and it didn’t work the way people wanted it to.
    Microsoft thankfully offered the school a better deal to get all our machines licenced with Microsoft Office, so now we use that on everything.
    Regardless of what people say about Open Source being better, Word is a pretty good product (*hides from the MS Haters*) and I’d say it’s worth the money (assuming you get it cheap from some deal, the full price for it is quite debatable :P)

  2. Blu Says:

    I use LibreOffice. It’s fixed all those little problems, plus it can write directly to .rtf, .doc, .docx, and can read almost any format. I can just use it silently in collaboration with MS Word.

  3. Pedro Says:

    Today, the “best software” isnt one that force you to use just that software. If i create a file, has to be “open”, so everyone could open it. The future is for “open standards”, local and on the web. I use Ubuntu and Mac.

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