Microsoft Word Withstands Assaults

That old standby still has some life life left in it, as it's more consumer- and Web-friendly.
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A final word on Word.

Microsoft

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these days is a lot like Constantinople in 1204: The company is seeing assaults on every front of its once-impenetrable desktop software fortress.

Its no-go operating system Vista is finally having a negative effect on company market share. For the first time I can remember, Windows' piece of the PC software market fell below 90 percent, according to

MarketShare

, the Aliso Viego, California-based research arm of tech firm Net Applications.

The incursion here is not so much all about

Apple's

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9 rise, which is palpable -- the upscale PC maker's market bite is getting close to 9% -- but about the growth of Linux-based operating systems. Now

Dell

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,

H-P

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,

IBM

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and many small makers are all shipping computers that offer some form of no- or low-cost OS. Check out this slick new so-called netbook, the

Inspiron Mini 9

. This is a perfectly reasonable laptop that starts at just $350 with nary a bit of Windows software.

The Microsoft Office brand is also facing a slugfest.

Google

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,

Adobe

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and many others offer robust Web-based word processing, spreadsheets and the full line of office applications, in many cases at no cost to the end user. The vibe on the company is, with Bill Gates gone and some other impostor driving the boat, all that can happen is Microsoft slowly becomes AOL, a sinking tech darling looking for margin.

I have reviewed and studied these new Web-based products for close to 18 months, sometimes very favorably. Yes, Microsoft faces diminished expectations. And yes, events may conspire to bring this mammoth down. But in these rapidly expiring days of 2008, small businesses need to face the fact that Microsoft's failings are not about the technology.

Web-based office software does have a place in the small-business techno liturgy. But office applications that are based on the Internet are simply not -- now or for the foreseeable future -- a full replacement for desktop-based office software.

What you get:

With programs like Microsoft Word, you get a traditional desktop-based office and word processing application that really, truly works.

For all the hip factor that comes with processing and managing text online, I and most of the professional word nerds I deal with still use old-school desktop-based software for most of our content production needs. Why? It's fast. It's stable. It works. And you always know where your files are.

Which, trust met, is not what you get with online word processors: Web connectivity, processor overload, reduced functionality, content syncing bugs, identity managing problems -- all take their toll on productivity. At the end of the day, when a document needs to get done, doing it on software you run from your desktop is still the way to do it.

Moreover, modern desktop word processors have not stood still. Assuming that you are running these programs on powerful computers -- 3 GB multi-threaded processors, 4 GB of RAM -- they are ridiculously well provisioned. Microsoft Office Word 2007, for example, comes with essentially a small publishing firm all built in. It provides effective templates, a solid and proficient spell- and grammar-checker, and nice layout tools. It boasts some of the best document markup technologies on the market. And it integrates nicely with email and other forms of communications.

Finally, desktop code is cheap. Microsoft has dropped the price on software that once was punishingly expensive. Entry-level versions of Office start at $150. And if you go with the subscription service, you can use it on three computers for $70 a year, though these licenses are limited to non-commercial use. And OpenOffice, the powerful office application from Sun, has a very effective free version.

What you don't get:

Word still has not cracked the collaboration issue.

Microsoft has made attempts at making its software more Web-friendly. Microsoft Office Live, the new small-business work spaces and the company's attempts to publish directly to blogs and other Web-based environments are steps. And it offers a full line of server-based collaboration tools like SharePoint and others. But unless you can spend a fortune here, they are not effective. Collaboration tools like Google or Zoho have done an excellent job of molding themselves to work with the Microsoft platform. And it has been very tricky for Redmond to catch up.

If you are looking to work with others on the same document, stick with Web-based tools.

Bottom line:

Yes, online apps work. They add a layer of collaboration and efficiency that all small business should harness. But they are

additions

to desktop-based systems, not replacements.

The fact is, Microsoft Word running on a powerful PC is still the word on doing words.

Jonathan Blum is an independent technology writer and analyst living in Westchester, N.Y. He has written for The Associated Press and Popular Science and appeared on FoxNews and The WB.