2003's Top 10
The Empire Strikes Twice
4. Microsoft Windows XP Media Center Edition 2004: The best example yet of beyond-plain-PC thinking, Microsoft's second-generation operating system for multimedia-optimized desktops and laptops is a great-looking, surprisingly intuitive way to navigate through everything from DVD or slide-show viewing to TiVo-style TV recording from an exemplary on-screen program guide, easily managed from across the room with a few buttons on the supplied remote control.
Media Center 2004 isn't perfect -- its full-screen, home-entertainment focus can't match ATI's All-in-Wonder cards for showing TV in a window or background alongside regular productivity programs, and Microsoft's wrongheaded embrace of Hollywood greed freaks' digital copy protection means you can only watch the TV shows you record on the PC that recorded them, not in a standard format for transfer to your living-room DVD player. But it's a classy, attractive way to manage your digital photos, music files, TV and radio favorites, and more.
3. ActiveWords: The $50 ActiveWords Plus is sort of the antithesis of Windows XP Media Center -- an interface that reacts when you type words on the keyboard. A throwback to the memory-resident DOS utilities of 15 years ago? Well, yeah, but ActiveWords is also an exemplary power tool for quickly performing repetitive tasks, launching favorite programs or Web pages, and applying the idea behind Word's AutoComplete to customize and optimize your whole computing environment. Who'd have guessed that keeping your hands on the home row could be such a productivity booster?
2. OpenOffice.org 1.1: Our 2002 pick for product of the year came very close to a repeat. Version 1.1 of the open-source, free-for-the-download, Microsoft-file-compatible word processor, spreadsheet, presentation, and drawing suite peps up performance and polishes the interface of both Windows and Linux editions (Mac OS OpenOffice.org is half an upgrade behind), as well as improving Word, Excel, and PowerPoint interchange and adding PDF export and a macro recorder.
It still lacks a built-in replacement for Outlook's e-mail and calendar, but OpenOffice.org -- like its commercial sibling StarOffice, whose vendor Sun now offers paid support plans for the open-source suite too -- is, though not a must-have, a must-consider-seriously for anyone eyeing a Microsoft Office upgrade. That said ...
1. Microsoft Office 2003: It's somewhat anticlimactic or obvious, but it'd be foolish to deny that the new editions of Gates & Co.'s ultra-dominant software suite are the most significant of the year -- still not, to mandatory-revenue-lusting Microsoft's frustration, an irresistibly compelling upgrade for legions of contented Office users, but a decidedly bigger improvement than Office XP was over Office 2000.
We've said before and we'll say again that the majority of the new "Microsoft Office System" strategy applies only to enterprise IT managers, who can implement powerful (and 100 percent Microsoft) collaboration and workflow solutions spanning from the humblest desktop to hugest back-end server. But Outlook 2003's reorganized reading layout and built-in spam blocker, as well as the Small Business Edition's impressive (but unshareable or single-user) contact manager, are a real help to end users, while InfoPath's forms management has immense promise (more, we suspect, than the Tablet-PC-tie-in hype over OneNote).
And last month's surprise announcement that Microsoft -- perhaps feeling the open-source pressure in Europe and Asia -- had reversed its plan to keep Office 2003's file formats as rigidly secret as its DOC and XLS recipes, releasing its XML schemas for Word, Excel, and InfoPath, is welcome news for both Office and OpenOffice.org users. We applaud the Microsoft that makes superlative software, even as we jeer the Microsoft that schemes to achieve an arm-twisting advantage or unlevel playing field. Here's hoping the former continues to be ascendant in 2004.
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