On walkabout in life and technology

Cutting Down on Web Tracking

You may not know it, but lots of web sites use a variety of tricks to track you across the Internet, not just on the site you are currently browsing. These all depend on your browser talking to the tracker’s server without your knowledge or consent. These trackers use huge numbers of servers with different names and IP addresses to make it more difficult to stop them.

If you use a single browser all the time, plugins like Ghostery work very well. But if you, like me, use lots of browsers and scripts, something else is needed.

Dan Pollock has a solution at Using a Hosts File To Make The Internet Not Suck (as much). He provides a massive and frequently updated hosts file that redirects all requests for these sites back to your own computer. Since your browser and scripts never send the request to the tracker, you don’t get tracked. And since these requests are local, browsing should be quicker.

To install (OS X instructions, others in the file), browse to the text version and append it to your /etc/hosts file using your favorite text editor. Then come back every once in a while and replace with updates.

Update: Before saving the updated file, perform a search for apple and comment out any lines with appleglobal and applestoreus in them, they break Apple.com. If you find other sites breaking, just look for them in /etc/hosts, comment them out and email Dan at hosts@someonewhocares.org.

I can’t prove that this works for all sites, and it does not feel as if browsing is much faster (because I am running a local web server[1]), but it does seem to work against the most common tracking sites. So much so that I have disabled Ghostery and rely on this to cut down on being tracked.

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  1. Beware if you, like me, are running a local web server on port 80 or POW, your computer will start accepting these web hits and start sending 404 errors (which you will start to see in a surprising number of sites). You may need to keep your logs clean if your primary drive is small. ↩

Premature BlackBerry Sales Analysis by Forbes

I’m writing this for a friend who tweeted this article to me. Feel free to listen in. Mate, this in an intervention, don’t believe what you read in Forbes. Please.

Lets take yesterday’s post Nearly Half Of BlackBerry Z10 Buyers Switching From iPhone And Android by Agustino Fontevecchia.

BlackBerry’s new smartphone is stealing iPhone and Android users, according to a recent note by RBC Capital markets, which shows 45% of those buying Z10s converted from the two leading operating systems.

The first line of the article proves it’s made-up. Let me show you.

The reporter’s source is RBC Capital Markets (Ed: the ’M' is capitalized, dude, unless that’s not the real source, RBC Capital is an even bigger fish) but the actual source person is not named. So it’s a theoretical unnamed source who works for either RBC Capital or RBC Capital Markets, a trading company that is free to express its opinion on the market. The source is not a trustworthy market research company or a carrier or even BlackBerry itself.

Then later in the article, they credit RBC Research (not the unnamed analyst now) with predicting a 45% switch rate. Wait, what? The first sentence makes out that it has already happened, yet later they contradict themselves by saying that’s what the research team predicts! The word “stealing” in the first line implies present tense, the word “estimates” later on implies future made-up stuff.

And then there’s this, free time travel folks. The article is dated March 14. BlackBerry Z10’s go on sale on, let me see (doing real research):

  • AT&T: March 22 - no data there.
  • Verizon: March 28 - no data there.
  • T-Mobile: March 11 - er, preorders for business customers only, no sales data reported yet, so no frakking data there either! Public gets it on March 24, no data there.

So how is it possible for 45% of new BlackBerry Z10 owners to be switchers when they cannot be owners yet!

I have not gotten past the first sentence of the article and we already know it is bullshit.

But lets give the author the benefit of the doubt and assume their source has T-Mobile’s internal pre-order data, which we know they do not. 45%? Really, a nicely rounded, just less than 50% number? I smell a steaming pile of made-up number here. What’s the probability that exactly 45% of the pre-orders from existing T-Mobile customers that they know are using Apples and Androids? Oh wait, these are corporate pre-orders, bulk buying, so the final distribution of these devices is unknown to T-Mobile . Which means what these devices are replacing is, you guessed it, unknown.

There’s no point reading the rest of this Forbes link-bait, too bad it had over 30,000 views when I posted this.

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Also Destroyed the Ecosystem

Aldo Cortesi in Google, destroyer of ecosystems writes:

The truth is this: Google destroyed the RSS feed reader ecosystem with a subsidized product, stifling its competitors and killing innovation.

Erhem, see also:

  • Amazon → book stores
  • Amazon → music stores
  • Amazon → video stores
  • Starbucks → coffee shops
  • Best Buy → Appliance stores
  • Home Depot → Hardware stores
  • Luxottica → Eyewear
  • LVMH → Luxury goods

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Backup Your Online Life

The big tech news today is that Google is shutting down its Reader RSS Sync service, and my Twitter and App.Net feeds are full of people upset about it.

I’m not because I planned for it. Free web service shutdowns have happened before and free web service shutdowns will happen again (with apologies to Pythia). So I regularly backup my online life. (Links to do so are below.)

By now, we’ve all been on the Internet long enough to know that everything changes, frequently. We all moved from:

As one service becomes less popular, less featured or shuts down, we all move to another. If there is no free version, we pay, or we find another alternative, or someone makes a better, more innovative product. It’s the internet circle of life.

The real issue is when we lose the data we placed on those services.

That is because we relied on these services for their data storage and assumed, incorrectly as we now know, that they would always be there. We did not have local copies or backups. So when the service went, so did our data.

The best thing you can do is to make sure that for anything you have on a free or paid for web service, you also have copies and backups on your local drives. There is no excuse for not doing this. Hard disks are cheap, huge and reliable, and the data you share is usually quite accessible.

For example, I use a mail client application to ensure all my Gmail is downloaded and safe. I keep copies of all my photos, even the ones I share, in Aperture libraries (which are just folders of files). I use IFTTT and Slogger to keep all my tweets, Facebook posts and Instagram’s up to date locally. My blogs are all baked on my computer. I download my Pinboard links every month. I even have a copy of my old GeoCities web site (and no, no way am I going to share that atrocity). And I have an OPML copy of my RSS feeds.

I am not saying Gmail or Twitter is going to go away tomorrow, but these are free services, and they can be shut down at any time. However, if any of these services do go away, you should still have the data, up-to-date, and in a useable format. That way you can upload it into a new service any time without pause.

You’ve been told to backup you computer, you should also backup your online life.

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The Geeky Part

Links and resources to get your data out of some popular services (you’ll need to be logged in to access them):

I am sure you all have more links for services that I have missed, please add and share them in the comments.

Guessing the Wall Street Journal Agenda for Apple

I’m not a subscriber to the Wall Street Journal, but I have noted the past few months that the WSJ seems to issue regular negative news, no, opinions, no, rumors, no, rubbish on Apple.

So I ran a test, I Googled wsj apple.

Here are the headlines that came up. I only read the blurb because the content is behind a paywall, and so include my guess as to what I expect would be in the article (and know wasn’t):

  1. Has Apple Lost Its Cool to Samsung? Of course not, because Apple is selling more iPhones per quarter than all Samsung smartphones ever.
  2. Apple’s Magic Wears Thin As Earnings Disappoint, when Apple had the best quarter of any company ever, but did not release the iWand, unicorns or fairy dust!
  3. Investors Find Ways to Cope With Pain of Apple because the WSJ trash talked the share price down causing investors to feel the pain of stomach ulcers, so they took painkillers.
  4. Investors Grapple With Core Reality of Apple which is a stable, growing and profitable company unlike any other outside of text books; oh wait, no, the WSJ does not get that.
  5. AAPL Stock Price Today in which Apple is not mentioned (See the text underneath, it’s all about Samsung Galaxy devices).
  6. The Fight to Unseat Apple’s iPhone Intensifies in which the WSJ reads the entrails of a dead panda and claim that Apple needs to persuade shoppers to go out and buy that which they are already buying by the boatload without any persuasion.
  7. How Apple Bit Bond Holders, Too about reverse convertible bonds that don’t exist (and the reverse pun did not work either, sorry).
  8. Apple Cuts Orders for iPhone Parts because Apple stopped buying screens from one shonky manufacturer and the WSJ failed to mention equivalent orders from other manufacturers and the fact that this was the post Xmas down quarter and the fact that this was a made-up thing.
  9. Apple’s Shares Drop as Slowing Growth Builds on Investor Worries because of WSJ articles, and the slowing growth is because Apple could not manufacture enough devices in the last quarter to meet the ridiculously high demand?
  10. New Worry for Apple in which they describe how Verizon activated more iPhones than ever, so I guess the worry is that Apple is doing things right?
  11. Another Day, Another Downbeat Note on Apple because an analyst is worried about supply chain data that the WSJ made up and potential, yes, potential delays in products that don’t exist. Running syndicated repeats now, eh?
  12. WSJ: Apple’s App Store climbs towards $25 billion in sales, oh wait, that’s a TUAW link that crept in, silly Google.
  13. WSJ: Apple’s PR Is Starting To Feel The Heat because they sent out more favorable PR reports, which, I believe, is (a) what a PR department is supposed to do, and (b) a good thing because there was more favorable news to share, and © they turned the air-conditioning up.
  14. Why The WSJ Got The ‘iPhone Demand Is Crashing’ Story All Wrong. It’s really sad when Forbes, yes, Forbes gets to call you out. Even I’m embarrassed for the WSJ on this one.
  15. Apple Cuts Orders for iPhone Parts or did they? (Had to skip a page of results here because of all the reposts and takedowns, and the Business Insider links that are even more baity)
  16. Apple Working On a Less-Expensive iPhone that does not exist.
  17. Apple Moves Closer to Making TV Set that does not exist.
  18. Will China Save Apple? from the WSJ?
  19. Apple’s New Front in Battle for TV that does not exist.
  20. WSJ: Apple testing iWatch designs with Foxconn that do not exist.
  21. WSJ sues blogger for silly article, ok, so I made that one up.

Is there any doubt that the WSJ has its own agenda, and pumping out anti-Apple words is the execution of said agenda?

Come on, friends, it’s not serious or insidious, the WSJ agenda is simply to sell more papers and get more clicks. Nothing does that more than any article with the word Apple in its headline, and reporting and fairness and truth have nothing to do with making money for the WSJ.

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Sharing Bash Profiles Across Computers

If you use more than one computer, keeping your dotfiles in sync is difficult. You either need to run a sync program like ChronoSync or set up your own rsync scripts. And then remember to run them.

I’m lazy, I just want it to work. So here is a lightweight way to share your key dotfiles across computers using Dropbox.

Create a folder in Dropbox called Scripts and save your dotfiles there:

$ cp ~/.inputrc ~/Dropbox/Scripts/inputrc.txt
$ cp ~/.bash_profile ~/Dropbox/Scripts/bash_profile.sh

Note: The leading dots have been removed in Dropbox so the files are not hidden and will sync. I also add file extensions to make editing them easier.

Now that they are shared on each computer, replace your ~/.bash_profile with:

# Copy my shared inputrc (may require 2 loads)
cp ~/Dropbox/Scripts/inputrc.txt ~/.inputrc

# Use my shared profile
source ~/Dropbox/Scripts/bash_profile.sh

I have this saved as use_this_bash_profile.sh and, on each computer, just once

$ cp ~/Dropbox/Scripts/use_this_bash_profile.sh ~/.bash_profile

Boom, edit dotfiles once, shared on all computers automatically.

Bonus Tip: Plonk all your other common scripts in the same shared folder and add it to your PATH.

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Better Bash Shell Expansion

I’ve been doing a lot of work on TextMate 2 plugins recently and the way shell expansion works in the terminal has been annoying me. Here are some tips to

  • speed up access to the Application Support folder,
  • create case insensitive tab completions,
  • reduce typing to cd to common folders
  • and to reuse the TAB key for additional completions.

Getting to Application Support

The TextMate bundles I am working on are hidden in the LibraryApplication Support Folder. If you type this in your shell (⇥ is the TAB key):

$ cd ~/Library/App⇥

I’ll bet it completes to cd ~/Library/Application\ S and stops. That’s because there are two folders that could match: Application Scripts and Application Support. Since I never need to use Application Scripts, I’d like bash completion to ignore it.

Add the following in your .bash_profile file:

# So I can tab to Application Support
FIGNORE=".o:~:Application Scripts"

The FIGNORE shell variable tells bash completion to ignore files or folders with the matching patterns (colon separated list). Quit and restart your terminal and

$ cd ~/Library/App⇥

correctly maps to

$ cd ~/Library/Application\ Support/

Thanks Allan Odgaard for the tip in Path Completion (bash).

Case Insensitive Completion

I drive myself nuts with case sensitive file and folder names, and then using the wrong case when attempting completion in a shell. I often type

$ cd ~/l⇥

instead of

$ cd ~/L⇥

To get to ~/Library.

To get case-insensitive completion, add the following to a file called ~/.inputrc (.inputrc in your home folder):

set completion-ignore-case on

And restart your terminal. Tab completion will now work no matter what case the file or folder name is.

Tip: If you want it to work with hyphens and underscores as well, add:

set completion-map-case on

Shorter CD

All my code and projects are in ~/Projects/, so I often need to type

$ cd ~/Projects/Kifu/code

to get to the code base on Kifu. I also have a Pictures and a Public folder so tab completing cd ~/P is a pain (see below).

Then I learned about the CDPATH variable in bash. Add folders to this and the cd command will look there as well for the folder you want. In your .bash_profile:

# So I can cd to projects quickly

Now I can type

$ cd Kifu/code

from anywhere to get to the same place.

Warning: Using CDPATH can screw up some scripts where the cd will work on your machine and not on others, use with care.

Also, in OS X, tab completion does not work with CDPATH, you need to type in the full folder name, with the correct case. Or you could install bash-completion using HomeBrew or MacPorts, something I choose not to do (Instructions here).

Aside: For more frequently accessed folders, I use TextExpander snippets to reduce typing; in this case, the expansion of ;cdki takes me to the same place. I just don’t create expansions for all projects. Yes, I know, I could just as easily use shell alias to do the same.

TAB for more completions

In my `.inputrc , I also have

set mark-symlinked-directories on
set show-all-if-ambiguous on

The first line just makes symlinks look better, the second is brilliant. If there are ambiguous files that could match your tab completion, show-all-if-ambiguous shows them all and returns you the same prompt to help you type more to get a match.

So typing

$ cd ~/P⇥

Presents the expansion options:

$ cd ~/P⇥
Pictures/ Projects/ Public/
$ cd ~/P

Thats nice but I’d like to tab through the options instead. Add this to your .inputrc and restart the terminal:

TAB: menu-complete

So typing

$ cd ~/P⇥

now gives

$ cd ~/Pictures/

Press TAB again gives

$ cd ~/Projects/

Update: Thanks to Brett Terpstra’s Quick Tip: some .inputrc fun, you can use SHIFT-TAB to complete in reverse, just add this to your .inputrc:

"\e[Z": "\e-1\C-i"


My .inputrc

set completion-ignore-case on
set mark-symlinked-directories on
set show-all-if-ambiguous on
TAB: menu-complete
"\e[Z": "\e-1\C-i"

Parts of my .bash_profile

# So I can tab to Application Support
FIGNORE=".o:~:Application Scripts"

# So I can cd to projects quickly

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Gist.tmbundle Updates

I just pushed a few small updates to my Gists bundle for TextMate 2. These include:

  • Adding progress bars for network access (Thanks for the suggestion and tip from Allan Odgaard).
  • New: Add file to Gist command to add the current file to an existing Gist to create multi-file Gists. For example, use this to gist the header and implementation code files in the same gist. This gets cached so you can blindly update any of the files in a multi-file gist without remembering the gist ID.
  • New: Gist from Selection command to create a new gist with the selected text. This command, like all the others, leaves the URL of the gist on the clipboard so it’s easy to create a gist from selection, then paste the URL into a blog post or email. Note that gists from selections are not cached as they have no file names.

This Gists bundle is now part of the standard TextMate Bundle distribution. You can find this bundle in TextMate → Preferences → Bundles → Gist where it can be enabled.

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Modular Mac Pros, the New Burroughs B20?

I’ve been watching a conversation on APP.NET speculating about the next Mac Pro form factor, triggered by Dan Frakes’s article The time is (finally) right for a Mac minitower in MacWorld. All we know about it is that Tim Cook said they were coming.

One of the speculative themes in the discussion is a “modular” Mac Pro, where adding CPU’s, drives or expansion cards would be a simple case of stacking another module on and using thunderbolt to keep it all together:

I’m completely convinced that Apple is dropping the enormous Mac Pro tower this year and is coming out with a small modular “pro” Mac to replace it. I don’t need it, but I think many do: http://j.mp/WSBux3

This discussion reminded me of one of the first computers I ever used for work, the Burroughs B20 series, sold by Unisys. I started on a B24 and upgraded to a B26 later.

These were amazing in their day. Because components were expensive, you could ‘build’ your computer as your needs and budget changed. Each stack started with a CPU unit on the left, early models had a Intel 80186, going up to the 80306 in the B26. You then added a hard drive module (they called them Winchester drives back then) and added a graphics module to enable I/O (different ones for green screen and basic color).

Need more RAM? Plug in a memory expansion module. Needed a floppy disk, stack on a drive module. Need another floppy, stack it on. Tape backup? Another module. Need to cluster computers, stack on a cluster module (think ethernet card). More hard disk, add a disk expansion module. On some desks in our office, these stacks used to span the entire desk.

One of the most amazing features of the CTOS operating system that B20 series ran was that it handled the addition of modules and capabilities automatically, although, if my recollection is correct, you needed to add or remove modules while powered off. Power on and it “found” and just used the new module. Maybe the B26 was the first “it just works” computer.

If the new Mac Pros turn out to be Mac Mini sized modules, that would be cool; and I think OS X could easily be extended to support modular expansions. Need more CPU’s, stack on a CPU module. More disks, add another SSD module.

But the thing that made these CTOS systems really sing was their clustering capability. Admittedly, their COAX network connections were slow by today’s standards, but we could distribute work around up to 25 CTOS workstations very easily.

These days, with thunderbolt speed, maybe the new Mac Pros could be a network of modules instead of a single computer. The CPUs could be clustered and the disks shared as if a NAS, so it looks like a network of computers internally; but externally it looks and operates like a single computer with a lot of resources.

Wouldn’t that be fun.

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The Diminishing Relevance of MS Office

It used to be a given that we purchased our computers to run MS Office, because that’s all the software we used on our computers. But over the years, we started to use our computing devices for more than work and the use and need for MS Office has declined in importance.

We still regularly need to use MS Office file formats to share documents, but lots of software happily reads and writes these formats. And these days, people are purchasing tablets and mobile computing devices in droves that do not and can not run MS Office and they don’t seem to care about it.

I think that MS Office is no longer as relevant in our computing purchase or use decisions because we use computers differently now and there are other ways to share documents.

In this post, I present my view on the rise and fall of MS Office, based on my use of this product suite over the years. And I’ve been using it since the beginning.

Introducing Computers into the Office

Back in the 1980’s, products like VisiCalc, the first spreadsheet, and WordStar, followed by WordPerfect, were the killer apps that introduced personal computers into the workplace. These were the predecessors to MS Office. Our Apple II’s or later Intel 8086 based IBM clones ran them happily in our DOS boxes, and many UNIX-heads like me purchased PC’s to gain access to these amazing tools.

Before these products came out, personal computers were really only for hobbyists or researchers and programmers in labs. But the ease of use and programmability of VisiCalc and the benefits of Word Processing over typewriters were immediately apparent, leading to the rise of computers and printers in the workplace.

In the late 1980’s, VisiCalc had stumbled and the shiny and very powerful Lotus 123 became the first de facto standard for business documents. And when we hit the end of the 1980’s, a new MS Word for DOS program from Microsoft was starting to compete with WordPerfect for mind share. I wrote my university thesis using MS Word for DOS and used Lotus 123 for tables of numbers and graphs.

Computers were for Working

As the 1990’s ramped up, so did the use of computers in the workplace. More and more people were using PC’s for Spreadsheeting and Word Processing. Lotus 123 and WordPerfect skills were becoming necessary on résumés.

Microsoft started the decade by bundling their Word Processor, Spreadsheet and Presentation tool in one, called it MS Office and dropped the price drastically. It took several years for the cheaper, plucky MS Office to replace the aging Lotus 123 and WordPerfect as de facto standards, but by the middle of the decade, we were all using MS Office at work. This pretty much coincided with the majority move from text-based DOS to GUI Windows, and the failure of both Lotus 123 and WordPerfect to make the jump in time. I was running Word and Excel on the Mac at the time at home, and on Windows at work (and moving files between the two on floppy disks and later Zip drives).

The most common use of personal computing during the 1980s and 1990s was at work, and MS Office was the market leader. Your company purchased computers to run MS Office. And you did little else on these computers except run MS Office and print the results out. It was a boom time for MS Office, Windows and corporate desktop computing.

But the seeds for change were busy being planted. On the fringes of corporate computing were people using Adobe products for creative design and desktop publishing. I started using Illustrator and PageMaker in 1993. And on the other end of the scale, the rise of modems and CompuServe and Bulletin Boards were laying the seeds for using computers for communication, messaging and sharing. And Corporate IT shops were starting to write their own software to replace spreadsheets to run the business.

By the time we hit the end of the 1990’s, we pretty much all had email too. And MS Office had grown to include Outlook to help us manage it. At work, instead of printing the MS Office documents we spent all day creating and modifying, we emailed them back and forth.

MS Office was still the number one necessary product on personal computers. It was the “Golden Age” of MS Office.

Making the Computer Personal Again

In the 1990’s, we were still working on computers and playing elsewhere. That all changed in the naughts. Maybe it was Apple’s iLife, maybe it was the Internet, maybe it was digital photography, maybe it was Napster and MP3’s, or maybe its because we just had computers at home, but we suddenly started using computers for more than boring old work.

We started to use email for personal communication, no longer a business function. We started to store our photos and music on our computers. We started to create our own art, menus, newsletters and invitations and consume other media on our computers. We started to do research, and play games, and browse, and we gave computers to our grandparents to maintain communication with them.

I think by the middle of the naughts, people were no longer buying computers primarily for work anymore, even though the Corporates were still buying Dells and MS Office by the billions. Computers were becoming mainstream at home for email and web, and used at work to run other corporate software which was becoming more popular. Sure, we worker drones still spent most of our days in Word, Excel or Powerpoint, but more and more of our time was being spent outside this core suite in web applications and email. We had all started to use other software a lot more, and MS Office a little less.

The rise of email, and the Blackberry revolution that kicked off the smartphone revolution, further depressed the primacy of MS Office as the must-have software. There was no Word, Excel or Powerpoint on a Blackberry, yet we still loved these devices, and you could still view MS Office files if you needed to. It was no longer a must-have, the primary need on a computing device had changed from MS Office to email.

The Computer as a Communications Device

And nowadays, our use of computers has further strayed from work and the need for MS Office. Our computing devices have become our communication devices, whether they be smart phones, tablets or laptops. We all spend a lot more time on the web, sharing and communication using IM, Skype, Facebook and Twitter, and search, browse and shop on the web too. We buy computers these days for portability and wireless access to the web services we rely on, not spreadsheeting. And there are so many useful alternatives to MS Office that we no longer treat running MS Office as a requirement. Just look at the sales of iPhones and iPads and Android tablets, no MS Office, and no need for it.

Many of us, myself included, rarely if ever use a Word Processor or a Spreadsheet anymore. We email instead of writing letters, rarely print anything, and run our emails on multiple devices using different email software instead of Outlook. We use Soulver and online spreadsheets and custom software instead of Excel for everything numerical. We create web sites and wikis and blog posts instead of Word documents. We snark at people who use Comic Sans in Powerpoint decks, while using Futura in Keynote, or Ubuntu Sans in PDF presentation decks.

If I did not have clients that needed me to program these tools, I would not have them installed (and did not for over a year).

MS Office is now the part, not the whole

It used to be that we did everything on our computers in MS Office tools. And most of us still need MS Office or tools like it to do our jobs. But for many of us, a growing number, we can and do easily replace MS Office with iWork or Google Docs or OpenOffice, or just use other stuff instead. Proof, I repeat, we’re buying devices that do not have it and do not seem to care.

In my case, for example, I write everything in Markdown and share documents on the web or as PDF files. On the once annual occasion that I need to share a document for review tracking, and need MS Word format, I launch Pages, a cheaper alternative that is more than compatible enough. I do all my work estimates and calculations in Soulver, invoices and time tracking in Billings, accounting in QuickBooks, and my data is in web databases; all of these things used to reside in Excel Spreadsheets. If I need to share data, I spit out JSON or CSV. I do presentations in Keynote which is a better Powerpoint and email using Gmail web or Mail.app. I no longer need Outlook for contacts and calendaring because that’s built into my operating systems now and synced in the cloud.

I may not be typical, but I am seeing more and more people doing the same. MS Office was magnificent in bringing the power of personal computing to people, but I think that we’re all moving beyond it now and are needing and using other stuff more.

It is just not as relevant as it used to be.

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