It may surprise many people, but Microsoft is fairly irrelevant to my daily life. I don’t use Microsoft Windows. In fact, no one in my office uses Windows. I don’t use Microsoft Office. At work, I have a Mac; at home, I run Linux.
I don’t use Windows because, frankly, I think it’s a bit shit. It’s clunky and user-hostile. Even when they manage to disguise the mouldering tower of hacks and kludges behind a glossy skin, as in Windows 7 (I have tried the betas) the design decisions seem to be driven more by political and economic concerns than by technical ones. Windows is the Ryugyong Hotel of operating systems: poorly made, expensive, casting a huge shadow, and recently fitted with a new façade of shiny glass.
Occasionally, though, the Microsoft monoculture rears its ugly head in places where I can’t ignore it. Yesterday, I learned via the cloudsourced blog that some useful information was available free from the Office for National Statistics:
Boundaries for Output Areas (OAs), Lower Layer Super Output Areas (LSOAs), Middle Layer Super Output Areas (MSOAs) and Travel to Work Areas (TTWAs) are available free of charge to all users.
I’d like that. How do I obtain this information?
To obtain boundaries, please complete a boundary request form from the Downloads section and email it to ONS Geography.
What is the request form?
Boundary request form 1.21 Mb Word document
D’oh! ‘Microsoft Word Document’ is a proprietary format, while
the ONS is a (non-ministerial) government body. It’s a
.gov.uk site. I think it’s inappropriate for the state
to provide data only in proprietary formats controlled by a third
party. Computing should not require a payment to Microsoft, or any
other company, and the state should not assist in reinforcing
Under normal circumstances, I’d install a piece of free software whose programmers have managed to reverse engineer the Word document format, and use that to decipher the file. OpenOffice.org, for example. That would have been easy, but it wouldn’t have been right. I felt that it was important in this case not to acquiesce. I emailed them:
However, my computer is unable to display proprietary Microsoft Word documents, and I am thus unable to fill in the ‘Boundary request form’. Please therefore let me know what additional information you require to fulfil this request.
They probably think I’m an ass. They would be right: I am an ass. But if no one made a fuss, how would they know that their assumption that everyone has Microsoft Office is erroneous?
The ONS replied to my request, asked for my address, and have already despatched the CDs with the data. So I get what I wanted, and I’ve made a point.
There is of course a time and a place for such bolshiness: I don’t expect anyone to start rejecting customer or client documents because they don’t like Microsoft formats. But next time a state body assumes that everyone is uses Microsoft Windows and Office, gently correct them. Maybe at some point they’ll realise.
And if you don’t know why all this matters, read the cautionary tale of South Korea and the SEED cipher:
This nation is also a unique monoculture where 99.9% of all the computer users are on Microsoft Windows. This nation is a place where Apple Macintosh users cannot bank online, make any purchases online, or interact with any of the nation’s e-government sites online.
It’s a hard assumption to undo.