Open Source

Where is the AI in my office suite?

I have been spending time with Office 2007 lately and I am not overly excited about it. I think it goes against the whole Windows tenet: If you know how to use one application, then your knowledge is directly transferable to another application because the interface is set up in the same way. It has some new features, but the interface you have spent your whole career learning is now different again. My feelings about Vista are the same.

Don’t get me wrong, there are some new features that are valuable, but for the size and complexity of the software, I am still left wondering, "Is this the best they could do?" It is 2007, and where is the software we were promised in the 90s that would change the way we work?

Let me give you some examples: Why is it that my mail client isn’t intelligent? It doesn’t learn from me but still requires that I write "rules" for managing my mail. I want a piece of software that examines my patterns and will prompt me with questions like: "Ramon, I noticed that you tend to respond to Nancy immediately when you receive an e-mail from her. Would you like me to prioritize messages from Nancy and also place them in a separate folder when they are read?"

How about this? "Ramon, I notice that the following message appears to be a task. Would you like me to add it to your task list with the due date listed in the message?" Or this? "You always delete messages that indicate that you have inherited money from someone in Nigeria. Would you like me to automatically consider this spam, no matter who the message comes from?"

How about my word processor being a little smarter? I’ll start with a simple one: enforcement of a standard organizational file-naming policy, as in automatically generating a filename for me to edit that fits the policy and makes sure I don’t violate it.

I could get more sophisticated and ask that my word processor come with a bank of standard text and phrases for particular tasks or could really and truly recognize my voice and punctuate and start new paragraphs appropriately — but perhaps that is too much for now?

Frankly, I believe we have hit a point where software vendors continue to add features without truly making their products more useful. While I lament this, there is a lesson to be learned here for IT managers.

The lesson is in regards to application development. When we are working on upgrading or replacing existing applications, we should — if at all possible — concentrate on building or acquiring only those apps that eliminate tasks or make them easier to perform. This should be one of the metrics in our evaluations of new products over older products and in any software development projects.

There is an opportunity here for the open source world. Having recently used the latest version of OpenOffice, I still think it lacks the polish of even Office 2000; although, it is getting closer. But the real fact of the matter is, to REALLY compete for the desktop, OpenOffice is going to have to do something that Office doesn’t, and it is going to have to do it in a BIG way. In order to get past the inertia of an already-installed base of Microsoft products, Open Office and the like have to get SMARTER.

Competing on a feature-by-feature basis with Microsoft Office is a losing proposition. Open source software needs to leapfrog the competition by doing something entirely different. If a full-featured, intelligent mail client (as I described above) should become available — one that really changes the way you work — people would jump on it. That would be the oomph needed to move organizations to do something different.

Tying this all back in to our IT management lives, our organizations are really looking to us to help change the way they do business. The cry for IT to be better aligned with business is a cry for help in doing things differently and smarter. Delivering more of the same, only more efficiently, is not enough. Eventually that becomes such a commodity that you find yourself competing against outsourcing. However, if IT is the one "thinking outside of the box" — even with its own operations — it will be recognized and rewarded.

There was once a fairly popular book called A Whack on the Side of the Head by Roger von Oech. Its focus was to help you exercise your brain to be more creative. Since then, he has written several other books including Innovative Whack Pack, Creative Whack Pack, and Expect the Unexpected or You Won’t Find It. I point the first book out and the sequels because we really should be thinking about "whacking our organizations on the head" with our new and innovative ideas, and management expects us to be the whackers, whether they realize it or not.

So for the short term, I am stuck with "dumb," but more feature-rich software, a hope that the open source community wakes up to the idea of doing things differently in order to do them better, and the suggestion to you that every time you have a chance to problem-solve or do something new — take the time to innovate and give the process or product a whack or two.

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