Microsoft Word disappeared—what can I do?

Although all Wayne State employees have the ability to download and use the Microsoft Office Suite (including Word, Excel, Powerpoint etc.) it is only available to current employees. When you retire you will probably find that eventually the license will expire. Then what do you do?

One simple possibility is to purchase an individual license for the Suite, which is available from Microsoft for $99/year. If you are not comfortable doing that, there are several options available that I will outline here.

If you really want to stay within the Microsoft environment, all Wayne State employees, students and retirees have access to the online versions of all of these programs. The online versions are not as powerful as the desktop versions (for example the online Word doesn’t have Track Changes, which makes it useless for sharing editing tasks), but they are good enough for most tasks, and are free as long as you have access to Wayne Connect.

Otherwise, if you are comfortable in the Google universe, there is a complete set of tools available for free from Google. These include Google Docs, Sheets, and Slides. They only work online, but all of them allow conversion (and downloading) to the more widely used Microsoft equivalents (and conversion can go both ways). The interface is quite different from the Word (etc.) interface, but does everything that most people need to do (Sheets probably doesn’t do the kind of complex statistical and modeling that Excel can do, nor the complex formatting you can do with Word or similar dedicated word processors). Here’s a screenshot of what a sample CV document looks like in Google Docs:

Google Docs image

Second, if you are willing to spend some money there are high-end competitors to Word that do some tasks better than Word. I have for twenty years used Notabene, a powerful academically-oriented word processor written for those in the humanities. It has built-in support for commonly used scholarly languages (anything using the Roman alphabet, Hebrew, Greek, Arabic) including the ability to mix left-to-right and right-to-left orientation in the same line, a powerful, built-in bibliography program that both stores and inserts references following commonly used style sheets, and a textbase app that permits you to index your files and search for anything, then insert the relevant context into a document. But it’s about $400 (although you can try it out for free—it just won’t print). On the other hand, that’s a one-time only expense, since you’re actually buying it, not licensing it. Here’s a screenshot of a multilingual document in Notabene1[1] :

Finally, there are some decent free alternatives beyond the Google suite. I have been playing with WPS Office for Windows, which is a free download for Windows, iOS, Android and Linux. It has a user-friendly interface that greatly resembles Word (and Excel etc.) and can handle their files with ease. It’s free, although there’s a relatively reasonable subscription version (WPS Office for Windows Premium) that goes for $25/year. You can find it at wps.com/office-free.

Another free competitor comes in at least two flavors: Apache OpenOffice and LibreOffice. They are very powerful office suites, but I find their interfaces somewhat user-unfriendly for those who are used to the Microsoft varieties. These programs are open-source, which means that they are being developed by communities from computer source code that is open to anyone. As with all the other alternatives, these permit conversion to and from the more familiar .docx and .xlsx formats.

Here are links to OpenOffice and LibreOffice.

Finally, if all you want to do is read Word, Excel and Powerpoint files, you can download viewers that permit you do just that: Word Viewer.

In short, although it’s a little annoying, you can keep working from home after you retire. As I plan to do…


[1] I am not affiliated with Notabene, but I have been using it since 1987. Another multilingual word processor is Nisus.

What should we do after Congress repealed the privacy law?

I have received many questions from my friends about what to do now that Congress voted to repeal the online privacy rules created last October by the Obama administration.

The first thing to do is to avoid panic. Those privacy laws never took effect, so I believe we are now no worse off than we were before last October, although some commenters are disputing this.

What did the proposed regulations do? They would have forbidden your internet service provider (ISP) from collecting and using data of your online activities. Particularly from selling that data to other merchants (such as Amazon or Facebook).

When you browse the web from home (or from your phone) your ISP (Comcast, AT&T, WOW, Verizon etc.) routes your traffic from your device to the website you are visiting. That information is, of course, stored by your provider and can be aggregated and sold to the highest bidder. And, of course, if the information is stored, it can be subpoenaed, seized through a national security letter or stolen and sold online to somewhat less reputable people than Comcast.

And all of these things have happened already (Schneier’s article cites real examples):

What can you do to prevent your ISP from seeing where you browse and what websites you look at?

The best solution is to use a Virtual Private Network (VPN). A VPN is like a tunnel that routes all your internet browsing through a neutral pathway so that nobody outside the tunnel can see it. Your browsing is encrypted from your computer to the entrance to the tunnel and outsiders can only see traffic from the tunnel to your target website. Thus nobody can tell where you are browsing.

VPN’s were developed to permit protected information being transmitted across the web. If you are a Wayne State employee you can use the Wayne State VPN. If you do so, your computer (or smartphone — the VPN works with those too) talks only to Wayne State, effectively making it part of the Wayne State network. But any browsing traffic (or downloading) is encrypted, so that nobody can snoop on it (with the possible exception of the NSA, although there is some dispute about whether even they can break 64 bit encryption). You can learn about, and use the Wayne State VPN here: computing.wayne.edu/vpn.

Even if you’re not worried about Comcast or AT&T snooping on your web activities, there are good reasons to use the VPN, particularly if you are not at home. Random Wi-Fi connections in public places are notoriously vulnerable to snooping, and the VPN will protect your laptop or smartphone there. And, of course, I have written over the years about international travel and the possibility that other governments might watch over your shoulder to read your email or other activities. A few countries (China in particular) attempt to block the use of VPN’s, although they generally leave universities alone.

When you use a VPN all traffic from your computer to the website you are looking at goes through the Wayne State (or alternative–more below) first, and is encrypted from your computer to the target website. That means if someone snoops on your computer all they see is encrypted  traffic from you to Wayne State. They can’t see where you are browsing.

Here’s a diagram of what happens when you DON’T use a VPN:

 

And here’s a diagram of what happens when you DO use a VPN:

 

 

It should be said that for older machines and slower network connections there might be a slowdown in how fast a page loads, and we don’t recommend using the VPN for streaming movies.

One last thing: be aware that when you visit a website whose URL begins with https: any text you transmit to that site is encrypted, but any site that begins http: is not encrypted. In addition, sites with https: are authentically what they say they are. You can tell this because there is a green padlock in the address bar, and the text sometimes includes the name of the company.

If you don’t have access to Wayne State’s VPN there are .alternatives. Kevin Hayes, our Chief Information Security Officer recommends not using the various free VPN’s on the market, pointing out that ‘if you are not paying, you are not the customer’. However,  PC Magazine has a rating of various commercial VPN options here: pcmag.com/article2/0,2817,2403388,00.asp.