Top Software for 2003

By Eric Grevstad | Posted December 24, 2003

Once again, it's time for our annual review of the software titles that have made the biggest impression on us over the past 12 months. Without a doubt, the Windows platform remains the unquestionable choice for PC users seeking the largest software selection and smoothest interoperability. But to be honest, this year, appreciation of worthy applications combined with sightings of hairline cracks in Microsoft's mortar.

Now, a few cracks don't mean the fortress walls are tumbling down. But corporate IT managers and small-business proprietors this year couldn't help being affected by Outlook e-mail worms or security breakdowns, or hearing a story or two about some city, country, or agency defecting from Windows and Office to open-source alternatives (or about Microsoft's dodging a defection by negotiating away some of the bundling or mandatory-upgrading terms it imposes on most companies).

And while Redmond ended the year with its usual razzle-dazzle by previewing the next version of Windows, the seamless-filing-system-meets-spiffy-eye-candy "Longhorn" isn't likely to ship until 2006. Meanwhile, users geeky enough to play with hard-disk partitions and burning CDs from downloadable ISO images can show off elegant, self-booting, automatic-hardware-configuring Linux desktops complete with full libraries of applications, such as Knoppix and Mepis Linux, while commercial distributions like SUSE Linux 9.0 and Xandros Desktop 2 offer not only slick, Windows-lookalike functionality but the option to run popular Windows applications. Frankly, Linux moved so fast this year we doubt it'll stand still in 2004 — which may be why Microsoft is moving so fast to stake out beyond-plain-PC territory like the Media Center and Tablet PC.

Anyway, back to the present and on with the countdown of the best software that reached our office this year. We emphatically deny that the program we spent the most hours with was the freeware super-Tetris clone Cubemaster Gold.

10. Google Toolbar and Deskbar: More evidence that it's Google's world, we just live in it — free-to-download, an-hour-to-forget-all-thoughts-of-deleting add-ins for Internet Explorer 5.5 that not only give you all-the-time access to the Internet's supreme search site (and the nifty Google News), but other conveniences like a first-class pop-up ad blocker. The new Deskbar isn't strictly an add-in so much as a replacement for IE that hides in the Windows Taskbar and pops up a mini-browser window whenever you have the urge to search; it makes the Microsoft Office Research Pane look like, well, a big pain.

9. System Mechanic 4 Professional: After Intuit's trying it with TurboTax, then being forced to beat a retreat with abject apologies in USA Today and Wall Street Journal ads, will Symantec be able to ride out the consumer backlash from adding Microsoft-style product activation to its 2004 Norton AntiVirus, SystemWorks, Personal Firewall, and other utilities? We don't know, but we welcome this year's addition of Panda firewall and virus protection to Iolo Technologies' $70 system optimization and housekeeping package.

8. Jasc Paint Shop Pro 8: With digital photography and PC image editing now household pastimes, two and a half years was too long to wait between upgrades. But the new version of Jasc Software's $109 alternative to Adobe's $649 Photoshop managed the feat of both adding power and boosting ease of use — it's still too intimidating for casual snapshot dabblers, but a terrific value for anyone else.

7. Bayesian spam filters: This is the year spam got out of control, but it's also the year spam-fighters got smart, with dozens of programmers and products— from retail Outlook add-ins like InBoxer to freeware filters like Spamihilator— abandoning the fruitless game of playing catch-up with naughty-word and -sender blacklists in favor of the intelligent, on-the-fly content analysis suggested by Paul Graham, with a tip of the mathematician's hat to the Rev. Thomas Bayes's 1763 "Essay Towards Solving a Problem in the Doctrine of Chances." Bayes never had to determine the probability that a message containing the word Viagra was unsolicited, but his theory is almost a miracle cure.

6. Adobe Photoshop Album: Adobe didn't invent this consumer category— last year we mentioned Kodak digital cameras' bundled EasyShare software, and impressive entries this year ranged from Jasc's Paint Shop Photo Album to new HP home PCs' Image Zone. But the $50 Photoshop Album sets the pace as an easy, friendly way to organize, search, touch up, print, e-mail, or do just about anything else with your collection of digital images. Which would you prefer— an ever-growing pile of files with names like DSC031114012, or an elegant, at-a-glance browsing and editing center?

5. Dragon NaturallySpeaking 7 Preferred: ScanSoft has kept a pretty low profile since saving NaturallySpeaking from its former owners' implosion two years ago. That's a shame, since version 7 of the pioneering speech-recognition package is a simply remarkable advance in convenience and accuracy: In exchange for $200 and half an hour's setup, you can truly dictate to your PC, rattling on in your normal voice and enjoying versatile shortcut commands, surprisingly smart and quick error correction, and about a two-thirds reduction in keyboard use. If Microsoft bought this software and issued it in a new release of Windows, Time and Newsweek would be running cover stories about a new millennium in human/computer interfaces. It's that good.

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.

Adapted from WinPlanet.com.

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