Help File: Some hardware and software are easy to break from; others will try to trap you

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By Rob Pegoraro
Sunday, July 4, 2010

The Fourth of July should not be a day to stay indoors and fuss with computers, gadgets or any of the other things discussed here every week.

But sometime after the barbecues and the fireworks of Independence Day, it's worth spending a few moments thinking about your dependence on the software and services that you rely on every day.

Can you fire any of these products if they don't measure up? How much suffering would taking your business elsewhere entail?

The answers vary depending on where you look and how much you'll like them.

Let's begin with the good news.

Pictures are the easiest case, as cameras, photo-editing programs and other picture-capable hardware and software share a common, open format, JPEG (short for "Joint Photographic Experts Group"). You can take a photo with a Nikon camera, open it in a Microsoft program running on a Sony computer, move it into Apple's iPhoto, save it to a USB flash drive and use that to view the shot on a Samsung TV without losing any of the image.

At worst, you'll have to re-create what computing professionals call "metadata" -- the data about your pictures, such as captions and their placement in photo albums.

If you write word-processing documents, crunch numbers in spreadsheets or put together slideshow presentations, you also have more freedom than ever. Although one company's formats -- those Microsoft created for its Office suite -- dominate the field, they have become a shared standard after years of work by other developers and more recent moves by Microsoft to document them.

You might not see every wrinkle of a complex Word, Excel or PowerPoint file if you open it in competing (and often cheaper) applications such as Google Docs, OpenOffice, Corel's WordPerfect Office or Apple's iWork, but you will see the substance of your work.

You shouldn't have to feel tied down to an e-mail service or program, either, but not all offer the same liberty to leave.

If you use your Internet provider's e-mail, for example, you can employ any standard mail program -- I suggest the free, open-source Mozilla Thunderbird on a PC, Apple's Mail on a Mac -- to download and keep your messages and contacts list. (Microsoft's Outlook, an expensive but widely used option, has historically been a bit of a data trap, but Microsoft is finally opening up that program's file format too.)

But if you change providers, you'll have to remind your correspondents of the new address.


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