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Robert X. CringelyBack to OpinionRobert X. Cringely

Windows for free? Well, sort of.

It is difficult to compete with something that is free, but Microsoft — the world’s largest maker of computer software — is trying to do just that, taking on Google’s free web-based productivity applications with its own free web-based version of Microsoft Office 2010 just announced this week. That’s a tough task for Microsoft because they really want us to buy their software, so this free version has to be good enough to hurt Google but not so good that it hurts Microsoft. The way they make this work is by adding a touch of Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt (FUD) to the marketing mix.

You see, there is free and then there is free.

Google gives away its software in exchange for little bits of users’ souls, we’re told by Microsoft. Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page eat kittens, too. Google keeps track of what’s inside your documents and e-mail messages and uses these data to expose you to ads for stuff Google guesses you may want to buy. Google reads your mail.

Microsoft does too, but they claim not to keep tabs on you as closely as Google. Notch up another point toward that Nobel Peace Prize for Bill Gates. No, don’t, because having tried the new free web-based version of Office, well, it isn’t very good.

How could it be? Microsoft wants to shift us into a paid product so of course the free version has to suck.

Amazingly, this lack of quality has little to do with the fact that the software is free and a lot to do with Microsoft programmer inbreeding that has made Office apps harder and harder to use for the last several years. Use them the way Microsoft thinks you should or wants you to use its products and you are fine. Use them the way you want or the way you were used to from earlier generations of Office and you can forget it.

Just trying to print from the web version of Office is a friggin’ nightmare.

But then Google apps, for all their positive PR, aren’t that user-friendly, either. And there is still that whole invasion of privacy thing where Google keeps track of where you go on the Internet just so it can help Jim or Bob find the right pair of panties to order with their new push-up bra.

That these products are successful at all comes down to the whole concept of adequacy espoused three decades ago by the late PC software pioneer Adam Osborne, who noticed that if he made his products inexpensive enough, users would put up with truly lousy performance.

Make the products more or less free and I guess we’ll embrace almost anything, with the only thing really separating Microsoft from Google being the former’s hope that we really are willing to pay for something better.

Now if they’d only offer us something truly better.