Free Microsoft Software

Software box with Windows logo

UPDATE: Be aware that Palomar’s Academic Technology department has discontinued our participation in the MSDN Academic Alliance program as of October 2013. No old accounts function, and no requests for new accounts will be processed.

No, this is not spam, nor a phishing attempt. It’s not even a hoax, although I’ve found it difficult to convince people that I’m serious. There is a whole slew of Microsoft products available free for the asking to the students and employees of Palomar College.

Now, before you get your hopes up, this does NOT include Microsoft Office. Let me say that again – no Office. If you’re interested in getting a copy of Office I can certainly point you towards some excellent discounts (although the pricing for students is higher than that for employees, strangely enough) that have been arranged through the Foundation for California Community Colleges. At the time of this posting, the latest versions of Office are, for Windows, Office 2010, and for Mac, Office 2011. For students a license of Office will run around $110, while the employee price is only $40 (or $50 if you want the installation discs instead of a download).

As I say, I’m not talking about Office. The free software I refer to is through a program called the MSDN Academic Alliance, and includes a whole variety of software including operating systems. Need a copy of Windows 8? Free. How about a license of Windows Server 2008 R2? Free. Want a license of SQL Server 2008 or Exchange Server 2010 to put on there? Free. Want your own copy of Expression Web? Sorry, you’ll have to get the whole Expression Studio… for free.

Do you see the trend here? Yeah, free software.

There are a few more “normal” programs that might be of interest, such as Access, Visio, or Streets and Trips 2010. (Things like Visio don’t really count towards the “no Office” limitation, as Microsoft has never seemed to consider Visio a real part of the Office family. Maybe a second cousin twice removed, but not real family.)

So what’s the catch? Really there isn’t one. You can read up about all the terms on our web site about the Academic Alliance if you like, or just submit a ticket to our helpdesk system requesting one for yourself. If you do submit a ticket, be sure and select the department “MSDN Academic Alliance”, then make the Subject read “Request MSDNAA Account”. You can expect to receive a response back once your information is processed, but it can take several days since the account creation process is not automated. (Yes, I end up personally prepping your account.)

Once your account is set up, you just log in and use the site as if you were shopping for the software, but on “checkout” everything is $0.00. There’s certainly no credit card information or anything else of the sort involved. It’s just that, when you actually do the checkout, that’s when your license keys for your software are generated. Then you can follow the instructions to download the software, and of course use those license keys when you install things.

So, to summarize:

  • The MSDN Academic Alliance has bunches of free software.
  • This is available to employees and ALL STUDENTS of Palomar College.
  • Just submit a ticket to request an account.
  • The Academic Alliance does not include Microsoft Office.

Using Office AutoCorrect to Save Typing


AutoCorrect is the magical Office feature that corrects your spelling or transforms character-based symbols into upper ascii characters.  If you perpetually type “teh” instead of “the” because of a lazy index finger, AutoCorrect will transform “teh” into “the”.  If you type (c) in place of the copyright notice AutoCorrect will transform it to ascii character 0169, like this ©.  Pretty cool.  AutoCorrect can also be used to save you the trouble of typing long, complicated phrases by typing a simple abbreviation and leaving the rest to AutoCorrect. Here’s how.

Let’s say you are working on a PowerPoint presentation where you have to type “Palomar Community College District” numerous times—or, more likely, numerous times across multiple presentations.  To set up an AutoCorrect abbreviation for this phrase—so that you type the abbreviation and it will immediately be replaced by the phrase—click on the File tab > Options > Proofing > and then click the AutoCorrect Options… button.

autocorrect options button

In the AutoCorrect dialog box be sure “Replace text as you type” is checked.

Replace Text As You Type

In the “Replace” field type an abbreviation, something like “.pccd” and in the “With” field type out the entire phrase, without quotation marks, of course.

Replace With Add

Now click the Add button.  Note that the abbreviation begins with a period.  If you get into the habit of using a period before your abbreviations (or some other special character like the percent sign or carat sign) you will minimize the chances that AutoCorrect will transform unintentionally your abbreviation into its full text equivalent.  The period is easiest to use since it is a simple keystroke, where other signs require holding shift and pressing a key.  Further, except for file extensions in technical papers, characters rarely follow a period.

Now when you type “.pccd” and press the space bar the application you are using (Word, Outlook, Excel, PowerPoint, etc.) will replace your abbreviation with the full text.  Your abbreviation will persist between Office applications and over time.  If you ever want to get rid of an AutoCorrect abbreviation, simply scan down the list of AutoCorrect fields until you find the one you want to get rid of, click on it, and click the Delete button.  (Adding a period in front of your abbreviation will also help in finding them, because they will sort to the top of the list).

Delete Abbreviation

In the unlikely event that AutoCorrect changes something that you don’t want changed, hover your cursor over the text and you will see a small blue line appear under the first letter of the transformed text.  Hover your mouse over this line and you will see a little lightning bolt icon.  Click its drop-down an you will be given these three options.

Change Back Choice

Select the one you want.

If you want to use formatted text in your AutoCorrect substitution, it must be copied from your document in its formatted state before creating the shortcut.

That’s it.  It seems like an easy thing, but comes in marvelous handy when you have to use the same phrase repeatedly.

Happy typing.

The New Microsoft Office

I have been working with the customer preview edition of Office 365, one of the instances of the new Office 2013.  There are not a lot of new features, which is good, since most people only know a few of the already existing features, but the ways you can get office are changing.  I attended a preview webinar today, and would like to report what I learned here.

1.  The release date for Office 2013 has not yet been named.  It is expected to be in early 2013, following the Christmas season (October 26) release of Windows 8 and the Microsoft Surface.

2.  Office will come in three basic versions:

  • On a disc, named Office 2013, just as Office has always been distributed.  You will purchase the disc, run an install program, enter a license key, same as ever.
  • As a special (i.e., reduced) version written for Windows RT, the touch tablet OS intended for the Microsoft Surface ARM-based tablets.  Though this version will not be ready to ship when the Surface ships (October 26), a preview version will, with a promise to complete the product asap.  Microsoft is betting a ton on the success of the Surface and a touch tuned version of Office.  The Verge reports that “To optimize for Windows RT, Microsoft has made the decision to remove a number of features from its Office 2013 RT release to ensure battery life and reliability are not impacted on tablet devices. Macros, third-party add-ins, and VBA support will all be dropped from the Office 2013 RT edition…”  The list of dropped features is not yet available.
  • As a service, under the name Office 365.  This is the customer preview version I have been testing, and while Office itself has not changed much, I very much like the Office as a service.  Tight, essential cloud integration means that all my documents, settings, templates, etc. are available wherever I start Office.  I get 5 installations with the download, and can activate/deactivate them so that I can install it on any number of devices, just not more than 5 simultaneously.  There will also be an Office-on-demand product that will make it possible to install/run it on any computer via a login.  Office 365 has been available for business enterprise users for some time, but the new Office 365 will be Office 2013 provided as a service for a “small monthly fee” (unspecified, of course).  For the first time Office 365 will be available to home customers.  For home users it will contain Word, PowerPoint, Excel, Outlook, OneNote, Access and Publisher.  There will also be a small business edition that will include Infopath and Lync (web meeting software).

3.  You must be running Windows 7 or Windows 8 to install Office 2013.  If you are still running windows XP, what are you thinking?

4.  The free Microsoft Office web apps (severely stripped down web versions of the basic Office programs) will still be available, though clearly they will always be poor cousins of the for-pay versions.

In imitation of Apple and Google, Microsoft also finally has apps and an app store–though it is early days and it suffers by comparison.  One of the featured “apps” (what used to be called add-ins to the Office programs, it seems to me) on today’s webinar was an Olympics medal tracker.  You can find it at the app store (which is still in beta, let me stress).  Remember, you have to have Excel 2013 for this one to work.

It is clear Microsoft has a long way to go in order to compete with iOS and Android infrastructures, and it is completely unclear whether they can successfully move Office to the new tablet/cloud-based future.

Microsoft Upgrades


It has become clear lately that more than ever Microsoft is betting the farm on its upcoming host of product upgrades.  Windows 8 will be released for upgrade and on new PCs on October 26.  The public  preview is now available, but please do not place it on District workstations.  No date has been announced for the release of the two versions of Microsoft’s touch tablet named the Surface, it’s head-to-head competitor to the iPad, but one can bet it will before Christmas and not too long after the Win 8 release.  Microsoft’s biggest cash cow, Office, is also in public preview–once again, not for District computers–but will probably not see store shelves until early 2013–rumors have it out in February, 2013.  So over the four month period from October through February the fate of one of the great companies of the latter half of the 20th century will be decided.  It is possible that Windows and the Surface will flop–more likely the Surface than Win 8, though consumers outside business settings may not rush to upgrade their Windows OS.  People may wonder why, if they do not have a touch-based computer that they are stuck with a touch-based OS.  Of course, you can switch to desktop mode, but if so, why bother to upgrade?

Re the Surface, my personal opinion is that it is too late to overtake Apple in the tablet market.  Apple did it right out of the box and set such a high standard that any comparison will not appeal to consumers unless Microsoft can afford to take a tremendous loss on price point to break into that market.  In view of last week’s quarterly earnings loss announcement ($492 million–an historic first negative EPS) this is less likely than ever.  And besides, who needs a tablet that runs the full versions of Office?  It is a dubious bet, though iPads are growing in popularity among business users.  The iPhone forms the bridgehead, and iPad follows with useful apps outside the traditional Microsoft business grid.  Microsoft does not have a phone that anyone wants to serve this purpose for the Surface.

Office will undoubtedly retain its lock on business users, out of sheer inertia if nothing else.  But there is something else in the new emphasis on the cloud.  The advantages of Office in the cloud are very compelling for business users as well as consumers:  Your Office settings move with you; You get up to five installs of Office, which can be activated and deactivated whenever you need; Your templates also move with you; Office remembers your place; collaboration becomes much easier; Your files–if you trust them to the cloud, and it can even be your own cloud–also move with you; you always have the latest version of the programs without having to run endless patches, upgrades and service packs.  These are all tremendous advantages that should insure longevity for Microsoft Office for many years to come, and the only tech area where they continue to innovate.

The grasp of Office on the education market is more tenuous.  Where business users tend to have lots of custom macros and templates in place, education users are more ad hoc and use Office to do simpler things like author research papers or create simple spreadsheets and presentations.  Do we really need to continue paying licensing fees for Office when the vast majority of users could get their work done with one of the free cloud-based products like Google Docs?  Except for business departments that actually teach Office, does the rest of the institution need to continue using it?  The argument to continue paying high licensing costs for unlimited users is far less compelling than in commercial enterprises.

Fasten your seat belts and stand by for major changes at Microsoft in an effort to keep up with Apple, Google and Amazon if even one of these major initiatives fail.  If they all fail, or more likely seriously under perform, it could be the beginning of the end for one of the past tech giants.

PowerPoint 2013 Preview


Yesterday I posted on the press conference announcing public availability of the beta of Office 15, otherwise known as Office 2013.  Actually, the story is more complicated than that.  What is available for preview is the Office 365 web subscription version.  As I explained yesterday, Microsoft is moving to a cloud-based subscription model for their primary cash cow (Office, according to some sources, accounts for 70% of Microsoft’s earnings).  That means that you download a small installer from the preview web site, and it in turn loads local copies of the software that are connected to Microsoft’s cloud-platform.  To use the software you must sign-in to it, which connects you to the cloud service and saves, by default, all of your documents to your Microsoft SkyDrive.

From what I have seen so far, there are not a lot of new features in the new Office programs.  Just better (perhaps) expressions of existing features, and in some cases enhancements to them.  That’s OK, since there are already way too many features to learn, and most people don’t know how to use even 10% of them.  At this point, ease of use trumps novelty as far as these workhorse applications go.  The addition of cloud computing and the somewhat dubious connection to social networking will be enough novelty for most people anyway.

There are a few things to like about the general idea of a cloud-based subscription service:  your documents and settings travel around with you; you always have the latest, updated versions of the software, with no more pesky service packs to install; you get up to five installs of the software, and can deactivate any of them for flexibility; you always have access to Microsoft templates, or custom templates of your own making; collaboration, with markup and tracked sessions, becomes much easier.  There are also some worries, mainly about document security and unforeseen vulnerabilities.

In any event, the die is cast and this is the direction Microsoft has elected to take.  Whether it will result in long-term profitability, or Office use will dwindle as the web platform opens the door to competitors remains to be seen.  Let’s get down to practicalities:  Today I will be taking a look at the new version of PowerPoint on the Windows 7 platform.

The Interface

For the first time presentations default to a 16:9 perspective, rather than the traditional 4:3.  The ribbon is still the heart of the User Interface, and the commands are all pretty much where they are in Office 2010, but the look of th ribbon has been Metro-ized, emphasizing grey colors that some users will find difficult to distinguish and a very minimalist look.  The ribbon is also much easier to disappear which shouldn’t much matter when working on a desktop or laptop, but could matter a lot on a touch-based tablet with reduced screen real estate.

Many of the context dialog boxes have been replaced with side-panels.  Right-clicking to format an object, or format the background, for instance, used to bring up a complex dialog box but now brings up a better designed and easier to understand panel on the right of the screen.

Format Background Panel

Some of the dialog launchers from the olden days of Office still persist, but not nearly so many.

Place markers still exist on the default slide, but the markers are different, now making a distinction between Pictures and Online Pictures.  Online Pictures permit insertion of Flickr pics, for example.

The old SmartArt and Shapes galleries are virtually identical to the old versions (there are a few more SmartArt options).  WordArt is somewhat changed, but not much, and all of the old picture options are still intact, like colorization, color correction, artistic effects, etc.  Context sensitive tabs work the same as ever also.  When it comes down to doing business with the program, it is essentially the same as the 2010 version.


PowerPoint 2010 came with a boat load of themes.  The number has been cut down with Office 2013 to 10, and the themes are less complex, with a new Variants gallery that contain common variations of colors schemes associated with a basic theme.

Variants Gallery

New also to the Design tab is a Slide Size command, where you choose between 16:9 (default) and 4:3 perspective.  Gone are the commands that allow fine tuning of them color combinations, fonts and effects on the Design tab because they have been moved to Slide Master view, which is really more appropriate.

There are a few new inter-slide transitions, but apparently no new animation effects.

Pictures and Video

As indicated above, there is an online pictures insert option that behaves differently than the old insert clip art from, that included “official” Microsoft pictures in Office 2007-10.

Insert Pictures

As can be seen from the illustration above, Bing search has been integrated throughout the program when it comes to inserting resources.  There does not seem to be a way to change this to Google image search, which is really annoying, but there you have it.  It hardly matters since pictures can be located via Google image search, saved locally, and then inserted as pictures from your hard drive.  And yes, the Clip Art search still returns not only photographs but the cheesy clip art that has been the perennial signature of terrible PowerPoint presentations.

Arranging pictures is easier with Alignment guides, which existed in PowerPoint 2010 but are more visible now.  All of the old Picture formatting tools are still with us, as are all the familiar layering, alignment, cropping and sizing tools.  Color selection tools remain the same also, but the addition of an eyedropper tool, a much requested enhancement, has now been made.

eye dropper tool

The Merge Shapes tool, which combines Merge, Combine, Fragment, Intersect and Subtract is now in a very obvious position on the Drawing Tools tab, making it much easier to create new, creative shapes, which goes a long way to justifying the inclusion of the tired old standard shapes.

Merge Shapes

More video types than ever are now supported, and improvement on PowerPoint 2010, which in itself was groundbreaking in the support of media types.   Unfortunately, inserting YouTube videos just got more difficult.  In PPT 2010 it was a fairly straightforward procedure of copying the object code from YouTube into a dialog box in PowerPoint.  Now the Insert Online Video command brings up a Bing Video Search tool.   If you can locate the video you want, it will be inserted, but I tried it with a number of videos and they all failed to play in preview mode.  This will have to be fixed before the product is finally released.  Why PowerPoint cannot support the virtually universal new iframe embed technique is not apparent.

Presenter View

Presenter view has existed for some time in PowerPoint, but you needed two monitors to make it work.  Now it works with one as long as the “second” screen is the projector–what presenters have always asked for.  The presenter’s screen shows the current slide, the next slide, speakers notes, annotation tools (including a new slide zoom tool to magnify a part of the screen) while the projector shows the slide itself.  Presenter view also includes a simple way to flip the two, so that the audience can see the presenter’s screen–for teaching PowerPoint, one supposes, or perhaps as the simplest way to fix a confused A/B switch.

Swap Presenter View

Presenter View also contains a thumbnail navigation grid, like Slide Sorter View, so that you can easily jump around in the presentation if need be.

BackStage (?) View

What used to be called Backstage View has now been placed on the File tab, where it always should have been–though some of the control options there have nothing to do with file handling.   The Share tool in particular is an improvement, making it easier to initiate collaboration by inviting people and also to presenting online.  In fact it is a mystery to me why the state continues to invest in online meeting technology when it is free and secure via PowerPoint, which is mostly what gets shared anyway.  Audio support can be, as it usually is with the paid technology, through conference call.

Share Choices

Create a PDF, Create a Video and Create Handouts have moved to the Export menu, which is fine, but otherwise they appear to be unimproved, which is too bad.


It is surprising how little changed–other than some very obvious cosmetics–the program really is.  Those hoping for dramatic changes in this version will be very disappointed.  Those hoping for incremental changes–and slight at that–will have their hands full just getting used to SkyDrive, the subscription model, and the sharing and social networking components.  My least favorite addition is the restriction to Bing searches for web video inserts and the failure of inserted YouTube videos to play in my tests.  My most favorite is the default 16:9 behavior–undoubtedly a nod to the tablet-based future Microsoft sees for their Office products–and the small touches such as the eyedropper tool, auto-alignment guides, and presenter view.

Microsoft Office 15

Word Logo

Microsoft held a press conference today to announce the general availability of an Office 15 preview [download link].  There were two imperatives that Microsoft wanted to achieve in the press conference:  1) to convince consumers that the new Office wasn’t just a tweaked upgrade to Office 2010, but was–in Steve Ballmer’s massively overused word “modern”– and 2) to show the cream of the new features in order to create the impression that Office 15 is a “gotta have” product.  The press conference failed at both.

The outstanding impressions I have after viewing the press conference are that the new Office is a transitional mule designed to carry Microsoft over the continental divide between desktop and cloud-based computing, but whose longevity beyond the trek may be strictly limited.  I say this because the features demonstrated by Kirk Koenigsbauer (the tech who actually knows what he is doing who took over for Steve after the initial sales salvo) were unimpressive variations on what you can already do in the current office.  There was nothing groundbreaking, no gee whiz moments.  Sure, full Office now runs on an ARM-based tablet (a not inconsiderable accomplishment, of course) with touch sensitivity.  You can pinch enlarge/decrease picture sizes and drag them around in the text, but this is not exactly new, and just a small variation on what you can already do with the mouse.  I was waiting for a feature that I hadn’t seen in Office before, but was disappointed.

The developers took what was possible in old Office (like presenter mode on two monitors in PowerPoint) and merged the two monitors into one on the tablet.  A helpful feature, but hardly new.  I was looking for pan and zoom, at least, so that PowerPoint could stay competitive with Prezi, the program that has been eating Microsoft’s lunch among power presenters, but no.  Sure the new Office has “slide zoom,” but that is hardly the same.  The closest the demo came to something new was the new simplified formulas in Excel that allowed intuitive combining and extraction from cells without having to know the way the formulas actually work.  And this, after all, is pretty minor stuff, and is predicated on the user knowing what is possible in the first place, which is the real problem.

Finally, Microsoft seems inexplicably wed to the concept of “inking.”  That is, using a pen or stylus on the screen to hand annotate documents.  Neither is this new.  In fact, Microsoft has been beating this dead horse for over a decade.  It didn’t catch on then and it won’t now, and it is inexplicable how much emphasis they placed on it.  (In fact, the only part of Mr. Koenigsbauer’s demo that blew up was an attempt to ink annotate on the new PPI 80-inch display at the end of his demo.  Anyone who does demos has to feel for him, and, by the way, Mr. Ballmer said Microsoft was working hard to bring down the price point on that giant display).

It is obvious that this iteration of Office is intended to move us onto the cloud and to cement us as subscribers, rather than purchasers of Office.  You will still be able to purchase stand-alone versions of the programs to run locally, but this may be the last iteration of Office where this will be possible.  Microsoft is obviously jumping on the subscription model as a long-term bet to continued profitability and market  dominance.  It may not be a great idea, but it certainly is modern.

For detailed reviews of Office 15 (or Office 2013 as it is often called) and its individual component programs, see the following ars technica articles:

For the desperately curious here is the Microsoft press guide to the new Office [DOCX], and for the desperately über-curious, here is the video of the full Microsoft press conference.