The Tyranny of Word: How Microsoft Hurts Office Productivity

Microsoft Word, the seemingly ubiquitous word processing program, is a shining example of how product quality and market share can be mutually exclusive considerations.

The best word processing program ever developed, in my opinion, was WordPerfect 5.1 for DOS, released in 1989.  It was fast and clean, with lots of bells & whistles for its day.  Once you learned how the function keys operated, you could fly through a document as fast as your fingers could type.  In terms of document formatting, it did what you wanted it to, rather than what some control freak programmer assumed you wanted it to do.

I have no time studies to support this point, but my writing productivity as a professor declined when I was more or less obliged to switch from WordPerfect 5.1 to MS Word for Windows.  Word was, and remains, slower, more cumbersome, and more outrageously control freakish.  For basic text documents with footnotes and other features of academic writing, it is a burdensome program.  Writing a scholarly article with Word is an annoying chore.

Even worse, the dear folks at Microsoft have heaped upon us Word 2007.  My school just switched over to this version, and I’m hoping our computer staff will be able to reinstall the old one on my machine.  Word 2007 is no better than its predecessors, but it offers the added bonus of a substantially changed menu that only inflicts more frustration onto the experience of using this deficient product. 

In sum, Microsoft Word is a lousy word processing program, and Word 2007 shows us how a product can undergo a considerable revision without being materially improved.  The folks at Microsoft may be laughing all the way to the bank, but they are doing so at the expense of office productivity around the world.

14 responses

  1. Hi – MS Word (MSW) is certainly different for all who are used to Word Perfect (WP), which, I understand, became a quick favorite for attorneys. I learned WP before I learned MSW. However, I must respectfully disagree with the initial writing about MSW. I learned several word processing systems before MSW or WP were even though of – Officewriter, Amipro, Decmate, Xerox, IBM, Wang, etc. For a while, Wang ruled in many offices, including state offices. Then the state got WP and we all had to learn it. Confusing at first, because it was new. Background was blue, not gray; words were white, not green, etc. Anyway, with a little practice, we all soon had the machines humming like well-spun tops. I almost died when we at Suffolk got this new MSW 2007, but with a bit of practice, I’m getting quite used to it. I didn’t like the switch from MSW 2000 to 2003 either because I missed the small toolbar at the upper right of the screen. But I soon got very used to not having it and 2003 became second nature to me. But 2003 is beginning to sound rather ancient, in this year of 2009, soon to be 2010 and I think it’s time MSW came up with something more innovative, if they want to maintain their position as “king of the mountain”. MSW 2007 is catching on and soon, everyone will have it and we’d be stuck in the past! Here’s some help in making your screen somewhat resemble the old one. First, change the color scheme to gray and get rid of the blue. Move the quick access toolbar to the bottom of the ribbon and shrink the ribbon. Then go into the quick access toolbar and add commands to it that you’re familiar with. You probably can’t get them all on, but you can get quite a bit of them on, and you can put them in same old order or in any order you wish. Maybe this will help all of you get a little more used to working with MSW 2007. Just remember, if it’s not on your toolbar, you can click on a ribbon tab and find anything you want in there. Click the tab again to shrink it back. This is what I did, and it’s the only thing that’s keeping me sane throughout this whole transition (lol!). I wish you all success and I really hope this helps some of you out in avoiding some frustration!

    • Tina, thank you for your response. I will digest your comments and see what I can do with this program. (Though I’m more likely to stick with MS Word 2003 — I finally weaned myself off of WP 5.1 just a few years ago, but I miss it.)

      Readers, Tina is one of our veteran staff assistants at Suffolk Law, and one of the most thoughtful and hardworking persons in the building. We are blessed with an excellent support staff and a first-rate computer support team — and they are especially helpful during tech transitions of this type.

      David

  2. Microsoft’s long list of wrongs to society just never stops growing. To the rest of the world, MS is a shining example of a typical American corporation — devoid of morals and ethics. Microsoft finagled its way into dominance through brute force, not by supplying a better product than the competition. There are any number of Microsoft apologists in strategic positions though, so there’s little chance of MS’s market share dropping too low, at least in the US. Their jobs depend on Microsoft products working the way they do. Outside the US there are a lot of good reasons why alternatives like Open Source software are catching on faster — price, productivity, security are just a few. So while Japan is busy installing fiber networking into homes, America has dropped to 20th place in household broadband use.
    http://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/news/2009/06/us-20th-in-broadband-penetration-trails-s-korea-estonia.ars
    http://arstechnica.com/business/news/2009/03/us-broadband-growth-plummeted-over-13-in-2008.ars
    This is a sad trend considering the Internet was more or less born here. Even South American countries like Venezuela are pumping big money into their infrastructure (typically including plans involving Open Source), while we sit on the sidelines coping with Vista and the MS Office ‘Ribbon’.

    • Jeff, yes, I think Microsoft has leveraged itself in a way that so many other jobs are dependent upon its continuing to roll out its less-than-great software.

      Interestingly, here at Suffolk our law students have been trending strongly towards Macs in recent years. Not too long ago, if you walked around our library and spied what brands of computers students were using, Dell laptops were all over the place. Now you’re just as likely to see a MacBook.

  3. Much of the tech support industry does indeed depend on Microsoft, but there’s an interesting dilemma to consider. Microsoft uses its government sanctioned monopoly power to hamper independent research and development, and to limit smaller businesses from producing viable alternatives, all while squandering an extremely talented internal workforce to develop basically marginal products (although many of them are content with this as their paychecks can be quite substantial). That’s a very odd situation of wasted resources on several levels. Jobs may depend on Microsoft for many, but if Microsoft’s market share would dip back down into even the 75% range that would up be an incentive for a lot of companies to risk Microsoft’s anti-free market, vengeful ways and to develop products in other areas. This would keep MS happy on its mountain of hubris along with sustaining a substantial tech support sector, while letting our computer industry regain a more balanced infrastructure — jobs to create user-friendly productive tools, not restrictive ones.

    http://www.groklaw.net posts a number of articles referring to Open Software legal issues here in America. It should be noted though that the EU is much more focused on Microsoft’s antics than we are.
    (David – I’d be interested if workplace bullying issues are an issue in Europe or in Asia. There’s such a cultural difference in how labor is viewed in many EU nations.)

    OS X has also given a lot of credibility in other sectors. A lot of programmers like Macs as they provide an easy to use desktop for general use with the added benefit of a Unix environment for development work.

  4. Jeff, quick answer on workplace bullying in Europe: They’re waaaay ahead of us in understanding and responding to this phenomenon.

    Unfortunately the situation apparently is not so good in Asian countries, at least based on conversations I’ve had with Japanese researchers and the emerging studies coming out of Japan.

  5. David,
    You got some good advice above. I just want to pass along some wisdom I learned off a bumper sticker: “Do not meddle in the affairs of dragons, for you are crunchy and taste good with ketchup!”
    Be well.

    • Greg, I hope that advice doesn’t apply to the battle against workplace bullying as well!

      (Folks, Greg Sorozan is a union president here in Massachusetts who has been at the forefront of advocating for anti-bullying legislation and contract provisions.)

      • No. Not at all. But, sweeping indictments of any corporation does nothing, in my opinion, in maintaining an objective and studied perspective. I can already envision someone from the Chamber of Commerce pointing to a biased attitude against business. (Web Sweepers can draw from any website.) Its just giving away an argument to be turned against you and the fight against workplace bullying. (And, I thought a little “comedy relief” might be of help with your computer frustrations. I’m still not used to the damn ribbons and changed menus in Word 2007! The woman who developed this changed interface was recently promoted!)
        On another note, State Representative Katherine Clark has offered her support in helping to pass SB 699. I met with her today. Seems we know eachother from a case situation we shared at a state agency. She was given materials about Workplace Bullying and a copy of the Bill.

  6. While not supporting the Microsoft business model, I would like to point out that you seem to be suffering from several “syndromes” commonly seen within the tech world:

    1. Version-itis: Problems upgrading from an earlier version to a more recent version, where everything is not necessarily in the same place. This syndrome is also quite often seen during website redesigns, relaunches or re-brandings. Users/visitors are habituated to a particular format, layout, etc, and become dissatisfied immediately after the website changes. However, after running for several months, website satisfaction scores will typically rebound and surpass pre-change levels.

    Your colleague Tina is a prime example of this; after initial problems and disorientation, she seems to have adjusted to the new version. I would hazard a guess that her satisfaction with “Word” dropped when she switched from ’03 to ’07, but has since rebounded as she becomes habituated.

    2. The second syndrome… well, I don’t have a fancy name for it (sorry!). Absent alliteration notwithstanding, the second issue seems to be that you feel the program is poor because it has problems completing your specific task (academic writing, etc). Just because software is poor at one specific task doesn’t mean it is an overall poor piece of software.

    You can hang drywall with nails, and your wall won’t fall down. Screws are better, but nails will do the trick in a pinch. Same goes for Word and academic writing.

    There are open-source and freeware versions of MS Word, Excel, PowerPoint etc (GoogleDocs is a good example of a company giving Microsoft a run for its money, OpenOffice.org is another), and they all have one thing in common: compatibility.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Google_Docs
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/OpenOffice

    What Microsoft brings to the table now, so many years into the Office product life cycle, is a uniformity of format across the globe. As the world is rapidly becoming digital, a standard format for data storage and modification is required. What was authored in Word Perfect may lose some features when opened with MS Word, and vice versa.

    This loss of features, formatting or data is unacceptable in the digital world, and is the reason that all the free software solutions (including the ones mentioned above), always make sure they are “Microsoft compatible”.

    But don’t worry, within 15 years the vast majority of programs will be web-based anyway, with no components to install on your local computer. More and more, software is following the lead of GoogleDocs and being web-based… no product distribution issues, easily to make upgrades and patches, accessible from anywhere you can plug into the ‘net.

    Amazon already has the Kindle (very similar to the “padd” from Star Trek, no?!?), and within a very short time the “personal computer” will be nothing more than a gateway (or terminal) to the Internet.

    • Christopher, thanks for your comment! I’m out of town right now so I’ll limit my response to your first point, “versionitis.”

      To me this is simply another way of draining time on unnecessary tasks, i.e., learning a significantly new version of a program without any corresponding payoff. It’s like changing around the arrangement of characters on a keyboard: Yes, we can learn it, but if ultimately it requires more time to learn to do the same tasks, what’s the point? That’s not an “itis,” it’s inefficiency in the name of “progress,” when for the vast majority of users, the old version would’ve been just fine…

      • Every software needs improvement. There are always tweaks, modifications, new features and bugs that require attention. However, there is only so much that can be done traditionally via downloadable updates and patches. There comes a time where you simply need to release a whole new product. Don’t forget; high speed internet is just starting to become standard in many places. I wouldn’t want to try to download a major update (100MB or more) on a 56.6k modem.

        However, while only minor modifications may be needed, the end user / purchaser will invariably ask the question “why am I paying more for minor changes?”. Therefore, they make more dramatic changes in part to address and deflect this issue.

        The problem that Microsoft will face as freeware office suites gain ground is that the SaaS model (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SaaS) gives the advantage to the GoogleDocs of the world.

        It is my prediction that within the next 5 years (which is an eternity in the tech world) Microsoft will leverage expanding bandwidth and download speeds to shift their version policy to be significantly more update and patch focused with regards to adding features and/or changing major architectural components of its Office Suite, rather than only releasing security/bug patches online and holding major changes for new version releases.

  7. My thoughts on Microsoft bringing uniformity of file formats across the globe could not be more opposite. I have no doubt that history will judge MS as being a major contributor to hampering uniformity. Thirty years from now, the possibility is highly likely there will be a massive number of archived documents that will be unreadable and inaccessible, largely attributable to MS Office issues. (Even now there are questionable backwards/forwards compatibility problems.) OpenDocument Format (ODF), used by applications like OpenOffice, is an example of a file format standard that at least tries to address this matter. Open, documented, standardized specs that any Office suite developer can implement are an important part to real universal compatibility, and longevity.

    The EU is looking towards the future by pushing adoption of ODF for their governmental documentation. Sadly, well funded lobbyists in Washington keep this issue buried here in America, while Microsoft is also addressing the matter by trying to undermine ODF as viable alternative. For example, the latest Service Pack for Office 2007 released just a few weeks ago includes native support for ODF, with the twist that MS has tweaked their implementation of ODF support so files saved as such have questionable compatibility with competing Office suites. Compatibility is often a one-way street for Microsoft, and in this case that ‘uniformity’ is limited to say the least. ODF is based on Open Source licensing that legally prevents these kinds of limitations and restrictions.

    What Microsoft has done is create a classic vendor lock-in where they alone have control, protected by archaic copyright and fair use laws. They crafted a situation that was costly to implement and in no way will be cheap or easy to correct. But future access to the information and data we’re creating now cannot be based on the continued use of MS Office.

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