Thursday, September 06, 2007

MIcrosoft take on the world

A few months ago, I published a rant about, inter alia, how many people make life difficult for themselves, and me, by their failure to understand more than the absolute basics of using a word processor. Nowadays, of course, Microsoft's dominance of the market is such that "a word processor" almost invariably means "Microsoft Word". It is all the more irritating, therefore, that Microsoft invest so much money in maintaining the user-hostility of their software. Joel Spolsky has written on the subject of Office 2007, but there's a lot more to be said, and it all comes down to Microsoft's commercial need for change for change's sake.

In my previous article, one of my major grievances concerned people's failure to use styles. Sadly, Microsoft feel compelled to revamp the user interface to styles in every major release of Word. In Word 2003, they changed the Styles drop-down menu on the Formatting toolbar to clutter it up with “styles” generated on-the-fly as well as those formally defined. This, of course, made real styles harder to find. They also relegated the modification of styles to a new pane. And even there, Modify Style… was quite well hidden.

Numbered paragraphs in Word have always frustrated me. The fact that there is an entire newsgroup devoted to the subject of numbering in Word suggests that the implementation is unnecessarily difficult. But one aspect had me baffled for years. I've often needed to use hierarchically numbered headings and, in Word 2003, I was often frustrated by the fact that I could rearrange hanging indents and margins in a numbered paragraph and apparently change a style to match the current paragraph, but the next time I applied that style, it would revert to the previous indents and margins.

A former colleague (Thanks Iain!) eventually worked out what was going on. In Word 2003, Modify Style | Format | Numbering | Customize brought up the Customize Outline Numbered List dialog, with its own tabs and indents that superseded those under Modify Style | Format | Paragraph.

Now I've moved to a new employer and, just as I was beginning to understand Office 2003, I have to use Office 2007. I can’t find the Customize Outline Numbered List dialog (or equivalent) anywhere. My new employer wants reports with hierarchically numbered headers, but also wants individual conclusions and recommendations to be numbered in a way similar to H2, without actually being H2. In particular, it looks very silly if the complete text of the conclusions and recommendations appears in the contents. I can get around this by limiting the contents to level H1, but it’s a kludge.

All of this is detail; the biggest change in Office 2007 is that they've done away with the menu bar. No, I'm not kidding. After years of writing guidelines about how the menu bar should include File, Edit, ... , Help, they've thrown away the book. This might be an improvement for users who've never used Windows, Apple's System or any Unix/Linux desktop environment. But for anyone who's used a computer in the past decade or two, it's a pain in the butt.

As I said at the start, Microsoft need change for change's sake; well actually it's for money's sake. They have to keep selling product; and when your product is software, you need to convince people that their current software is obsolete and needs to be replaced. A while back, I read in one of my employer's internal newsgroups somebody complaining that the version of Office we were using was obsolete, because the subsequent version was three years old. The implication was that software became useless because it was old, that it somehow wore out. I pointed out that the decision to replace, or not to replace, software was a commercial one. The cost of replacing software includes the costs of:
  • the software itself;
  • additional memory to run it;
  • upgrading processors to run it;
  • additional disk space to run it;
  • training staff to use it;
  • rewriting templates;
  • rewriting macros;
  • and probably a few others I've forgotten.
Against those costs a business has to weigh up the costs of not replacing the software. "The new version's three years old." has little quantitative value. "Bill Gates needs the money" may have a value, but it's negative. The need to exchange files with customers who have gone over to the other side is a valid argument, but its financial value is finite.

Running a business is a balancing act, balancing the conflicting interests of suppliers, employees, customers and shareholders. Office 2007 is perhaps the most stark example of how the interests of the shareholders can conflict with the interests of all the other stakeholders. When the business is Microsoft, it's the shareholders against a substantial proportion of the world's population.