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Microsoft Office '98
Better, but still Microsoft

By:David K. Every
©Copyright 1999

This article is not really a review, and it is not really a complete UI analysis. This is just meant to give an understanding of where I come from when it comes to Microsoft's UI and Word.

I got Microsoft Office for some things I have to do at work. No, I did not buy it -- fortunately work supplied it to me. Microsoft has a definite philosophy that permeates their products. They are heavy on features (even complex ones that have no real value), and they seem to be somewhat lax on quality (or have been so at various times in the past). I burned out on their products around the time of Word 4.0 (and the fiasco with bugs), and by Word 6.0, I was completely disgusted by their various products' behaviors, and more so by the company itself.

After installing Office98, it took me very little time to realize that this product has real value and is FAR better than the last few efforts. From the moment I installed it I realized, this is no Word 6.0 (the worst of the breed). The install was just a Mac drag and drop, and then the first time you run the package, IT does the installing (1). It can also repair itself when corrupted. While this behavior is not like other Mac packages (so once again they are not following interface guidelines and are doing their own thing), in this case, the installation interface was fairly intuitive, and even Mac-like.

(1) On this version of Office there weren't 15 different init's installed, and I don't feel like the evil tendrils of MS software are running as deep as in the past. Maybe they have gotten better at illusion, but I was certainly happier with the install process, and the product overall.

From there it got better. Yes, it is still a bloated pig that takes a ton of space to install: far more than is right for a flippin' word-processor. But it is not nearly as slow as some of the older versions. In fact, Word98 seems downright responsive (2).

(2) Word 6, is actually a Windows program, that has a sort of "Windows Emulator" built in. That is what helps make it so slow on the Mac. I don't believe Microsoft removed it, but they definitely improved it -- a lot. You hardly notice it. But in comparing Word in benchmarks from Macs to PC's, you can still see that it is in there -- but most people will never know or care.

Yes, this product has 'featuritis': the art of adding features for their own sake (marketing), to make things look sexy, even if they have little or negative value (by adding unneeded complexity). But this product also had many nice features as well. In fact, usability was better than in any previous version I have used.

IF you must use Microsoft Word, then this is a serious and useful upgrade. Don't walk, run to your local store and buy it.

But I am not a Power User of Word. If you are, you may have strongly different feelings about Word98's changes. Microsoft seems to have perfected the art of changing things you don't want them to, while leaving the things that really need updating alone.

But don't let my unbridled enthusiasm blind you either. Comparing it to other Microsoft products, it is a gem. But unless you absolutely need to run Office, then you should be comparing this product to the competition, and in almost every case it falls short. Since this is not a review, I will not go into comparisons with all the other word processors out there,

IF you don't have to use Microsoft Word, then use something else!

What I don't like about Word

Many people buy Office, because everyone else has it. But I prefer to buy and recommend software based on my productivity, not some sheep-like need to conform. As such, I could almost never recommend a product like Microsoft Word. The only thing I find it valuable for is converting from word format, to other people's more usable word-processors. I realize that is quite a slam, but Word is neither intuitive nor easy. I am constantly amazed by parts of the bad interface, while pleasantly surprised by a few good features. Measured out, it just isn't worth it.

  1. Word has some bizarre way of embedding formatting information in the document (paragraphs), which is unlike everything else. So when you go and delete one paragraph, the previous paragraph will sometimes reformat to the former paragraph's style (sometimes). This has to do with templates -- but most of the time I use them, I find myself fighting them.
  2. And there are Macro's and the associated Viri -- thanks Microsoft for investing cross platform Viruses. Powerful features, but have you ever tried to set up Macro and get it to work? Not always easy, nor "normal" (interface wise).
  3. When you paste in an image, it floats over the document or locks in place on the page -- you must do a special paste to embed it in the text. That must be because most people want to paste an image in a document, and not on top of one.
  4. Word tries to mimic some HTML-like formatting, but under the facade there is still Word's complex and confusing formatting. I know HTML editors, and found Word far harder to deal with.

Many Word features look neat, but likely detract from real usability.

Like this funky type ahead thing. You type the first few characters, and it pops up a little box with the word it will finish for you (if you press return). Sounds neat, and even I got sucked in to trying to use it. The problem is that by the time you verify that it has the right word for you, or the time you waste setting it up, you have likely LOST time and productivity over having just typed in the whole word yourself.

If speed is that important to you, then take a typing class, or spend the same amount of time with a typing program, so that you gain more productivity that can be applied to ALL programs. Instead of wasting time with stupid anti-productive Word features, that will only apply to that one program.

To be fair, if you are a one-handed typist, or have some other disability, this feature could be of value -- but that is not how it is marketed. I'm also sure that the weird key combinations (like control-alt-command-shift-something) would make Word unusable until you totally reconfigured it. Besides, for the other 99% of people (who have two hands), they are sucked in to trying to use a "cool" feature, that only slows them down. And I'm sure there are far better global (system wide) disability solutions, anyway.

So like many things in Microsoft packages, most of the features are hollow, and don't help -- they just make people think that they will help while sucking time with which you could be doing better things than using Word (and paying MS good money for). This not only applies to Word, but almost anything Microsoft has ever made.

There are all these little rules the user has to know, and has no clue about. Every time I sit down and use it, I am frustrated by the menu's, frustrated by the functionality, annoyed by quirks that I didn't expects -- and amazed that I can be that ignorant of a package that I've been using in various forms for nearly 15 years. It shouldn't take 15 years to learn to use a Word Processor.

I could spend pages documenting the quirks and confusing behaviors, listing 'good feature' / 'bad feature'. However, I'll leave that for other articles.

Let me state that you can adapt to a bad interface. You can learn how to use it, especially if it is powerful (people used DOS and Unix for decades). But my point is why should you have to? Why should learning something so basic be so much work?

[Read the series of articles on customizing word, which discusses parts of the UI in more depth].

ABM - (Anything But Microsoft)

There is this attitude in the industry called, "Anyone/Anybody/Anything but Microsoft" (or ABM, or ABBM). It comes from experience working with their products, and becomes a philosophy of its own. The point is not to slam a the product or a company, but rather to make people think (which they seem not to do).

I know that for 90% of my needs, and the needs of most home and small business users, ClarisWorks (to be renamed AppleWorks) is far easier to use, and far more versatile. ClarisWorks is not as powerful, and you can bump your head in functionality (need more than it has) -- but 99% of users will never (or rarely) need more power. Most of the functions you need on a regular basis are there, and are easier to use. In ClarisWorks I can whip out a document in no time, always see what the document is going to look like, easily add tables (spreadsheets), pictures (drawing and painting), and do little mail-merge functions and so on. ClarisWorks could be made better, but it is good -- and it far easier to use and train people on than Word. So the point is not "what might you need", but what do you need to do on a regular basis. For that, there are many better choices than Word -- to the point that ANYBODY BUT MICROSOFT is the better choice.

Compared to Microsoft Word, I prefer MacWrite, MacWrite Pro, FullWrite (one of the best, and unfortunately dead), Nisus (powerful but quirky in spots), WordPerfect (also powerful but quirky in spots), RagTime, World Writer, and about a dozen other word processors that I've used and forgotten the name to. Even FrameMaker makes a better BASIC word processor than Word, and FrameMaker is the most powerful, most powerful, and sometimes most complex, heavy document building package that I've used. (Yes, I've used Intergraph and it sucks).

Some say, "But I need the power of Word". Well, when I need more power than ClarisWorks (or any of the other basic word-processors), I often find I need more power than Word gives me as well. In the past I've bumped my head on Words limits many times -- like for auto-numbering paragraphs that couldn't go as deep as Mil. Specs or other documents required, and so on. (Not to mention the torture of setting them up, and having them constantly number themselves weird and fighting with that). That is why I had to turn to FrameMaker in the first place, because I kept going beyond what Word could give me. Then I found that FrameMaker is a far better (easier to use and more powerful) package for real document processing, because the tool is tailored for that task.

So Word has to compromise on ease of use, so it can be powerful. But then it compromises on power, so it can be easy(er) to use. The results being that it fails in both. I can do either high end, or low-end Word processing with something else. Microsoft Word really only fills some weird niche in between high end and low end usage. And in the middle, it slows productivity on powerful stuff, and does the same for the basic stuff, and has thousands of features that I must dodge to do the things that I want.

The Microsoft's philosophy

Microsoft has a Swiss Army Knife approach to software. Instead of doing one thing well, or tailoring for a task, they throw in dozens of unneeded and over-generalized features to try to appeal to all tasks. Like a Swiss Army Knife, this generalization actually detracts from it's usefulness over a specialized product. Do you really need the little saw attachment on your pocket knife? Have you ever tried to use it? Far better to buy a saw that can draw back and forth more than 1 inch. Is the corkscrew good for anything other than turning your hand into hamburger while trying to use the saw -- or how many times have you needed that built-in fish-scaler? We as buyers need to be more wise in our purchasing decisions, with our productivity being the decisive factor, not fear (FUD) about needing some feature that our software may not have.

Why does it sell so well?

So many people have asked me, "If what you are saying is true, then why does Office sell so well?"

Part of the answer reminds me a little fable:

This lady cuts, spices a roast, cuts the ends off of it, puts it in a pan, and puts it in the oven.
The daughter looks on and says, "Why did you cut the ends off?"
The mother replies, "My mother taught me how to cook, and she always did that."
So the daughter calls her grandmother and says, "Why did you teach mom to cut the ends off the roast before you cook it?"
The grandmother replies, "My mother taught me how to cook, and she always did that."
So the daughter calls her great-grandmother and says, "Why did you teach grandma to cut the ends off the roast when you cook it?"
The great-grandmother replies, "Because the roast was too large for the pan."

Therefore, part of the answer as to why people buy Office should be obvious: "because people don't think about their productivity when buying software." People buy what they were told to buy, or what others buy. And why do others buy it? Because people at work all use it. And why do people at work all use it? Mostly because IS/IT (Information Systems or Information Technology) in big Fortune 500 Companies love Office. And why do large IS/IT departments love Office? Because it makes THEIR lives easier, by having to support only one software suite.

So Office does sell because it is the easiest to use, it isn't the most powerful, it doesn't make people the most productive, it isn't specialized for most tasks -- but it is easier for IS/IT if everyone is standardized -- and they standardize on what is the biggest (safest). Instead of IS/IT being a service to other groups, and helping others become more productive, they often become a millstone, proclaiming mandates which cause a decrease in the total productivity of the company as a whole, merely because it makes their lot easier.

Because of this (and decisions like this), companies need to become much smarter (more cautious) about IS/IT mandates. Many of the decisions made by IS are acceptable and needed, many are not. But there needs to be checks and balances. It's not that IS/IT doesn't have value, or is always wrong -- it is just that they are often looking out only for their interests, which may be diametrically opposed to users' interests. Power without safeguards is not good -- and sadly, most people in management are lacking a clue when it comes to technology or the ramifications of their decisions (for the "lessers"). So management defers everything to IS/IT. It is like watching a puppet and a puppet master -- with the puppet thinking, "oh, look at how I control that guy holding my strings".

But there are some legitimate reasons as well. Office can be somewhat justified by the other things it can do. Office comes with PowerPoint and Excel. The cost of Office is such that you basically only pay for one or two of those products (Excel, Word, PowerPoint), and you get all the others for free. So the economics of "3 bad packages for the price of one", has starved out the competition (3), and makes Office the better choice economically (at least short term, and if you don't factor in productivity costs).

(3) There used to be better Spreadsheets and better Presentation packages as well -- sadly most of them got starved out business by Microsoft's and IS's "one size fits all" solutions. This is too bad. I am not saying that the Microsoft packages are bad. I find them quite usable, and I think they are better in their categories than Word is in its category. But they are still Microsoft's typical big, bloated, feature laden, confusing, pigs. Sadly the fact is that Microsoft's size often wins and kills other choices. So if you wanted something else, it may just be too bad.


When choosing what software package you want to use, you should certainly consider Office -- especially if you are forced to interface with its ever-changing file format. I would even cautiously recommend Word, or Office en toto, if you really find them to be the most productive solution for what you are doing or you have to be "MS-Office compliant". So I am glad that they are on the Mac, and I am glad that they are getting better. They are a nice choice to have, even if I won't use them (most of the time) -- I just find it too bad that Microsoft has managed to destroy the other choices.

But you must think about the tradeoffs to you and/or your company -- the steeper learning curve involved in Microsoft packages, the lost productivity for all your employees (or yourself). Maybe you don't want forced upgrades through constant file-format changes for every new version (like Microsoft does). Maybe you want to integrate in packages that are Non-Microsoft (which Microsoft seems to try to prevent people from doing). Maybe you philosophy will demand you not support companies that do such things. Maybe you can find better packages for your needs. Many people will still choose Office, even after such consideration. I would certainly not say they are wrong for doing so. If they do so, then it is true that the current versions of Word and Office are far better than previous ones -- so at least Microsoft is abusing you less.

However, if more people choose software packages more wisely (for their needs) in the future, there will be far fewer versions of Microsoft Office sold. That also means that the total work-output of humanity (doing real productive work, and not just time spent fighting their software), would go up by some minuscule amount.

Created: 06/13/98
Updated: 11/09/02

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