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Microsoft Office 2010: the last hurrah

Microsoft Office 2010: the last hurrah

This note was posted in July 2010. We have received an exceptional number of messages in the weeks that followed, excerpts from some of which are posted below. Without exception, these express anger and resentment about the extreme frustration that seemingly pointless changes to this product has provoked amongst established Office users

We wrote a critical note when Office 2007 was launched. Our view was that this product exemplified brand destruction. The chief advantage which Microsoft enjoys, what sets it apart as a company, is the vast user base that is habituated to the use of its products. They resist change to other approaches to work - free standing e-mail clients, simpler text processors - because of the weeks or months that it takes to become fluent in their use.

It is, therefore, a more than curious decision to introduce a package that actively sets out to throw away most of this cumulated experience. Office 2007 employed a user interface which did precisely this. It has been estimated that it takes six months for a formerly expert user to achieve fluency with the new interface, during which time their productivity falls drastically, their family suffers and the dog watches nervously for kicks.

This irritation is delivered with few or no corresponding advantages. Excel still has the same charting graphics that it offered in 1995. It cannot really be used as a statistics package, and remains a corporate accounting spread sheet. The only product that truly shines is Powerpoint, but it shone no more brightly in the 2007 release than it did a decade earlier.

As a result, penetration of the new product has been slow. Figures published since its launch suggest that Office 2003 has retained about half of all users, Office 2000 10-15% and that - because new users cannot buy Office 2003 except from third world bootleggers - Office 2007 has slowly acquired the remained. However, although large corporate users tend to stick with Microsoft, Open Office has made huge inroads into the small business and private user market. This uses the Office 2003 menu. It is popular both because this convention allows users to retain their skills and also, of course, because the product is distributed is free of charge.

First impressions: Office 2010

We chose not to adopt Office 2007 and we have suffered no disadvantage as a result of this decision. The office dog remained un-kicked. Now, however, Office 2010 has come onto the scene. We have had a look at it. We installed it, which took quarter of an hour. It then dropped us unceremoniously into the desk top, leaving no icons and no entries to the XP Start menu. We had to find the .exe files and put in icon links manually.

We ran it. It registers itself and then re-registers itself - a lengthy process - every single time you start it if you have used an earlier version of Office in the intervening period. There is a registry edit fix for this, but this is a bit much to ask of general users. Eventually, a depressed gray blue screen appears, looking nothing like anything else in your work environment. In case you might forget that what Powerpoint or Word actually do, there is a garish coloured blob on the top left, to remind you that this is the red or orange package. Typing is blue, calculating is green - get it, you thick fool?

This version is less aggressive in its use of the ghastly ribbon. Instead, there is a standard menu interface which, when clicked, shows a bar of blurry icons in place of text options. You can compare a screen shot of Office 2000 and Office 2010 icons opposite. One of our people with maculitis could not read it at all.

This approach does, of course, take much longer to search than does a well-designed menu. You get the whole lot, dumped onto the screen. If you want to repeat an action, you can either invoke the ribbon again - four clicks in place of one, if you can remember where to look - or you can permanently give up a significant chunk of screen estate by electing to keep the wretched thing permanently in place. You cannot locate the menu bar to the vertical part of the screen, and it hangs like a headache over your work space.

You can, if you wish, create a menu header of your own, and put all of your desired icons onto it. This approximates a customised task bar. However, you cannot transfer icons individually, but only in predefined groups that will usually contain things you do not want. Earlier versions of Office allowed you to park your task bars where you wanted them,and to assemble icons that met your needs in them. They were a bit like paint wells - always there, ready for a dab when required. Now, you have to dig through a heap of trash to find what you want: minimally four clicks in place of one. As the turkey said to the calendar: This is progress?

Both recent versions of Office do not allow you to match the package to your desk top environment. You get a dirty blue, black or depressed gray options, with babyish buttons and whopping great icons. Whopping, but also strangely varied. If you open the file menu you find icons the size of puppy's paws. Elsewhere, however, windows pop up in variants of your desk-top colour scheme, but often with tiny and virtually unreadable fonts.

The file menu icons are so large that they run off the bottom of the screen, so you have to scroll down through them. They comprise a set of predefined "themes", which in thirty years of presentations I have never seen anyone use. Unnecessary decoration has been called, with justice, chart junk. We looked to see if these themes and their stamp-collector menu could be removed. They could not. The web suggested that a registry edit is required. That, plus the manual deletion of these files still did not remove these distractions.

We tried to find help on how to bring in our many and varied individual styles and templates - that is, letterheads with peoples' names on them and the like. This proved to be extremely hard to do, with the system referring to "emulation mode" when grudgingly it hid these under one of these vast icons. Getting it to open a new default new page in the format that we wanted also proved extremely hard to achieve - perhaps we had not understood 'themes', but sometimes we got what we wanted and sometimes something quite different, for example in word a blank page formatted in Calibri. There is no accessible documentation and we had to work by trial and error.

We looked for help. The off line help is extremely rudimentary. The on-line help is sparse to an un commercial degree: virtually every page that we asked for was "not available at this time", and searches came up with a ludicrously limited range of hits. We bought a book which styled itself as "advanced", but it was all pictures and elementary steps that we could have worked out for ourselves. Independent Office-related web sites seem to reflect a similar state of bewilderment and irritation.

An unpromising start.

We struggled for some days, and got (some of) the thing to (sort of) work. It is clearly better than Office 2007, but as that was a huge step backwards from Office 2003/2000 it is hard to say how it improves on previous versions of Office.

Is there truly nothing good to say about the product?

Well, it certainly looks less "techie" and intimidating than Office 2000, and that is probably the point of it. This is a consumer product, aimed at new or naive users who are never going to engage with computing in a serious way. A child can use it to knock out a class report or an invitation to a fete, and the result will look quite pretty.

If, however, you want to set up a two day training course in Powerpoint, using thousands of animation, images and clips that flow smoothly into each other without visible seams, then this is not for you. Use one of the older versions. There are no new features that are worth having, and the effort of making the change is not warranted. If you fear that you will be unable to read .docx and other documents, get Open Office or buy the Home and Student version, that packs Word, Excel and Powerpoint.

Strategic issues.

Microsoft has not had much luck in the past five years. Vista and Office 2007 were not a success, and they would probably have sunk any small organisation that had launched them. User inertia, a broad portfolio of cash generators and the sense that there had been glitches before all calmed investor nerves. Windows 7 does seem to be unobjectionable, if not the step change that may ultimately be required.

Office has been described as "a 1990s solution to a 1980s problem." It is not at all clear what the current package is supposed to achieve, as training someone to use - or even be aware of - all of its facilities would take much longer than most organisations have got. The product appears to be optimised around two issues:

This perspective may, indeed, suit the world of routine and cubicles, whilst making gestures to the publicity that Microsoft puts out: the 'inner adult' in every child. It does, however, completely exclude everybody else, including the vast user base that is Microsoft's only true strength.

There is a further oddity, onethat seems to run through the last few generations of the suite. This revolves around is Microsoft's notion of how people work. The new version of Word, for example, allows parallel access to a single document, which many users can change more or less simultaneously. It may be that one or two organisations will want such a feature - introverts who hate to meet, perhaps, or brainstorming advertising copyduring a pandemic - but it is hard to envisage a broader situation in which this Wiki style of work would lead to anything but chaos. Indeed, it flies in the face of version control, quality maintenance and structured creativity.

The perception that work is handled by child-like teams seems to underpin both Microsoft's analysis of what people want from the product and the publicity that should be used to sell it. Each team member is supposed to contribute a random lump of activity, much as children make a farm animal or tree to add to the class farm. The reality is different: most work is routine and structured, sequential and hugely duplicated. Where people are creative, this may occur in (physically) social situations, may be individual or may occur when they retire in ones and two to talk, think and iterate around ideas. Most productive thought is solitary, made useful by a shared context in which the individual is working and into which they will communicate their ideas. We have no data on this, but it would not be surprising if the majority of Word documents were read only by their originator. Word processors are chiefly thought processors, means by which to get muddled ideas clean and vague plans sufficiently objectified that they can be properly discussed with others. That is, when they are not being used for routine applications, these tools are used in highly contextual ways, by individuals and not by groups. Individuals want individuation in their toolset.

Beyond the Last Hurrah.

The age of the package is probably over. What is needed is an "ecology" of compatible tools, and a user base who can either use these tools or who can easily find someone who can use them on their behalf. That is, if you or I occasionally find the need to embed a video clip into a presentation, then we can buy time on a package (or a service) that will do this for us. The presentation module needs the sockets into which to plug the resulting file, but it does not need to incorporate the editing function. Indeed, it must not, for it has to be as simple and sleek as is compatible with its being configurable to the user's requirements.

What does a realisation of such a structure look like? One has to have a core structure off which other things are to be hung. Modern operating system are, of course, set up in this way. Here, we are talking about one additional layer "meta" to the current offer. Current operating systems have structures that cope with things like graphics, printing and other IO, communications and so forth. Higher level software packages draw on these when they run over the operating system. A next generation operating system may well have higher order structures built into it. Simple text processing and management is an example of this. "Higher brain function" capabilities might include, for example, routine features such as contextual data mining of the accessible information environment.

This lays open the structure to free-floating capabilities that can be connected in when they are needed, like meccano. Third party products would be available from the cloud, for hire or for purchase, and their universal distinguishing feature would be open standards and interoperability. They would work by drawing on the operating system's new and extended capabilities.

Examples of such products would include continual contextual data mining of available knowledge, where the user's state of mind is being modeled. This goes way, way beyond the irritating MS paper clip and into the realm of concept network homologies: "here is a similar pattern of concepts that has been developed by you, colleagues or someone external that has a 85% homology with what you are doing. It extends into 'concept' - as opposed to 'word' - processing. Here is a link to a paper which shows how "concept clouds" surround individual words, such that typing evokes a developing thundercloud of back drop associations. data-basing could compare your particular storm to earlier attempts by yourself, by people in your organisation, profession or at large on the web.

Contextual data filtration includes the ability to manage data sources in an initially very general and visually-oriented ways. For example, excellent tools exists that allow one to switch between 'sketching' and 'set-building': that is, the ability to collect information sources - ideas or data points - into clusters, and then to view the implications of making such choices. For example, to make sweeping generalisations - all of these customers but not those, drop that lot of data points, kill this or that principal component in the visualisation of market variability - and see what that does to a model of reality. (Yes, Excel will do something vaguely like that if the data are set up properly, but it will neither find the data nor clean them up or tag them for processing. And you will need a six month conversion course to do it on the 2010 version.)

This is terrain that is absolutely idea for Microsoft to colonise. It grows from the basic skills and market presence of the company, and it is undoubtedly where their operating system people will need at least to think of going. Unhappily, this must create a rift in the corporation, for doing this will destroy the proprietary advantage of the Office package. By definition, anyone can offer a component into the amalgam. Customers will migrate in unexpected directions. IT managers will be unhappy. The current 'package' strategy will fail, and fall at the hands of its own colleagues.

Reader feedback

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Here is a sample of the 50-60 comments that we have received. Each paragraph is from a separate respondent. We have chosen them at random, and posted them to show how widely and strongly opinions are held on this unhappy product. Microsoft appear to have angered a fair proportion of their user base, which it is only ever sensible to do when you have something that is genuinely better to offer, and capable of compensating the user for the required effort and general friction. Nevertheless, we must say that these texts express solely the views of their writers and the Challenge Network does not necessarily endorse the sentiments which they express.

I am glad that someone is prepared to say what pretty much everyone is thinking. This is an interface for morons. It sets a limit as to how good you can get with the package. All of our engineers and white collar workers have turned it down flat, although some of the new secretaries have been trained up on it and so use the thing. Then we find that their files will not work on the rest of our computers. It's simply crazy, company suicide.

[...] Here's an example of the total idiocy of this package. In Powerpoint there is an animation bar with huge great icons, which means you can see them three at a time. If you click it turns into a pane with different, smaller icons. But that pane cannot be moved, and completely obscures the things that you are trying to animate. So not only does the "live" animation that they make so much about become invisible, but so does everything else.

[...] One feature that drives me simply crazy is the way the ribbon thing is either on all the time, or vanishes at a single click. Suppose I want to up a font size by three steps. That means I have to evoke the ribbon thing three times, because after each damn click it hides itself again. Or I opt to have it on all the time, thereby filling what? 20% of my screen; plus the vast header that sit on top of it. Really stupid, stupid.

I have been inside MS several times on this. Basically, they don't care much about people who know how to use the package. They are all going to retire soon, or get other people to do their work for them. [...] The big market is beginners. Most beginners only go 10% up the slope anyway, so you just need a basic easy interface that will not put them off. That's the strategy - go for YouTube users.

Most of Office is pretty useless. It seems that virtually no one uses Access for example, and the 'hits' are Outlook (just the email, never mind the diary and stuff) then Word and after that Excel for simple accounting spread sheet stuff. Powerpoint is the only unique package, everything else has similar or better and often free alternatives. But only a minority use Powerpoint and then it's just screen screen screen. So it really doesn't matter much what MS do to the package as the average user takes 20-30 minutes making a presentation and uses that file only once. So all this "broadcast to the web" and stuff is just MS wet dreaming. It seems that a team has been set up and its is paid to do whatever in orer to sound useful and stay in business, and so they just keep adding 'cool stuff' that nobody but them really needs.

Why are the web reviews so positive? Have the journos been 'managed', or is this a worship of the super cool techie thing? I am getting on, but I recall in the 1960s that "new" always meant "worse": solid expensive products were replaced in plastic with cheaply made flimsy things that always broke. That trend stopped in the Eighties and we got used to a new product being better than what had gone before. Suddenly, with Vista and O 07 and now O 2010 we are back in that world, the time of tinselly bits of trash that are not as good as what went before. WHAT IS THE MATTER WITH THESE GUYS? And why don't journalists report reality, which is that people hate this interface and will not use it?

We ran an internal review, where people could come to a demonstration of Office 2007, try it out and have it on their machine if they wanted it. We have around 700 users of Office. About 250 came to the demonstrations and 170 arranged to spend a few hours trying it out. Not one single person wanted to switch. So we have been staying with Office 2003. That is beginning to create licensing problems for new machines, and we are going to have to either force everyone to do something that makes no sense to either us or to them to do - namely force Office 2010 on them - or else to cut the thread with Microsoft. [...] If you people know of a good alternative to Powerpoint, please do let us know. We can provide a hot key by hot key replacement for pretty much everything else that people use in Office 2003, but a good Powerpoint replacement does not seem to exist. Perhaps it is time that someone created one, or that Open Office got up to speed on this.

My kids came back from school, where they have been learning Office 2007 since they went there. But here is an interesting observation. I learned to program in Fortran, and then C. I think I really know how a machine works, and I can do all sorts of short cuts because of that. They have all learned in point and click packages, and whilst they can make a window open up nicely and all of that, they have not got a clue why it works. They got stuck on a cut and paste issue in Office. I could solve it in a few minutes, but they could not understand my explanation. Not because it was complicated, because it wasn't difficult. It was because they had no idea how anything worked behind the pretty pictures. OK, so they get "productive" in a few minutes, but they never get any better after that. This seems to be the new MS paradigm: "Just Good Enough", but for who? Commercial people? Kids? Morons? Why build in limits??

You asked about alternatives. Here is a page dedicated to these. Personally, I really like the Oracle package (ex IBM) of OpenOffice. It's not free, but it is really cheap and has a fully professional support base, a UI that looks and feels like Office 2003 and which is completely compatible with Office Later distros.

Please accept our apologies if your comment has not been included. As we have already said, we have chosen at random whilst trying to maintain a fair coverage of the opinion expressed.