June 25, 2007

I find Microsoft's strategy with the introduction of Office 2007 completely bizarre. It has the "platypus is a duck designed by a committee" feel, only that is unfairly insulting to a platypus. Perhaps it is simply hubris -- Microsoft considers that no matter how dysfunctional its core products are, they are safe. But, as of this writing, Dell has re-introduced Windows XP on its machines, which should have Microsoft terrified.

Here is a fact. First, Microsoft has introduced a new document format for word, powerpoint and excel. These are less compatible than previous document changes, and indeed, many word 2003 documents, with a .doc extension, do not import properly into Word 2007 format, with a docx extension. Indeed, old wordperfect documents imported easier into Word than word 2003 documents into word 2007. This is especially terrible with equations. Equations in Word 2007 have a new editor and interface. I like some aspects of the new interface but there are a couple of gotchas that show the product was unfinished when released. For example, when you invoke a subscript template, Word provides focus outside the template, which is both annoying and was not a problem with Word 2003. The misplaced focus requires an extra mouseclick to operate. In any event, even if you like the new equation editor better (and many aspects are superior to the old one), it is not possible to import equations from the old system into the new system.

But the situation is in fact much worse than this. The killer app of the office suite is not an application at all but that the applications play nice with each other -- I write up a paper or memo, than use it to create a powerpoint, dragging an dropping text, images, charts, equations, etc. into my powerpoint file. This was Microsoft at its best. But if you have switched to Office 2007, prepare for a world of pain. First, powerpoint templates have vanished, replaced by a piecemeal system. This is probably the way it should have been in the first place, but given that I have a stock of templates accumulated over the years, the failure to provide "import my template" tools so that I could readily reuse my existing inventory is completely annoying. But even that problem pales in comparison to the fact that I can't drag and drop an equation from Word 2007 into Powerpoint 2007. Drag and drop an equation from Word 2007 and it is converted to a graphic image, with terrible fidelity, unusable. However, you can drop an equation from Word 2003 into Powerpoint 2007, because Powerpoint 2007 supports, and only supports, equations from Word 2003. This is simply bizarre. I have been denied access to my old equations created in Word 2003 by using Word 2007, which doesn't support them. But Powerpoint 2007 doesn't support the new equations but instead has added support to the old equations. This is the most incomprehensible design flaw.

Many other aspects of these three core office programs seem like they were designed in order to promote OpenOffice or other competitors. In particular, many features changed names and locations. I often exported powerpoint into Word to create notes page to accompany a speech. That feature is now called "convert to Word," instead of "export." I don't care about the names -- either one seems sensible -- but I spent 20 minutes with the notoriously unhelpful and very slow to load help system trying to figure out what the feature was now called. Searching under the old name didn't turn it up -- if you can't guess the new name, you can't search for it. Word desperately needs an index -- if you know what the feature used to be called, here is what it is now called and, more importantly, where it is located. I've spent much too much time looking for features that I know how to use, only to find them moved and renamed.

To be clear, many of the elements of the redesign are improvements, but Microsoft has failed to incorporate the fact that change is in fact bad unless the improvement is sufficiently good. Name changes are bad, because they require additional looking around. Moreover, with menus that appear and disappear seemingly at a whim, the user can readily become very frustrated just trying to replicate something they have done for years. I, for example, had a little macro that reformatted my notes pages to suit me. Macros are much more challenging to use in Word 2007, primarily because the location of menus changes so often that just recording clicks on menus will usually have unanticipated and undesired behavior.

I can't believe Microsoft executives actually used Office 2007 prior to releasing it. In a Sartre novel or an episode of the Twilight Zone, Microsoft executives would be condemned to writing with Word 2007 for eternity.

OK, let me turn to Vista. I put Vista on one of my computers to see how I liked it. I never reached the novel features because User Access Control defeated me. User Access Control is a security feature that prevents malicious programs from installing themselves. This is accomplished primarily by alerting the user to what goes on behind the scenes. But the problem is that UAC can't apparently tell keystrokes from hidden programs, so of course it also incessantly asks the user if they really want to do whatever it is they are doing. For example, with a new system, I reorganize the start menu so that I only have 6 top level categories, branching out from there, rather than have a visually overwhelming start menu with 100 folders and programs. In order to do this, I have to delete redundant entries (e.g. every user -- administrator, me, default user and all users has a "Windows Media" icon, which I never actually use because, after all, it starts up whenever I click on a windows media program). When you right click and choose delete, first you get a warning that something is trying to delete a file. Say OK. Then you get a question of whether the file can be deleted. Say yes. Then you get the usual question "Do you want to delete the file?". Yes. So what used to take one acceptance now takes three; reorganizing my start menu went from being a 15 minute operation to a 45 minute intensely irritating experience.

I searched in vain for a means of fixing this; apparently it is intrinsic to User Access Control that these questions are asked. Eventually Vista will learn that I say yes to these questions and quit asking, but that didn't happen while I reorganized my start menu. The one suggestion was to disable User Access Control. That worked on the questions but created a permanent and apparently not removable bubble alerting me to the fact that user access control was disabled. It is not possible, I am told, to disable this bubble because, after that, that is the first thing a malicious program would do.

I can't understand anyone using Vista. There is some increased functionality at the cost of a huge resource increase, and, really, Windows XP is actually a pretty good program, especially if you follow Black Viper's advice and disable the unneeded services. User Access Control is a really extreme example of what is an endemic problem at Microsoft: Microsoft assumes it knows better what your computer should be doing than you do. It runs System Restore frequently and when you are in the middle of something, it will just decide to index your files. Turn all that stuff off, and keep your disks around to re-install the operating system and your programs when things aren't working right, and back up your documents frequently. But this brings me to the major defect in Vista: it has to learn your preferences. Unless you can back up what the operating system learns about your preferences (and certainly it isn't obvious that you can; the whole point of reinstalling the operating system is to start fresh, so if the settings can be affected by other programs, you don't even want to back the settings up) the entire pain of starting with a fresh ignorant version of Vista that doesn't know you arrange things to suit yourself and hence questions you incessantly is going to re-appear.

My initial thought was that Steve Jobs was black-mailing Bill Gates over some youthful indiscretion, and Gates agreed to sell Vista as a payoff to Jobs. But now a more insidious theory seems plausible: Al Qaeda has taken over Microsoft. If our enemies took over Microsoft, they wouldn't completely cripple the products -- we would switch to alternatives in that event. No, instead they have damaged them just as much as they can, making them less interoperable, less productive, less useful, adding a drag on the economy measured in tens of thousands of lost person-years over the entire economy.

I intend for the descriptions of problems to be factual; if I have erred, please email me at preston (a) mcafee (dot) cc. Yes, cc, from the domain of the Cocos islands. Nothing written here represents the view of my employer, present or past, nor have I researched it beyond trying to make the programs work. It is just my personal opinion and observations.