MS Office Addiction

I prefer to use specialized tools that were designed to perform a specific job, rather than universal tools that claim they can be adapted to perform a multitude of tasks. While in many cases they are perfectly serviceable, I usually find that dedicated tools are simply better at what they do. There are exceptions of course, but in most cases a jack of all trades is a master of none. And the biggest, baddest universal software tool that claims to do everything is of course Microsoft Office.

The full MS Office suite is a package of tools for just about anything you can think of – from writing letters and memos, publishing, creating spreadsheets, presentations to databases. It was designed to cover all your bases, and let you do all sorts of things without needing to go look for the right tools elsewhere.

Sadly, all the tools in the suite are of sub-par quality. Everyone knows Access sucks. It is a single-user toy database that should not be used for anything other than small personal projects – such as cataloging your book collection perhaps. But people use it for all kinds of projects because it’s there in the office suite.

Word is a decent WYSIWYG editor but as all WYSIWYG tools it is deeply flawed. Not only does it hide and abstract vital information from the user. It also doesn’t guarantee in any way that the document you created on your computer will look the same on another one. The layout of a .doc file is largely dependent on the MS Office version, the availability of the fonts, and the default printer on a given machine and it’s settings. It is an ok tool to write a short letter, and maybe interoffice memo. But people use it to write research papers, books, and design promotional materials which in my opinion is insane.

Word also pretends it is able to save documents as HTML pages, which is a blatant lie. It doesn’t create HTML pages but rather vomits up non compliant MSHTML specific markup garbage with little regard for human readability. But some people use it for designing web pages.

Excel is a very nice spreadsheet application for quickly tabulating data, or creating simple charts. It is also hopelessly limited with arbitrary limits on number of rows per sheet, and invisible, counter-intuitive limits on the way worksheets can be formated. That issue was resolved in the OpenXML version but the binary xls format is still the de-facto standard in the corporate world. It was never designed to be used for storing and processing massive amounts of information but that’s what people use it for these days. And that’s despite the fact that storing data as comma separated or tab separated list is more efficient and much easier to parse by a variety of other tools.

They are all useful tools that are appropriate for certain problems. But since they are all bundled together, and marketed as the “be all, end all” office productivity solution people learn to rely on it. MS Office file formats are the standard formats for corporate information exchange these days. And since these formats are standards, hardly anyone, save for few geeks like you and me, considers using anything else. Office is the swiss army knife for office clerks, financial analysts, secretaries, CEO’s, technical writers, philosophers, sociologists, fiction writers, poets and just about anyone else. They use Office for anything and everything because:

  1. they don’t know how to use anything else
  2. they don’t know that anything else exists
  3. and therefore they don’t feel that they need to learn anything else but Office

Sadly, when the only tool you know how to use is a hammer, every problem starts to look like a nail. And if it does not look like a nail, you change the definition of the word “nail” until it fits your problem.

Time and time again I get approached by people who have an issue that Office was not designed to handle, and ask me if I could design VBA macros to solve it. Instead of asking whether or not there exists a tool that does X, they instead insist that we figure out a way to coerce Word or Excel to do it instead.

Apologists and Office addicts will of course say that learning new tools is difficult, unnecessary and counterproductive. Why for example would one need to learn LaTex if Word is perfectly serviceable, and easy to use substitute. Unfortunately easy to use does not mean best for a given domain of problems. In fact, quite to the contrary it usually means: simplistic, limited, and inflexible. While learning something new may slow you down at first, it is usually a wise investment of time and effort which will benefit you greatly at a later date. If nothing else it will help you grow as a person. I mean hell, you even had to learn how to use Office at one point, didn’t you?

You’re not going to tell me you write lengthy papers in Word without figuring out how to automatically enumerate figures, create bibliographies, tables of contents, and how to deal with page/section break and paragraph formatting oddities not to mention using features such as mail merge. Oh, wait… I forget that our regular office addicts don’t do that either. They rely on intuitive understanding of the tool and often for example do things like manually numbering their pages, or manually double spacing their text by hitting enter between lines.

The thing is that intuitive understanding of a tool is not enough. Everyone knows how to use a hammer for example. But nailing things together without damaging the wood, wasting nails, or hitting your thumbs is not trivial and takes some practice. Same goes with software but on a much higher level of complexity.

I’m not saying you should be experimenting with new software when under strict deadlines. I’m just suggesting that perhaps sometimes the right question to ask is not “how do I transform this data so that I can dump it into Excel” but rather “what tool should I use to efficiently analyze this data and get the answers I’m looking for”.

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15 Responses to MS Office Addiction

  1. Ian Clifton UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Linux says:

    To be fair, it is called Microsoft Word and not MS Resume or MS Paragraph. Using it to write a sentence is stretching the capabilities already, let along a whole paragraph or more!

    I think one of the problems is that, while some other format/tool would be better for a certain job, you might not have the software to work with it on another computer (and many users have limited privileges, preventing them from installing new software… if they even know how). Of course, that’s easily taken care of by using standardized formats and ensuring an organization’s computers all have the necessary software on them…. but since when were standards important?

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  2. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux Terminalist says:

    Yeah, but this is why we have helpful IT departments out there. I’d love to supply my users with whatever tools they need but all they ever seem to desire (with few rare exceptions) is MS Office.

    Sigh… You are right about the standards. I really wish Microsoft didn’t have to be so fucking evil all the time and just gave up and implemented ODF in Office 2007. We would all be so much better as a result. :(

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  3. Ian Clifton UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Linux says:

    Unfortunately, users would rather go with the fast easy solution more frequently than the proper solution. That’s why people just change the font face/size for a heading instead of making it an actual heading and setting the appropriate styles for headings. It isn’t just in the computer world though. People will commonly just add oil, transmission fluid, etc. to a car that is leaking/burning it rather than replacing a worn gasket (sure, there’s times when one might be more appropriate than the other, but most people never even check–or have someone check–their car to see where the problem is). I can’t imagine how many vacuums (or printers or…) are thrown out because a belt burned up. Students want the teachers to just give the correction/answer rather than leading to it. Etc.

    We had the MS Office 2007 format issue come up a few months ago. We had a meeting with the staff users of a web app we had made that accepts user applications for a position, allows resume uploads, etc. and a couple of the staff users complained about some of the “text” resumes being “scrambled.” I thought it was odd that anyone would upload a plain text resume and even more odd that you could have problems with it, but I looked into the issue. I believe the problem was that some applicants uploaded Word documents in the ’07 format but not all staff members had that version of Office, so Windows just defaulted to notepad or word or whatever, which couldn’t properly read the file. The solution to that problem isn’t very easy (since neither applicants nor staff users really pay attention to file types/extensions).

    I think web applications as replacements/supplements for/to desktop applications could solve a bit of this. They can support standards and be available from nearly any computer. Well, assuming the web developers took the painful hours to make their app work in IE, heh. :(

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  4. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux Terminalist says:

    Oh, the Office 2007 OpenXML is a whole bundle of issues. For example there is that disappearing data issue. Here is what happened:

    1. Our auditor went to a company and asked for an aging
    2. The company gave him a PDF
    3. He cried because PDF’s are scary so someone “converted” the PDF into an Excel for him on the site and saved it in OpenXML format.
    4. This was not an issue because the auditor had Office 2007.
    5. Some time later another person was working on the same files, but she had Office 2003 with the compatibility pack from Microsoft
    6. It turned out that the data exceeded the maximum number of rows (60k+) in Office 2003. The compatibility pack dropped 10k rows and displayed some sort of popup message to the user which was promptly ignored.
    8. The boss catches the wind of the issue pulls up the file, and it is just fine (he has 2007 version). Another director opens it up and it is wrong.
    10. I spend 2 hours hitting my head against the desk and wondering if rolling out Office 2007 for all employees will solve anything considering that 80% of our clients still use 2003.

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  5. Daosus UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox SuSE Linux says:

    While I think that Word isn’t the best tool for many things, it is often good enough. Even for something like writing reports (which really SHOULD be done in LaTeX), Word has powerful tools that allow auto numbering of sections and figures, quick formatting of all section headings, automatic table of contents and figures generation, and so on. The problem is that no one actually uses these things. I cannot tell you the depths of my rage when I am working on a group project, and have this conversation with teammates (again):

    Teammate: “Hey, just so you know, when you reformatted the entire paper, you messed up on the auto-numbering feature you said Word had. I put in a new figure into the middle and labeled it “Figure 17,” but every figure after that had the number wrong.”

    Me: “Did you label the figure in the way that I showed you so that the computer knows that it’s supposed to include it in auto-numbering?”

    Teammate: “Uhhhhhhhh……”

    So, really, the problem isn’t that the features aren’t there, but that they’re unused. Of course, the fact that the metadata is invisible allows people to do these stupid things in the first place. I think the Not so Short Introduction to LaTeX gets it right when it says LaTeX will not allow you to write “unstructured and disorganized documents.” The problem is that people go by the way things look rather than the logical structure. No one (apparently except engineers, scientists and CS guys) seems to think on a hierarchical outline level.

    PS. – I really do wish people wouldn’t pretty up their stuff with unnecessary markup. Plaintext really is good enough most of the time.

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  6. Jake UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Linux says:

    What bugs me even more is when people use Word for everything… even when they have the whole Office suite.
    Things I have seen done with Word:

    1. Webpages (my school) – Frontpage
    2. Tabular data and only tabular data – Excel
    3. Greeting cards – Pulisher
    4. Composing e-mails (from Outlook- introduces even more problems that regular HTML emails because of Word’s bad HTML export) – Integrated HTML mode in Outlook
    5. Saving images (I see people do this all the time at school, even teachers- copy the image from IE, paste it into Word, and then save a doc) – No extra software needed
    6. Copy and paste a paragraph or so of a webpage where File>Print, Print Selection would suffice. – No extra software needed

    And so on. It bugs me beyond belief.

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  7. feeshy Mozilla Firefox Linux Terminalist says:

    I dropped MS Office about 4 months ago along with Windows. I still miss PowerPoint. There is nothing that comes close to it. And I do most of my work creating presentations. I am learning to deal with Impress.

    I’m indifferent between Excel and Calc and I actually find that Writer is a lot better than Word. If I get any .docx or similar I just return the document and explain that many corporates don’t have Office 2007 and to please save in Office 2003 format.

    Regardless of the Open Document and MS Office Open XML hype, we are going to struggle with formats for a long time still.

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  8. Geoff CANADA Mozilla Firefox Debian GNU/Linux says:

    WYSIWYG or no, any word processor that doesn’t allow the user to “reveal codes”(in WordPerfect speak) is defective. Unfortunately this includes OpenOffice too, they seem to think that since Word doesn’t offer users the ability to see the markup codes, that it’s not a feature anyone actually needs or wants. Which sadly is another example of why MS Office is bad for humanity – just like all other Microsoft products, they’re designed to keep the user stupid and hapless. And since they’re the de facto standard, all the alternatives (well certainly at least OO.o in this case) model themselves on crap like Office and when people clamour for years to get some useful features included (search OO.o bugs for “reveal codes”) the response is “Office doesn’t do it so neither do we”. *sigh*

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  9. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux Terminalist says:

    I stopped using Word Perfect around the same time submitting your homeworks electronically became an accepted practice. I was forced to switch to Word. Then around my Junior year in college I was introduced to LaTex and never looked back. :)

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  10. Daosus UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox SuSE Linux says:

    Yeah, the nice thing is that most places will now take a submission in PDF, and LaTeX outputs to that just fine. Of course, if someone else has to edit your stuff, you still have to use Word :(.

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  11. Mats Rauhala FINLAND Mozilla Firefox Linux says:

    I’m studying computer sciences at Turku University of Applied Sciences. At the moment we are studying UML-modelling, and our teacher shows us how some things are done and the results. He made an uml-diagram with Magic Draw, exported is as an image, imported it to word, and showed it at screen.

    Made me want to bang my head to the table

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  12. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux Terminalist says:

    @Mats Rauhala: This just goes to show that having a PHD in Computer Science does not mean one possesses a clue.

    Also this is the reason why I think that all computer science equipment should be running some flavor of Linux and should not include Open Office or other productivity suite. I mean, computer science students and professors should be using LaTex anyway. :P

    Also, there is like 10 billion UML modeling tools out there. Why the hell is he using a drawing program and exporting, importing and etc?

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  13. Mats Rauhala FINLAND Mozilla Firefox Linux says:

    Although he apparently uses linux, but can’t discern between linux and unix.

    “Linux is Unix” a quote he said today

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  14. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux Terminalist says:

    @Mats Rauhala: Well, I guess it depends on the level of abstraction. For example I could say “OSX is Unix” too – after all it is based on a BSD kernel, no?

    In fact I would venture a guess that OSX is more unix than linux is unix, kernel wise. But, you know… Linux behaves like unix, and both are POSIX compatible – so yeah. You could argue that linux is unix meaning “like unix” to some degree. The codebase does not intersect though – nor it can because of GPL restrictions.

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  15. Morghan Google Chrome Windows says:

    I just linked back to this from another comment and thought that I should note this,

    ODF files seem to be working well with the copy of MS Office Pro 2010 that I got from the University Book Store.

    I’m still not a fan of MS Office, or MS in general, but I’ve had a much better experience with Win7 and Office ’10 than with any of their earlier products.

    YMMV of course, and I still have Slackware on my computer, but I don’t feel the need to cry when I use the laptop I bought for school.

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