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:
- they don’t know how to use anything else
- they don’t know that anything else exists
- 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”.