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  • Utility Software: Too Many Features, Not Enough Utility

    Posted by Jonathan on May 29th, 2004 (All posts by )

    MS Word is to text editing what AOL is to email. Both systems have proprietary features that make life a little easier for inexperienced users while causing problems for everyone else. For example, in MS Word-formatted blog posts, Web links of the “a href=” type fail to work if the URL in enclosed in MS “curly quotes.” And I’m sure many of us have had frustrating experiences trying to send non-text attachments to AOL users.

    Part of the problem in both cases is user error, and part is that MS and AOL use proprietary features to corral users. A lot of it also seems to be a lack of sense on the part of the software designers.

    This is particularly true for Microsoft products. Word is complex, with default settings that are optimized to produce aesthetically perfect printed output. But much of what we do now is online, displaying text on Web pages via non-MS software such as Movable Type, and collaborating with people who aren’t always using Microsoft products. For such purposes the default use of plain text with a minimum of nonstandard ASCII characters makes more sense than does Word’s infinite configurability and default print orientation.


    5 Responses to “Utility Software: Too Many Features, Not Enough Utility”

    1. Uncle Bill Says:

      Web links of the “a href=” type fail to work if the URL in enclosed in MS “curly quotes.”

      This bit of unwanted ‘help’ can be turned off at least for Word 97.

      Rather than explain how here, invoke help, click the ‘find’ tab, type in the word: quotes, display the response and follow the instructions.

      The central problems here are:

      1) The defaults are preselected
      2) Most folks are not good at using help
      3) Most folks do not hunt for options/preferences and see what they can do to improve their experience with a product.

      In this particular case one might even suggest that Word should be able to tell the difference between normal text and HTML.

    2. TM Lutas Says:

      There are some fairly good web IDEs out there. Microsoft Word is not one of them. It suffers from the same 3 flaws in all Microsoft products. It comes with Microsoft legal and Microsoft marketing departments attached to it and these two cause so much trouble that it creates the third problem, a technical community of smart people who hate MS so much that they passionately want to destroy them and don’t care about crushing the odd innocent user in the meantime.

      Microsoft marketing and legal both work very hard to get you to embrace and extend Microsoft proprietary goodies in supposedly standard things like a web page so that you are advantaged if you view the page in an MS viewer. This sort of thing drives sales but they will intentionally make things hard for you (like setting your Word prefs back to curly quotes in a security critical patch) to work with other platforms.

    3. Jonathan Says:

      Right. I wrote this rant after I noticed that links in one of Lex’s posts weren’t working, due to curly quotes. Lex didn’t know that curly quotes are an issue, and why should he need to? Life is too short to have to go rummaging through a poorly organized help file every time MSFT’s proprietary-cute-technology-o’-the-month corrupts your favorite common-denominator apps. I use a shareware text editor and never have these problems, but then I miss out on the valuable benefits of curly quotes, elaborate bulleted lists, worthless fonts, and Web bugs. And that idiotic paper clip.

      My theory is that MS staffs its security dept with guileless suburban high-school students whose parents never locked the front door. Meanwhile the marketing dept is full of people who think that software customers are like buyers of ladies’ shoes who enjoy frequent opportunities to change, upgrade and buy more stuff.

    4. Fred Schoeneman Says:

      For those of you looking for a better solution, consider moving to open office ( as it has most of the useful functionality and much smaller file sizes. I converted from Word 2000 last year and the transition was smooth, so smooth that I’ve formatted an entire book with hyperlinks, headings, chapters, and all that good stuff. It can save your document as a word file, as .pdf, and it won’t crash as often as MS products.

      For examples of .pdf files created using openoffice (for free) look at the short stories at the top left of my blog.

    5. Alan Little Says:

      I’m sure some of Word’s unwillingness to play nice is deliberate malice on Microsoft’s part, but I think most of it is just obsolescence due to Word’s roots in a non-networked, print-oriented world.

      I still use Word fairly heavily for work where I have to produce things for clients who insist on having them as paper documents. For my own purposes I fire it up maybe once or twice a year, generally for letters to government bureaucracies that are too primitive to cope with email.