Off Topic: Microsoft Word Sucks

This article originally appeared on my other blog, How To Democracy

Writing is important to me. Words are much of my life, whether it’s my day job in marketing or teaching my three year-old seven syllable words (/ˌpætʃɪˌkɛfələˈsɑːrəs/). Words are my trade and like all tradesmen, I need good tools to get the job done.

For paper-based scribing, I use a Lamy Safari fountain pen which is a nice balance between practicality and pretension. For the computer-based input, I use an Apple Extended Keyboard II (I’ve got a few units and the requisite adaptors—enough to have one at home and one at the office). These are good tools—in fact the mechanical AEKII is regarded by some as the “best keyboard ever made”. But moving away from the hardware of writing to the software, things very quickly fall apart.

Word “processing” has, at various stages of the term’s use, meant an electronic typewriter, a piece of software and even a person trained to type. These days, it almost exclusively refers to software and the first piece of word processing software that springs to most people’s mind is the Monopoly Man of the digital word: Microsoft Word.

In which Microsoft Word is a bloated piece of crap

I know, it’s fashionable to hate Word. Once upon a time, it was a plucky newcomer, competing with the big boys in the world of word processing. But now it is an ungainly, bloated piece of crap that claims to do too many things and doesn’t do any of them particularly well.

At uni, I spent several years trying to come to grips with the intricacies of Word. I thought that if Word was everywhere, it must be OK, right? Somehow, it must be my own technical knowledge that was lacking. All I needed to do was learn…and I would win at Word! Hahaha, you poor fool, naive dummy past Richard.

Turned out there wasn’t any real level of insight or knowledge that would make Word do as you vainly commanded. I found this out through my own blood, sweat and tears—well sweat and tears anyway—after coming close to losing my sanity writing my parliamentary internship report (complete with tables, breakouts and charts) with Word. Actually writing “with” Word probably doesn’t do justice to those months of toil. I completed my report “despite” Word? Wrestling with the keys of fate, linked charts of catastrophe and wretched text wrapping of wickedness, I toiled to complete, against all odds, my parliamentary internship report? Hmm. Better. I mean whose sphincter hasn’t irreparably tightened when an attempt to nudge an image one millimetre up the page results in the disappearance and dislodging of 46 pages of carefully laid-out text, charts and tables?

In fact, if I had the power to eradicate something from the surface of the earth, Word would rank highly on any list I dreamt up. Sure, it would probably sit behind war, famine and plague, but it would be higher than most others would place a software package. Why? Because Microsoft Word is a plague. It is like a virus that has infected almost every home and commercial computer.

Word is so bad that this is where I invoke Adobe in a positive light(room)

For me, I’d like to invoke Adobe as an example of one way forward for Microsoft and Word—yep, a I’m citing Adobe as a positive paradigm…the world has gone topsy-turvy. Adobe, like Microsoft, has a bit of a problem with legacy. Where Lightroom was once a revolutionary program for editing and managing digital assets, a dozen years of legacy coding have left recent releases running very slowly, even on blazing fast machines.

To address these issues (and ready the program for a cloud-based future) Adobe has released a reimagining of Lightroom called Lightroom CC (Creative Cloud). This version is entirely new and shares only a name with the older software. Developers are unencumbered by 12 year-old code free of the restraints of backwards compatibility. They are free to develop a program for the future of photography, not the legacies of the past. But Adobe hasn’t killed the “old” Lightroom. They rechristened the original version Lightroom “Classic” and are continuing to develop and support both programs side by side. The intention, however, is clear: the future is Lightroom CC, but we’ll have a while to adjust.

Adobe’s solution to the legacy problem is the best of both worlds. Developing for the new paradigm while supporting the old. Now why can’t Microsoft—with their subscription service and large development teams—think about doing the same. Do we really need word processing, charts, tables, mail merge, Word Art, shadows, outlines, address books, templates, ducking autocorrect, auto formatting or “smart” tags in one program? Or do writers want to sit down and write?

Funnily enough, Microsoft have actually done this already…kind of. In moving the focus of Office to the 365 subscription service, Microsoft developed Word Online as part of the package. This allows subscribers to view and edit documents in a web browser without opening the desktop app—so basically Google Docs, but you have to pay for it and it’s still the same Microsoft rubbish. It’s too baroque for my liking, but it’s a step in the right direction.

And yes, Microsoft Word of 2019 is better than Word of, say, 2003, but the improvements are mostly ribbon deep. I still find myself stuck in a type-autocorrect-backspace-retype-autocorrect again-backspace-retype-autocorrect yet again loop, expecting the software to understand after the first two corrections that I did indeed want to begin the next line with a lower case letter. And don’t get me started on formatting…that styles pane is a goddamn pain should you dare want anything other than Verdana or that standard bearer of default mediocrity: Calibri. Sure, the menus have been cleaned up, but I’ll be damned if I don’t spend an inordinate amount of time trying to find how to switch a function off after accidentally turning it on through an inadvertent key stroke.

Beware the Anonymous Capybara…

It’s often noted that George R.R. Martin still writes using WordStar 4.0 on a DOS-based machine. In his words, it does everything he needs and nothing he doesn’t. Plenty of niche developers out there are working on word processing software to meet this criterion—which is fine—but the monopolistic leaders in this space are doing nothing to improve the lot of the rest of us. As much as I’d like to take Ulysees or Scrivener into the workplace, it would not be accepted by the powers that be as a replacement for Word. Where is the business-friendly commercial word processing product that does everything we need and nothing we don’t? Oh hi, Google Docs. I see you there. Yep, I think you’re about ready for the big time…so long as some anonymous capybara doesn’t edit you off course…

Instead of burying the bloat in the “ribbon”, perhaps Microsoft can stop and think about their baby from the ground up. Maybe then I’ll shudder less whenever I see a .docx attached to an email in my inbox and I’ll open it without cursing the sender and the medium.

Further Reading

Death to Word by Tom Scocca (2012)

Journalists Just Can’t Quit Microsoft Word. But Some Are Trying by Rachel Withers (2018)

Why Microsoft Word must Die by Charlie Stross (2013)

WordStar: A writer’s word processor by Robert J. Saywer (1990, updated in 1996)

Microsoft Word Is the Only Word Processor for People Serious About Words by Heather Schwedel (2016)

We’re winning the war on Word, fellow writers. Enjoy the freedom by Jason Wilson (2018)

This post was drafted in Notes for iOS on an iPhone XS. Notes is a simple cloud-based word processor which comes with Apple iOS. It’s actually pretty useful, as is its MacOS version.

The typing experience on the iOS varies from mediocre to terrible, but I’ve used plenty of laptop keyboards worse than an iPhone’s touchscreen. 

It was edited in Google Docs on a desktop computer (with Apple Extended Keyboard II) before making the jump to the Blogger CMS (and now to Format’s blog CMS)

Using Format