Thursday, January 04, 2007

(Micro)soft in the head

In today's Wall Street Journal, personal technology guru Walter S. Mossberg kicks off the Great Leap Forward re-education camp on behalf of Microsoft Office 2007's "bold redesign." He's in Mr. Softee's amen chorus, but even he says of Office's "radical revision":
I don't use the word "radical" lightly. The entire user interface, the way you do things in these familiar old programs has been thrown out and replaced with something new. In Word, Excel and PowerPoint, all of the menus are gone — every one. None of the familiar toolbars have survived, either. In their place is a wide, tabbed band of icons at the top of the screen called the Ribbon. And there is no option to go back to the classic interface.
Got that? Remember how you struggled to grasp Microsoft's new programs and operating systems when they began to fence in the range in the early '90s? All those classes and tutorials and remedial reading — "how to" books you paid for to help you understand what was supposed to be so "intuitive" and user friendly with "Help" menus that would leap to your aid the second you typed in a question? (Maybe you found the whole brain circus exhilarating, but quite a few of us turned prematurely gray or had to be gently led off, gibbering, to a care facility for slipped hard disk victims.)

Ah, but we persisted; the prospect of becoming technologically unemployed concentrates the mind wonderfully. We learned what we needed, and came to appreciate some of it. I can't imagine a writer whose quality of life hasn't been improved by word processing.

And now, instead of being permitted by Mr. Softee to relax and enjoy our hard-won computer skills, we're going to be sent back to basic training. More classes fronted by drill sergeant instructors ramming new technobabble into our heads. More hours heads-down in manuals that explain what's supposed to be so much easier to use. More newspaper and magazine columns answering questions from Office Nought Seven
newbies reduced to plaintive desperation: "Every time I go to Level Three on the Ribbon, activate the System Articulation and select Flow Screen, the program spawns Triple Witching Frames and downcompensates a Message Analogue that indicates I have encountered a baseless time error and tells me to come back after lunch. What can I do to correct this problem before the boss gets in a 8 a.m. tomorrow and wants my report?"

Even Mr. Mossberg, the very model of the Digital Wiz, who approves Microsoft's No User Left Unconfused initiative, confesses: "It [the redesign] requires a steep learning curve that many people might rather avoid. In my own tests, I was cursing the program for weeks because I couldn't find familiar functions and commands, even though Microsoft provides lots of help and guidance."

Technology company managers and software designers have a steep learning curve of their own, and a goodly number of them are flat where the curve should be. They never seem to figure out that what 95 percent of users want is not Quantum Leap no. 34, a Bold New Interface, hundreds of new functions, or vast new opportunities to make bits and bytes zip this way and that. Normal people who get out in the sunlight more often than computer techies tend to do want programs that let them perform a few desirable tasks in a manner that is simple, predictable, and consistent from year to year.

Sure, existing Microsoft programs have various irrational characteristics (what bright spark decided that Word's "Shut Down" should be on the "Start" menu?), but anybody who's used the Office software for a while has either learned to deal with the oddities or developed work-arounds. Besides, it's a dead cert that the New, Improved Office with Miracle Ingredient Q-SPRM 475TG will have just as many senseless features and require as many patches as Joseph's coat.

Virtually everyone who works regularly with the old Office suite is comfortable with it and finds that it meets their needs just dandy. Wouldn't it be a real great leap forward if consumers treated Mr. Softee's latest war against people as though its every installation disc had been aged in botulism?

I hope Office '07 turns out to be Microsoft's New Coke.

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