ALTOM: Why Microsoft Word has so many questionable features

Tim Altom
January 29, 2011
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Tim Altom

Many years ago, when I first encountered Microsoft Word for Windows, I marveled not only at its features, but that they were now all dangled in front of me in their iconic profusion.

The earlier Word had been built for the now-vanished DOS environment, where there were only menus and no icons. It was hard to remember where all the commands were housed—was the Find command under Edit or Utilities?—but cheat sheets helped. Then suddenly we were all elevated from our Pong-quality interface to the rapturous world of Windows and its icon fetish.

The earliest Microsoft Word interface from 1989 was simple. The most commonly needed commands, such as bold, italic and font choice, were the only icons provided. There were 28 controls, not counting the ruler. It did what most people wanted it to do: type and print documents in various fonts and styles.

The subsequent version, however, wasn’t so restrained. It had 39 overt controls, and this time it was for more exotic functions like graphs, drawings and mail merge, none of which most users ever cared about. I was puzzled by this. Why start cluttering a perfectly useful interface with seldom-used commands? All of them were likewise available using menus. So why the senseless additions?

Someone quickly clued me in. The out-of-the-box, standard interface wasn’t primarily for boosting productivity, but for giving demonstrations. It was marketing, and not usability, that was driving interface design.

I think the impulse went even deeper, and it’s emblematic of much of technology development today. Microsoft didn’t put those extra buttons on the interface just so salespeople could demo the product, but to demonstrate that those capabilities exist.

Consider Microsoft’s plight. The leap from Word for DOS to Word for Windows was a huge one, and indeed it gave Word a gigantic advantage over what was until then the front-runner in the word-processing derby: WordPerfect. WordPerfect lagged bringing its Windows version to market, so Microsoft took advantage.

But once Microsoft Word was profitably (if unreliably) running in Windows, what then? Word processing had all but killed off the typewriter industry, but that’s where the product stalled out. It already did what 90 percent of the world wanted to do. Microsoft had its eye on the lucrative upgrade market, and the market wasn’t yet cooperating.

So Microsoft had to create new functionality. It added mail merge, with elaborate sets of options. Microsoft gave Word much more versatility by doing away with the quirky old macro language and installing Visual Basic for Applications. The Microsoft folks gave it charts and graphs, as well as some picture-editing capability and much more. But if nobody knew the features were there, nobody would be motivated to open their wallets, so Microsoft decided to put buttons on the toolbars right out of the box, as a reminder. Few people used them, of course, but the promise was there. And yet, upgrades remain surprisingly rare today. I still work with clients who are two versions back.

The reason is a profound dilemma for any high-tech provider of gadgetry. Users have problems. Products are created to solve them. Sometimes users don’t even know they have a problem until the product points it out. The first fax machines and microwaves had only slow growth because people already had phones and stoves. Eventually, their virtues made them nearly indispensable.

However, have you noticed that neither product has seen any substantial improvements since the 1980s or so? There’s only so much additional stuff you can offer for simple devices. Now, both are commodities, and companies compete largely on price.

There is a huge gulf between the initial product that solves a problem and subsequent sales after that problem is largely solved. Microsoft kept adding features that almost nobody used as reasons to upgrade. So do many cell phone makers. Both rely on the “gee whiz” factor to sell them to what Geoffrey Moore called “early adopters” and “first adopters.”

These are small groups, but highly vocal and free with their money. They love displaying the newest thing. But the vast majority of the market, especially among businessfolk, is more like me, content to use the product that solves my problem, not embracing products that purport to point out new problems to me, or that pretend to do jobs that I know dedicated products can do better. Cell phone cameras can’t match real cameras for clarity and versatility. Microsoft Word’s graphing capability is far less functional than Microsoft Excel’s. Its graphics editing is scrawny next to that of Paint Shop Pro or Photoshop.

Yet, Microsoft can’t just let Word do what it’s good at doing, because nobody would buy another copy of Word until the old one died. Microsoft would be doing its job too well, and would engineer itself out of existence in short order. It’s ironic that many high-tech firms can’t be content doing only what users need done, because they would perish.•

Altom is an independent local technology consultant. His column appears every other week. He can be reached at taltom@ibj.com.


  • WordPerfect

    Something which is interesting is to ask legal offices what word processing package they use.

    It's a safe bet it's WordPerfect. (Yes, there are exceptions, but I'd hazard a guess the primary reason WordPerfect is in business is because of the legal profession.

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