Small biz struggles in big-biz computer world RETURN ON TECHNOLOGY Tim Altom:

It’s true that the rich get richer, although the rich have often learned to portray the burden on the little guy as inevitable and desirable progress. For evidence, look no further than Microsoft Office. It’s written for the Fortune 500, not for microbusinesses.

Office has long been criticized as a bloated monstrosity, full of obscure features that only big corporations with time on their hands ever figure out how to use. Office products have their own programming language you can use to automate routine tasks, but almost nobody in the mass of little companies ever takes the time to figure it out. Microsoft Word has reasonably powerful layout features, including the ability to precisely control the space between paragraphs. Instead, most people just hit the enter key to insert empty paragraphs and hope for the best.

Large companies can afford specialists to create lovely templates for the rest of the employees. Small businesses barely have time to write letters at all, much less fabricate helpful templates. Have you tried setting up an e-mail account in Outlook? The wizard is supposed to make the process painless, but you still have to know what your POP and SMTP server names are. Big companies have IT staffs to do this drudgery, but most of us don’t. We have to either do it ourselves or hire some other microbusiness (that doesn’t charge too much) to do it for us.

The real problem with feature bloat is that it doesn’t just passively offer functionality that you can ignore if you don’t use it. It actively gets in the way. It keeps appending buttons, links, pages, wizards, dialog boxes, menu items, fields and labels to spaces already crowded, making the interface ever harder to use. Even old familiar features can sprout new complexities as version numbers index upward. User mistakes are common, and get more so as the workspace gets more crammed with controls.

Even just typing isn’t safe; odd keystroke combinations can open previously unknown boxes for unsuspected features. Office’s new vanishing menus don’t help as much as they were supposed to. They were designed to monitor what functions you use regularly and present only those few to you, and that goal has been reached. But most of us have things we do only rarely, and the magically shrinking menus suddenly throw many of us off as we search in vain for that vaguely remembered menu command Microsoft has obligingly secreted away.

Have you tried to hire a clerical worker who knows Office well? They’re hard to find, because they’re mostly working for large companies that can offer training. Faced with user complaints and problems, the stock response is often, “That’s a training issue.” So it has proven to be, to the detriment of the small to medium-size business, which generally can’t afford such training.

And so it goes for most of the technological tools we need. We were supposed to get network hardware such as routers, hubs, gateways, wiring and software that would make it easy to set up small networks for offices and to hook them to the Internet. They never really appeared. Instruction sheets and manuals were supposed to fill in the informational gaps, but they’re not as helpful as they might be, either. Almost always, the generalist at smaller companies hooks everything up, only to have it stubbornly refuse to work. Big guys don’t have this problem. They just call for more backup from the techie pool.

We’re admonished to secure our pitiful band of ragged computers against invaders by loading and setting antivirus and firewall software, but most of us have little idea how to do that effectively. Modern software tries to help, but it’s still not as supportive as it needs to be. And when you load the stuff, it adds yet another batch of icons, boxes and questions to an already overburdened screen. Again, the small company has no recourse against this computerized congestion, while large companies don’t have to bother with it; they just defend the company network at the entry point, freeing employees from those burdens.

The point here is not just that big guys have resources little guys don’t. It’s that the vendors themselves collaborate in this separation of classes. Their big customers provide most of their income, so they don’t bother much with usability. Large companies grouse, but they still buy, and in huge quantities.

This leaves smaller businesses holding products that are expensive, hard to use, hard to install, and basically meant for someone else. If the small business tries to install simpler solutions, it runs the risk of falling out of step with the rest of the business community, making it harder still to find support for the oddball stuff. Today’s small and medium-size businesses are dragged along in a big boat’s wake, unable to swim, taking on water, bailing as fast as they can.

Tim Altom is an independent local technology consultant. His column appears every other week. He can be reached at

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