The Microsoft conundrum

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On the announcement last week of Steve Ballmer’s pending retirement, Microsoft’s stock shot up seven points as investors cheered for the future of the company without him. On NPR’s Marketplace they played recordings of Ballmer shouting “DEE-VEL-OH-PERS!” over and over and over again. He did this till he was hoarse. One investor analyst told a reporter that in order to succeed in this business today, you have to have customers who love you. And he said no one loves Microsoft, they tolerate Microsoft.

This is not a good position to be in for one of the world’s most important companies.

Let’s run the MS Scorecard here:

Microsoft has a stable of products, some are tremendously successful, others are worse than duds. In the enterprise computing business, Microsoft dominates with their tremendous server software. There are so many Microsoft-based servers that the Earth would fall out of orbit if they were not here. Their Active Directory software is at the heart of every security entry point on every enterprise server in the world, and it works.

Thumbs-downIn the smart phone business, Microsoft is playing a six-years-late-and-a-billion-dollars-short game; they are taking on Apple and Google (Samsung et al.), companies that people love, with products that people love. They feel that they have to try to be in the smart phone business, but theirs is not a winning position, and their phones are lame.

Thumbs-upMicrosoft Excel is about as good a spreadsheet program as anyone could want. My only gripe with it is that they have forsaken the really helpful on-screen help windows, substituting advertisements instead. This is irritating. Otherwise it’s a must-have.

Thumbs-downMicrosoft Word is the word processor that everyone uses. Nobody loves it; we tolerate it because it is essentially alone in the field of word processor software. Bloated, overly complex, slow to load, and not very good at spell-checking, Word is the necessary evil. Would it pain them to put in a keyboard command for Save As? Word would also benefit from adding GREP, and enhancing their scriptability beyond Visual Basic, which isn’t fun or easy. They need to put in fully-compliant Javascript for it to be really good.

Microsoft claims that people can use Word as a publishing platform. Has anyone at the company ever tried this? Even Microsoft Publisher is better than Word at that (in fact, Publisher is very effective for simple publishing projects). Word as a publishing platform is hopeless; you just can’t get it to do what you have in your head, and that’s unfortunate. Word’s bizarre “feature” that changes the font, the weight, the color and the point size when you click at the very end of a document is a bit of bad user interface baggage that they have been dragging since the 1980s. They should get rid of that “feature” because it’s NEVER what users want. Never.

Thumbs-downPowerPoint is nice, but aesthetically challenged. Everyone uses it, but again, they tolerate it. It’s a crutch, it is a horrible typographic environment, and is a boring program that helps people make boring presentations. It works, that’s all.

Thumbs-downMicrosoft Project is an excellent project planning program with arguably the worst user interface in human industry. What it does, it does really well, once you learn how to work with its insane dialog boxes. Do the various product teams at Microsoft ever get together to compare user interface functions? Menus? Functionality? I doubt it.

Thumbs-upPublisher is pleasant and easy to use, and it has a delightful set of tools – especially the color selection tools – that are a gift to the amateur publisher. It is acceptably fast, quite agile, and it’s easy to learn. There is hardly a printing company on Earth that will accept files from Publisher (except PDFs made from it) for printing. They treat it as a pariah, and that’s too bad because it’s a surprisingly spry program. Publisher’s weakness is in its inability to do anything meaningful with images. The company doesn’t want you to have a direct link to Photoshop because – God forbid! – you might use it and, then, what? Instead, they let you do dumb things to photos in Publisher, and that’s not helpful.

Thumbs-upMicrosoft X-Box is a stunning piece of technology, and is the leader in its field. Consumers love it, and that makes it an impressive exception to the toleration level of the company’s other products. X-Box is exciting, flexible, easy to use and innovative.

Thumbs-downMicrosoft Windows is, and always has been a hatchet job. A bad copy. Unintuitive and uninspired, it has driven owners bonkers since it came out in 1998, almost a decade later than promised. I have always been disappointed with Windows because it isn’t helpful. I have learned to tolerate it when I use it. My usual approach is to launch it (muttering curses at the stupid Control-Alt-Delete thing they could have fixed 20 years ago), then move as quickly as possible into the Adobe Creative Suite which works beautifully on Windows. The pain and suffering come when I have to exit the Creative Suite and return to Windows to complete something, to copy files, log-on to a server, etc. Windows is unfortunately ugly, and a long-term disappointment to me.

Thumbs-downWindows 8 is not a success, according to the trade press, and according to market acceptance. A single digit percentage of Microsoft’s customers have adopted it, and that’s not good. Apparently it is one of the reasons that Mr. Balmer is leaving the company. They might argue that it will take a while for people to appreciate its new look and feel, and they are right. It’s weird, and again, not helpful.

I have tried Windows 8, though briefly, and I found it to be confusing. I wasn’t impressed by the boxes with functions in them. I was confused by the difficulty of finding a place to look through the disks and memory devices connected to the computer. When I did locate my files, I managed to get something done, then I couldn’t figure out how to get out of there (Escape). Escape is a good word to describe a user’s attitude when using this new version of the operating system – they escape from it. At least they took the stupid Control-Alt-Delete thing out, at last! I fear that DOS is still in there.

Thumbs-upType font design: Here Microsoft shines. I have always been dazzled by the company’s commitment to the design of beautiful and functional type fonts (with the exception of Comic Sans, Century Gothic and the misguided Book Antiqua). The company has kept Matthew Carter in work for decades, and in the process has fostered some of the most important type designs in modern times. They have also kept Steve Matteson busy with recent typographic changes to Word. It is befuddling to note that they have spent a lot of cash to make new fonts, but they don’t have any applications that use these fonts well. I congratulate them on their contributions to typography, but remain confused as to what motivated them to do this.

Thumbs-upAnd, speaking of fonts, OpenType, which Microsoft created with Adobe (as part of its vendetta against Apple) is the best thing that has happened to type since Gutenberg. Seriously. OpenType is stunning, effective and thoughtful technology. The features benefit type designers, typographers, publishers and even consumers. OpenType is fabulous. Too bad the company doesn’t publish an application that takes advantage of the features provided by OpenType. Another irony is that Microsoft ships TrueType fonts (an Apple technology) with their Windows operating system. Why?

I’m leaving out scores of other products and embedded technologies, I am sure, but these are those that we in the printing, publishing and photography industries experience day to day.

And, I am sure that some of you will simply label me a Microsoft hater, and will call me unpleasant names. In response to those accusations, I argue that I have tried for decades to like the products that Microsoft makes. I don’t hate Microsoft, I am confused by them. I use many of the products that Microsoft makes, but I have never loved anything that Microsoft has made (OpenType is the exception). I would never stand in line at my local Microsoft Store (another misguided enterprise that is part of their vendetta with Apple) to buy anything they make, improve, update and ship.

I use their products because I have to use them. I don’t love them.

I tolerate them.

Thumbs-upGood luck to Mr. Balmer in his retirement. We shareholders hope the company will improve in his absence.


About Brian Lawler

Brian Lawler is an Emeritus Professor of Graphic Communication at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. He writes about graphic arts processes and technologies for various industry publications, and on his blog, The Blognosticator.
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2 Responses to The Microsoft conundrum

  1. Nick Beadman says:

    While I agree that Excel is a useful application I don’t love it. Far too complex for me, although I have managed to make it do what I needed it to do from time to time. Numbers is a little easier to use and certainly a lot better visually. The Office suite was very expensive for most people before the Student and Home Edition (or whatever it is called).

    Word’s time has come and gone. I always preferred plain text (in BBEdit) and now that text is used in many places (HTML, PDF) keep the text apart from the presentation is an even better idea. Markdown is a great simple way to write that includes simple formatting for emphasis etc.

    Of course, the biggest issue with Microsoft is that they have a combination of great and terrible technology, some of it very early but never seem to make it into something people want to use. The underlying issue I think is that everything has to be running Windows, even if that makes absolutely no sense.

    • Brian Lawler says:

      Thanks, Nick, for your comment. I use Word as little as possible, and choose instead to use a shareware text editor called Tex-Edit Plus, which is much simpler, easier to manage, and which has the most robust find-and-replace functions I have yet found. It’s fully scriptable, it has a complete GREP implementation, and it can be automated to do complex text processing tasks.

      A coupe of times each year I do such work, preprocessing tagged files for the business directory of the local Chamber of Commerce. I take the output of their database and run it through my AppleScript that in turn runs Tex-Edit Plus, and the results are ready in minutes to place in InDesign. It saves me hundreds of hours annually in hassles. Word simply cannot do this kind of work.

      BBEdit can do GREP, but I tried it for my application, and it was not as successful as TexEdit for my work.

      For simple word processing, I prefer it to Word just because it doesn’t do anything weird and counterproductive.

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