Thursday, 1 April 2010

Tied to Word

I have battled though my computer treating me like a moronic child to write this.  I have declined choosing my browser; I have noted twice (why does it ask you twice now?) that I have rarely used icons on my desktop that I am happy having there and not progressed with the 'wizard' to remove them; I have sat through updates generic ones and specific ones for Java and Adobe software; I have refused my memory stick asking if I want to run software off and declined to decide which sofware I might want to save images through on to it; I have decided not to register the other games and things I have on my system or download new stuff for World of Warcraft add-ons, my Steam account for wargaming or register other packages and have finally go to what I actually want to do.  Imagine on 'Star Trek' or 'Doctor Who' or a string of science fiction series if they had to click through a score of demands and could not operate the spaceship or time machine until 9 updates had been downloaded.  This was not the future I envisaged as I now have a computer that takes longer to start up than my ZX Spectrum did in 1982 when I had to load in software off audio cassettes.

That is a common gripe of mine and now I move to another computer issue which is around the continued dominance of Microsoft, not in terms of operating systems, which, in the UK, in contrast, say, to Germany, they are really unchallenged, but in terms of wordprocessing software.  In 2009, Office was used by 80% of businesses, with 80% of their files stored in one of its packages.  For the past year or so, the bundling of Microsoft Office on new computers has ended and you now have to go out and buy all the software at a cost of £200, which for the computers I buy, that is a third or more of the entire cost price of the computer.  Now, like many users I do not want to beholden to a particular company and certainly feel monopolies are unhealthy for consumers.  Remember that a monopoly does not mean one company has 100% control of sales, it is, as Milton Freeman in 'Capitalism and Freedom' (1962) helpfully summarises a situation in which: 'a specific individual or an enterprise has sufficient control over a particular product or service to determine significantly the terms on which other individuals shall have access to it'.  This is why you find other packages resembling the Office ones even when produced by other companies.  Furthermore as Blinder, Baumol and Gale in 'Monopoly' (2001) say a monopoly is: 'a lack of economic competition for the good or service that they [the monopoly company] provide and a lack of viable substitute goods'.

Now, I remember the excellent word processor package 'Locoscript' which came bundled with the Amstrad PCW256 and 512 computers in the late 1980s.  I have never encountered a word processing package half as good as that since.  Year on year the Microsoft take on an increasingly juvenile appearance with soft tones and round edges that do not communicate business to me.  There has been criticism of their most recent redesign for Office 2007 with Word have a series of folder tabs.  It continued the computing tendency to treat us like children, not certain about what we wanted to do with the facilities, rather than what most business people want to do, which is get on quickly with what we know we need to do.  Every time I get access to a new computer I have to go round disabling so much.  I have been writing letters from before the concept of the home computer was even taken as more than something in a science fiction fantasy alongside flying cars and domestic robots.  I do not need an American system to show me how to write a letter wrongly and try to make me use 'yours truly' at the end which only has a sarcastic use in British letters, not ever one that a business person would use.

In the James Bond movie, 'Tomorrow Never Dies' (1997), the prime baddie, poorly played by Jonathan Pryce is shown as launching a software package intentionally full of 'bugs', i.e. software functioning flaws, that customers will have to keep coming back to the company for 'patches' to repair the errors.  People have rather felt that Microsoft Vista operating system fits this kind of approach.  While I have seen how difficult it is to make Vista work properly in a business context, I do not think that Microfsoft wants to take over the world, I think they, like all companies, want simply to make as much money as possible.  In the age of saved personal information and loyalty card mentality all companies want to capture and hold customers.  Microsoft had to address the attempts at capturing unseen metadata in 2004 producing an add-on to expose this and in Office 2007 there is a document inspector to show it.  Microsoft has been critcised for its use of proprietary style software rather than open source which gives greater power for users to work on new developments, though gradually from 2004 and especially since 2008 it is moving in giving greater access to the code.  It is things like this that make people suspect some sort of conspiracy on Microsoft's part.  However, court rulings have shown that while there may be no great sinister intent, the position of Microsoft is seen as being unhealthy for the free marketplace and customer choice.

The big challenge for the average computer user is that while some greater choice may be being opened up by court rulings and legislation, for us, even when we have to buy our own copies of Office, the monopoly position persists.  This is because of the number of companies that simply default to Office packages, notably Word.  When I went for an interview last autumn I had to quickly teach myself Word 2007 as I was instructed to write a briefing report in 30 minutes using the computer provided.  I was quite impressed that I was able to get to grips with the alien layout and produce the report in time.  However, the assumption, was, that, of course, I would know Word 2007 (it being 2009).  I was in a weak position as not having bought a computer since 2006 I did not have the latest software and my previous employers, being heavily involved in computing, only ever buys the previous Microsoft Office package as it feels that that allows the errors to be ironed out.  Consequently up to my redundancy in summer 2009 I was still using Office 2003.

The problems, and thus the pressure to keep up with all of Microsoft's twists and turns with its software, continued as I came to my new employer.  I received all the documentation connected with my new job in .docx format which only came into use with Office 2007.  Of course, I could not even open the files and when I pleaded for them to be saved in the older .doc format no-one at the new employer understood what I was talking about.  So, if I get the money, I am compelled to buy the latest Office version simply to interact with employers and; most companies have no real idea about the changes in the software they are using and simply buy whatever is the latest.  I hear there is Office 2010 on the way and I dread what new formats and childish interfaces that will use.

So, what am I asking for?  Well it is two-fold.  One is that software for business looks like it is intended for business not for the primary school.  We need to be treated as adults who know what we are doing without constant, American-specific prompts.  We will seek out help and guidance when we need it but most of the time we want to get on quickly with our work.  The second thing is for companies to plough on not giving any thought to the software they use or the impact it will have on their workers and customers.  Do not simply default to the latest Microsoft package, think about it, and, as my previous employer did, have the courage to stick with something that you have confidence in.  Basically, we need to stand up for mature, business-orientated approaches to software.

P.P. 30/03/2015
I have come across an anomalous automatic correction in Word.  I am writing a medieval story in which characters use warhammers.  For some reason Word does not like this term even though it is historically correct.  What it invariably does is change it to Warhammer with a capital 'W'.  I have to change it back to lower case.  This change presumably is because of the lead figure and computer games named this.  However, 'Warhammer' (1983) the initial fantasy wargame was named after the weapon.  Thus, we have a situation where the commercial version is acceptable to Word but the legitimate word it was based on is not.  I imagine in time it will do the same to 'diplomacy' and 'monopoly'.

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