On Word

by F.

In William Gibson’s short story Johnny Mnemonic, various people are afflicted with a syndrome called NAS or “the black shakes.” It’s caused by unspecified “technology overload.” Having been forced to use Microsoft’s Word for years, I can see now that it causes something similar: the constant irritations, interruptions, and hassles you encounter when using this monstrosity can’t help but sap productivity.

Recently, I loaded the latest version on my machine. I opened up a blank document. DING! Huh? Why was it dinging at me? Then I got the context sensitive help. Why? GO AWAY! Now I’d forgotten what I wanted to write in the first place. Finding the checkbox for “Turn On Irritating Bell When Opening Blank Document” was buried somewhere in the 17,000 menus. Fortunately, I found it. But I want those 7 minutes back that it took me to find that stupid checkbox.

Were I planning corporate espionage to destroy a rival company, the first thing I would do was make sure my rival had a site license for the latest version of Office. After that, the software would do its devastating work. Administrative assistants would spend hours trying to figure out styles, designers would become inured to ugly, unreadable document formats, and execs would continue to give horrendous, convoluted PowerPoint presentations.

Clearly, Microsoft’s Office team will never get its shit together, and many people will just move on to Writely. Even the Mac version of office is trash, which surprised me. But the development of Microsoft products is a bit like evolution: you have to work with what you have and try to make it better rather than start over in each successive generation. Part of this is the users’ fault: if Word suddenly was stripped of all those buttons, customers would start to wonder why they were paying so much for so little. The irony is, they’re paying too much for too little right now. But the buttons and sounds and checkboxes and other accretions help hide that fact.

So, if you are a Mac user—and if you’re not, why not? Would you rather drive a Porsche or a Trabant?—go buy iWork. Pages kicks ass for writing. (And if you want to do serious science or technical writing neither Word or Pages is much good—but there’s MacTex, which makes LaTeX a joy.) This review of iWork from The Seattle Times is right on the money.

But, you may say, what if I have to submit documents in Word format? No problemo. After you write your doc in Pages, save it out as a .doc and then take that cracked version of Office you downloaded via BitTorrent, open the doc in Word, and tweak it—if necessary. The less time spent in Word the better. Avoid the black shakes. Future generations will thank you.